A First Grade Experience: Building the George Washington Bridge

Elizabeth P. McMillan

A signature activity of Friends’ Central School in Philadelphia is Fall Project. A Fall Project involves the entire lower school in studying a topic for the first three months of the school year. The goals are to create unity within the school, to provide opportunities for children to visit and learn in many classrooms, and to teach basic skills across the curriculum. Some themes have been the Middle Ages, Flight, Cities, and Rivers.

I have discovered the fun and usefulness of constructing a large object and using it as a focus for the project. One such construction was an eight-foot tall, room-length model of the George Washington bridge, our focus for a Rivers theme.


The Growth of a River

First graders love stories, so we began our study by reading Rain Drop Splash.1 My purpose was to help the children conceptualize the growth of a river from a rain drop to its entrance into an ocean. For subsequent readings, I made word cards with key words such as “puddle,” “stream,” and “lake.” As each word occurred in the story, the child holding that card would identify it and add it to a sequenced line of word cards. So that children could retell the story on a flannel board, I cut out felt shapes of rain drops, trees, frogs, boats, and so on.

Our first interaction with older students occurred as we worked on a wall mural. Friends’ Central has an institution called “book buddies” whereby older classes regularly visit younger classes for reading or group activities. My first graders began the mural, creating scenes showing rain, puddles, ponds, streams, and rivers. At the point where the river came to the sea, we wanted a city and a harbor. To create a city of three dimensional buildings, fifth-grade book buddies helped cover and decorate milk cartons for apartment buildings, skyscrapers, etc.

When finished, one wall of our classroom was our visual reminder of the growth of a river.


Building a Bridge

Our bridge construction was a response to a storybook that I consider a classic of children’s literature, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.2 The bridge is the George Washington, which spans the Hudson River to connect New York and New Jersey. In the story, the little red lighthouse watches the construction of the great bridge and worries that his days of usefulness in keeping boats on the river safe are coming to an end.

In a stroke of good fortune, I was given a huge, sturdy corrugated cardboard box by a person who understands the many uses elementary school teachers have for such things. I created two eight-foot towers from the sides of this box. The towers stood upright when strengthened by lath pieces bolted to the long sides. The children painted the towers and my assistant added accents to make them resemble steel girders. Since my classroom ceiling has metal grids to hold the acoustical tiling, I could tie the tops of the towers to them.

After raising the towers, there was much excitement as the children helped play out nylon rope and I teetered on a ladder stringing it from one end of the bridge to the other for the main cables. Children volunteered to help hang strings for the suspenders (vertical ropes that hang the roadway from the main cables). However, this turned out to be adult work because the length of each set of strings had to be estimated due to the curve of the main cable. Children decorated sections of the roadbed on 18" x 18" pieces of cardboard. They drew lane lines, directional arrows and traffic messages. All the roadway sections were stapled together. The long sides were strengthened with duct tape, and holes were punched where the suspenders would be threaded through and tied.

It was a great day when we invited a fourth-grade class to help us raise and connect the roadway to the suspenders! This class also was studying bridges, and its members were eager to help with our construction. We laid the roadbed on the floor under the suspenders. Children lined up along the length of the roadbed. At a signal, everyone lifted, and the fourth graders tied the suspenders amid cheers and laughter. Two days later, when a section of our bridge collapsed, our fourth grade “experts” kindly returned to make repairs. Our communications with the fourth grade provided opportunity for my class to write and read messages.


Writing and Reading Bridge Stories

A bridge with nothing on it is boring. We called upon our book buddies for help. Each pair of first and fifth graders made a vehicle, using a milk carton for a base, and created a story telling why the vehicle was using the bridge. First graders have great imaginations and create wonderful stories, but their writing skills are limited. When a first grader can dictate story ideas to a “scribe,” the process becomes more enjoyable. These stories with their illustrations were collected and mounted in a book for all to share.

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge was not written at an appropriate reading level for most first graders, but learning to read a small portion of the book was an appropriate task. This reading became a means of sharing our bridge with other classes. I divided the text into one section per child, taking into account the various skill levels within the class. Children learned to read their sections and made illustrations for their parts of the story. I attached text to the backs of the illustrations so that a child could hold up his/her picture for an audience to see while reading the text. We practiced reading the complete story in order to achieve a flow in reading from one child to the next. Then we invited others to visit our bridge and hear our story.


Bridge Opening Ceremony

First graders love to act out a story almost as much as they like to hear one. We created a celebratory bridge opening ceremony which gave children a chance to assume roles of historical characters and be a part of a dramatization presented to an audience. Since this was the early part of the school year, I did not require all children to take speaking parts. There were many jobs for those who felt too shy to speak. During the ceremony, each speaker was introduced with a spirited whack on a gong, and our gong player nearly stole the show. Other nonspeaking roles included ticket helpers, song leaders, and a sign holder. Everyone had an important job.

The children decided the characters from The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge should help open the bridge, along with historical personages such as George Washington, Henry Hudson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, governor of New York when the bridge opened in 1931.

In our production, the lighthouse keeper explained: “I am keeper of the Little Red Lighthouse. I thought my work was over when the bridge was built. I learned that boats on the river still need my flashing light and warning bell to be safe when the river is foggy or stormy. The bridge is very important, but my lighthouse is very important, too. Thank you.”

Henry Hudson proclaimed, “I am so proud of this river I discovered and this great bridge.”

The governor introduced himself and said, “This bridge was built to take people across the river so they would not have to take a boat. This bridge was named after my favorite president, George Washington. Here he is now.”

Spoken parts were short, costumes simple. The emphasis was on celebration, not perfection. After the “speeches,” a ribbon cutting, and the official proclamation of the opening of the bridge for traffic, our guests were invited to play with the vehicles on the bridge.

This event was videotaped and the tape circulated on overnight loan throughout the class. The audience for our performance was fellow first graders and teachers. Parents were not included because of space restrictions and to keep the tenor of the event low-key. (The school has a tradition of a first-grade spring play to which the parents are invited.)


Tugboat Rides

Important to our fall projects is sharing between classes. To encourage others to visit our bridge, we designed and painted a tugboat and mounted it on a child’s wagon. We then made ads publicizing the availability of tugboat rides. Children kept track of when rides were given and who was coming. The rides consisted of my children pulling customers down the hallway “river” into our room and under the George Washington bridge. This was an opportunity for a math activity, as we timed the duration of rides from several locations with a variety of “captains,” and graphed duration times of a series of trips from various locations.


Experiencing a Real Bridge

As much fun as it was to have our own bridge, it was not the real thing. I wanted my class to experience the actual sight and feel of a huge bridge. Only a twenty-minute drive from our school is the Ben Franklin Bridge spanning the Delaware River from Philadelphia to Camden. I discovered that it has a safe and well-maintained walkway and the length of the bridge is 1.3 miles. Would that be too long a walk for first graders? On a dry run, I found stone benches at the base of each of the two main towers that would provide perfect snack stops. Thus our walk could be divided into three sections with rests in between.

On a sunny, crisp November day we found out what a huge suspension bridge looks like close up. Our group consisted of one adult for each pair of children. Each child had an activity sheet for tallying such things as boats on the river, suspender cables, and light poles on the bridge. A ferry service connects Philadelphia and Camden, so at the end of the bridge we reboarded our bus to travel to the ferry slip. There we boarded the ferry for the five-minute crossing to Philadelphia, where our bus met us for the return to school.



What to do with a fabulous project when it begins to sag? Winter break was fast approaching, but when I first mentioned taking apart our bridge to the children, I got very long faces—“We worked so hard!” I knew I had to proceed with care. My “idea person” (my spouse) suggested a way to combine taking down the bridge and making a holiday gift for families. On a Friday, I suggested cutting up one tower to use as frames for pictures taken of each child standing beside our bridge. By Monday, when we gathered to make a decision, there was no trouble reaching consensus. One tower became picture frames. The second tower was a happy reminder of our Rivers project. v



1. Alvin Tresselt, Rain Drop Splash (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., 1946).

2. Hildegarde H. Swift and Lynd Ward, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1942).


Elizabeth P. McMillan teaches first grade at Friends’ Central School, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.