The Architecture of Real-World Learning — A Treehouse Builds Community

By: Rena Malkofsky-Berger
from Akiva School

Real-World Learning

Subject(s) of entry:
Art, Economics/ Business, Engineering, English/ Writing/ Language Arts, Math, Science, literature

Constructivist, Design-Thinking Model, Experiential Education, IBL - inquiry based learning, PBL - project based learning

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
5, 6, Elementary school, Middle school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
5, 6, 7, 8, Elementary school, Middle school

Students combined their study of math and science with learning about architecture. This year-long, integrated project resulted in a real treehouse as their graduation gift to the school. They did everything from surveying stakeholders, calling for donations, supply shopping, meeting with the city permit department and designing the final product.

Entry Narrative

Our Treehouse Project was the definition of real world project based learning. Students worked all year on an authentic, engaging and complex investigation that grew from their desire to give a meaningful graduation gift to their school. They brainstormed what the school could use and came up with the idea of a treehouse. Since the time the treehouse project was completed, we have used it as a model to create another project that impacts the whole Akiva community and stems from the students, by creating a garden at our school. Gardening at Akiva and working at a community garden in Nashville have become core parts of our school curriculum. The same treehouse project could certainly be replicated, but just as importantly, the idea of how to grow an idea that the students come up with, integrate much of the curriculum around that idea, and create something lasting and impactful, is replicable as well.

There were two educational strands occurring simultaneously; integration of our math, science and language arts curriculum with architecture and the process of actually building a treehouse.

Treehouse Project Process

  1. Students brainstormed ideas for a meaningful gift/project for the entire school community.
    1. They saw that a treehouse could serve as a play structure for the whole school and a place to hold outdoor classes.
  2. Students investigated rules/laws in the city to determine if it was legally possible to build a treehouse.
    1. As a result of this, we found that it would be safer to build a tree-less treehouse because a “house” on the ground would be more structurally sound, and our school does not have an abundance of trees.
    2. We also learned that a building with electricity and water requires extensive permits, so as long as we had neither, a permit would be fairly easy to get.
  3. We came up with committees that would be needed to keep the project on track and students ran for committee positions.

Treehouse Committee Sheet    

  1. Students surveyed the school grounds to decide where to place the treehouse. The hill above the school was chosen as the most desirable spot.


                             View from school building up to treehouse location        

  1. Students surveyed all stakeholders (faculty, students, parents, board members and potential donors) to make sure that everyone had input into the project.

Survey  Results        

                          Survey Results  Work Page


  1. Two members of our community were recruited to help us with our project. A pool builder and 6th grade parent (Mr. Shuman) and an architect in the community (Mr. Plummer) came to class regularly and consulted with us about design, materials, permits, etc. They were also judges who chose the final design for the treehouse, submitted by students.

Architect teaching about design

              Builder teaching about roof pitch

              Brainstorm of treehouse features

  1. Students studied measurement, area, perimeter and volume in math. They studied force and motion in science and had a year long unit on architecture where they learned about architectural styles, building and different architects. They built 3D shapes, built toothpick bridges, drew scale models of our classroom and studied form and function.

Making scale drawings of the classroom


              Drawing a treehouse plan

              Building 3D tetrahedra

              Presenting her treehouse design to the class

  1. Students developed a presentation for the school board and wrote letters to parents and teachers to explain the project and ask for financial support. They submitted newspaper articles for the local paper and wrote scripts to use for solicitation phone calls asking for donations. They planned and ran fundraisers, kept track of the budget and made comparison-shopping trips to find the best prices for supplies.

                  Link to newspaper article       

                   Link to donor letter                 

                   Link to financial spreadsheet 

                    Link to board presentation     

                    Link to solicitation phone call script


                    Treehouse calendar of activities

                   Fundraising calendar

                      Treehouse budget

                  Class shopping trip to price different kinds of wood

                   Car wash fundraiser

                   Preparation for our pie sale fundraiser

                   Peeling apples for our pie sale fundraiser

                   Parent help was greatly appreciated

                    Solicitation phone calls


  1. Each student submitted his/her own treehouse design (drawn to scale) to a panel of judges. The judges chose one design winner and took design features from the others to incorporate into the final plan. The design was then given to our architect to make a professional rendering to submit to the city for permits and to give to the builders.

Link to treehouse final draft plan       


  1. Permits were secured, builders hired and building began.

                Breaking ground

                 The foundation

                 Hands on


                 The Treehouse!

                    Us and the builders


  1. After the treehouse was complete, we had a dedication ceremony to hang a mezuzah and thank those who helped. Students wrote the ceremony and presented a plaque to hang on the treehouse.

Link to treehouse dedication           

                  Link to treehouse movie                    

Impact and Reflection

The treehouse project was a year long, cross-curricular study that has had lasting impact on the students who built it and the entire school community who continue to benefit from it. Students learned that they can take on a huge project, break it down into manageable pieces and accomplish them one by one. They learned to rely on community to help support their project and give valuable input. They saw the real-world implications of their academic studies, especially math and science concepts, public speaking and writing. They used what they learned creating their scale drawings of the classroom to help decide on the dimensions of the treehouse. They used what they learned about force and motion to help decide on the best location for the treehouse. They had to readjust when a fundraiser did not bring in as much money as hoped. They were able to convince the president of the board to match the amount of money brought in through the next fundraiser, if they met the monetary goal that they set. They had leadership opportunities throughout the entire process, and the classroom community grew as they teamed up to make their vision come to life. As a result of their great success, the next sixth grade class came with the expectation that they would be able to create a project that would also have a positive impact in their community — and they did!

As a teacher, creating curriculum that stems from student interest and passion is what makes teaching exciting and helps keep me motivated. It is certainly challenging to integrate the curriculum and adjust to all of the circumstances that inevitably come up, but the student excitement and the value of contributing to the school community, is well worth the effort.

Entrant Bio(s)

Rena Malkofsky-Berger’s education career spans over twenty-five years in public and independent schools in California and Tennessee. She has served as an Adjunct Professor at Vanderbilt University’s School of Education, Math Coach, Math Lead Teacher, Mentor Teacher, Common Core Coach, and Teacher for grades K-6. Rena has presented at local and national conferences on the topics of writing to learn math, project-based learning, and how to create and teach cross-curricular units.