By: Nick Santangelo

A lot of very smart people have a lot of very smart-sounding ideas about how to improve early childhood education in urban areas. But as an increasing number of parents and experts push back against ideas like adding more homework, eliminating recess and learning more complex skills earlier in life, some new ideas are starting to materialize.

Universal preschool is an idea championed by many and one that Philadelphia is working towards making a reality. But children spend just 20 percent of their waking time in school. How should they be spending the other 80 percent? Well, for most of it, they should be playing – but that doesn’t mean they can’t be learning too. Playful Learning Landscapes, an initiative powered in part by the Brookings Institution, seeks to make them do just that through efforts like safer sidewalks featuring Playful Learning Landscapes imprints in Seattle; a reinvention of three entire neighborhoods in Chicago; and a redesigning of hospital waiting rooms.

Temple University Psychology Professor Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and has been integral in the development of Playful Learning Landscapes. Her most recent contribution to the program is Parkopolis, a life-sized board game that’s now an exhibit at the Philadelphia Please Touch Museum. It’s one of several Learning Landscapes sites around Philly that a group of visiting professors, education experts and journalists were trolleyed to on a recent Saturday morning.

Parkopolis

With temperatures in the high-90s and the humidity bringing the “Feels Like” temperature to triple digits, everyone on the four-stop tour is thankful for the air conditioning on the trolleys, at Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum and in a North Philly "Playbrary." Most of us take air conditioning for granted today, but it obviously took some serious STEM skills to create it. If today’s urban schoolchildren are to have any hope of one day making these sorts of momentous developments, they’ll need access to STEM learning, but they’ll also need to learn the sort of social skills necessary to succeed in the workplace. And, oh yeah, they need to have some fun playing around too. At our first stop, Parkopolis, they get all of that.

“I think that we know that children need special kinds of exposure to be successful in life, especially at early ages,” says Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. “But that doesn't mean that it has to be pedagogically drill and kill, OK? And a lot of what we've done is we've pushed down first grade into kindergarten and kindergarten into preschool, and that's not the way to go. In fact, what we should be doing is taking the way we learn in preschool and pushing it all the way down. Because kids learn more when it's fun.”

The idea for Parkopolis came to Hirsh-Pasek when she started thinking that playing a board game would be a great way to get children “to do the very things that nobody wants to do in school, like fractions.” A proponent of community building and having structures owned by the community but designed with science and learning in mind, the professor first started Parkopolis as a pop-up life-sized board game in parks.

kids learn more when it's fun

But she’d worked with the Please Touch Museum in the past, and they were happy to give the game a home for the summer. Please Touch Education Manager Natalie Tahsler says the partnership is the result of many years of working with Temple and Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. She explains that Parkopolis gives the museum a chance to “connect with the community” and contribute to early childhood development.

“There are really heavy STEM science and mathematics skills with the numbers and the patterns, and there are fractions,” she says of the skills kids learn when playing. “But there's also the socioemotional side of collaborating to play with a game, there's some critical thinking about the different steps and strategies to engage in the game.”

Dr. Hirsch-Pasek agrees, explaining that her game teaches kids about fractions and scientific predictability, but also about linear measurement and how far they can jump. These same sorts of “rich concepts” are built into school curricula, but at Parkopolis they’re in an informal learning environment. The exhibit is filled with giant, colorful cards and enormous dice that kids spin inside of tubes. I ask Dr. Hirsh-Pasek if these fun flourishes and the joy of playing a game makes the kids forget they’re learning.

“Yeah, yeah, and notice the signage is really important,” she says, smiling. “We're prompting with some of these signs the learning of everywhere you go. Who would have known what a spatial word is if somebody doesn't say, ‘spatial words?’ They help you grow and improve math skills.”

Take those giant dice, for example. Unlike typical dice, these ones have fractions, so students have to do the math and read the instructions—shown in both English and Spanish—to know where to land. But once they land, they can’t just stand around or they’d lose interest, so the game gives them other activities to perform while waiting for their next roll. If it sounds like a lot for one young child to manage, that’s because it’s meant to be played in tandem with a parent.

“I think that's critical. There are so many different types of play, and this is really set up so adults and children can engage in play in so many different ways,” says Tahsler. “But it's so rich, there are so many learning opportunities embedded in it, so you can come back again and again and discover something new and build on prior knowledge. So, there are so many different ways to engage in learning while playing this game.”

Everything is designed to be interactive and to encourage discovery. The fractions of spaces have been calculated to make it impossible for any one child—or parent—to land on the same spot twice. Players will encounter new cards with new puzzles each time through.

There's only one rule in Parkopolis

Still, the game needs to be approachable for young kids. That’s why it’s designed to look a lot like a life-sized Monopoly for Kids. There’s a familiarity there that allows children to rely on their prior knowledge of board games. And for the youngest of players who might have difficulty remembering everything or who might have yet to play board games, there are extra plastic laminated cards so they don’t necessarily have to remember everything or bring much pre-existing knowledge with them. If they have that awareness, they’ll benefit from the familiarity, but not having it won’t preclude them from enjoying the game.

Besides, if the kids haven’t played Monopoly, surely mom and dad have. And there’s no rule against getting help from them. In fact, there aren’t many rules at all.

“There's only one rule in Parkopolis,” Temple University Department of Psychology Postdoctoral Fellow Andres Bustamante tells the crowd after they’ve spent about half an hour exploring the game, “and that's that kids make the rules. So it's up to families and participants to figure out do you play in teams, do you play alone, where you start, how do you win, is there a winner? So we want to leave it very open-ended, which encourages creativity and critical thinking. In fact, a lot of the planning conversation happens when you first walk in and go, ‘What is this?’ And then somebody says, it kind of looks like Monopoly.”

Urban Thinkscapes

The ultimate goal for Parkopolis is for multiple installations to find permanent homes in urban locations accessible to entire communities who can tend to them. It’s a tall order, especially in a budget-strapped large city like Philadelphia where outdoor green spaces and activity centers are routinely vandalized and littered on. But in West Philadelphia’s Belmont neighborhood, that hasn’t been the case with Temple and the William Penn Foundation’s Urban Thinkscape, an activity center for kids. Opened in October 2017, the pilot Urban Thinkscape installation has yet to be vandalized and—in what seems a small miracle—is almost entirely litter-free when we step off the trolleys to see it at 4001 Lancaster Avenue.

Temple employees have been by once to clean it up some, but they found no graffiti and only a few pieces of trash when they did. They did notice that kids had been skateboarding on the site meant to foster language, math, executive functioning, and socioemotional development, but they didn’t see that as a problem. A series of small pyramid-like sections of deck were designed for young children to play at running along, but they’ve also become popular among skaters. Instead of redesigning Urban Thinkscape to chase them away, however, the team just cleaned up some of the marks they left and sanded down the points of the deck to make them safer. Urban Thinkscapes is a place for play—for everyone.

The hope, however, is that they’ll inspire kids to spend some time here using spatial terms to talk about shapes; to solve puzzles; to develop motor skills through a hopscotch-like game; and to follow visual cues to tell stories. Many different play options were considered during the design phase, but those chosen—including the footprint-style hopscotch, the decks, spinning picture panels and more—were chosen in part because they fit in the limited space available.

our goal is to have convinced cities that they should make Thinkscapes a part of their revitalization efforts

This particular space was chosen for good reason, though. The community members felt it was safe, near public transit and in an area without a lot of public parks. The community also weighed in on the play options and even picked much of the imagery, like that of Martin Luther King Jr. on the picture panels because the civil rights leader once led a freedom march here.

“We had some more options, but people liked these,” Pace University Assistant Professor Brenna Hassinger-Das says, somehow patiently answering questions in the unforgiving sun. “Also, they would fit well in the space because it's kind of an odd shape. It's a triangle.

“So, we figured out which ones could fit in the space and the different topics that they cover, spatial skills and narrative skills. And the other spatial skills like with the puzzle and stuff. This executive function for jumping feet. These were skills that the parents and people from the neighborhood were interested in having their kids get more experience with. And they thought that these would be the most fun, they thought kids would have the most fun at these. So, we really took their feedback into consideration.”

Despite the community involvement and buy-in, though, for Urban Thinkscapes to succeed in the long term, the city will need to get involved. Dr. Hassinger-Das concedes that it’s not possible for the Temple Psychology Department to regularly maintain this and the other Urban Thinkscapes they hope to see built. The biggest obstacle is a lack of funding. But in a city trying to cope with its uneven revitalization over the past decade and a notoriously poor public school system, the hope is that it will see the value in funding these learn-and-play facilities to address some of that 80 percent of time when the kids aren’t in school.

“The challenge of some of these projects is—especially with the pilot projects—is maintenance over time,” allows Dr. Hassinger-Das. “Our community groups that we've been working with are committed to keeping it in good shape. But also some of these materials, like the wood, we have the initial investment, and we said our goal is to have convinced cities that they should make Thinkscapes a part of their revitalization efforts. Because then we'll also have that infrastructure for maintaining and updating things.”

Playwalls

Our next stop is a bit different. It’s in the shade, for starters. But more importantly than creature comforts, it’s an existing play place for kids. Smith Memorial Playground was built in the city’s Fairmount Park in the late 19th century, and kids from all over the city have been coming here to play for many decades. The Temple Psychology Department didn’t need to draw up plans for new ways for kids to play here. Instead, they needed to draw from those kids. It seemed the perfect location for learning more about how today’s—and yesterday’s—kids like to play.

As with Urban Thinkscapes, however, there wasn’t a huge budget for this data collection. No bother. With just a few hundred dollars, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek and her team hung wooden boards from the fencing, covered them in chalkboard paint and provided chalk. Visitors have done the rest, answering the question of how do they/did they like to play as kids.

about half the responses we've been getting benefit children entirely

The boards are filled with dozens of activities: sports, foursquare, the popular video game Fortnite, roughhousing with siblings and much more. While the team is gathering authentic self-reporting data, the kids who write on the boards are learning. They’re using language and memory skills and being socially interactive.

“So we've been thinking a lot about how do these different play responses that people write benefit kids and learning,” Temple Psychology Postdoctoral Fellow Molly Schlesinger says. “And what we found is that about half the responses we've been getting benefit children entirely. Whole child development.”

Dr. Schlesinger added that most of the forms of play kids wrote on the boards were “very inexpensive,” showing that it’s possible to help children develop through learn-and-play activities without a huge budget. Interestingly, she notes that they previously had similar boards at Urban Thinkscapes, where they received very different responses. About 50 percent of the Smith Park responses are contributing to whole child development, while that figure was more like 75 percent at Thinkscapes.

The Belmont crowds might have had different memories of play than those here in Fairmount. But what the boards have done is demonstrate that, regardless of how far-removed we may be from childhood, we all maintain fond memories of playing when we were kids.

“Grown adults were getting off the buses," recalls Dr. Hirsh-Pasek, "and we said to them, ‘Hey, how'd you play when you were little?’ And you would see this light up their faces. And then they would start talking to all the people around them, and all of a sudden you had a community of people who were talking about how they played when they were little.”

The next step of the project, she explains, is to get them talking to each other, across generations. In August, a community event will be held in which adults will teach children how to play the games of their youth. Through this, promises the professor, the value of learning while playing will be brought to the surface.

Playbrary

Our last stop takes us to a North Philadelphia free library on Cecil B. Moore Ave.—the same street that runs through the southern tip of Temple’s Main Campus. Due to budgetary constraints, the library isn’t open on Saturdays, which a local passerby takes the opportunity to complain to the librarian about. But we’re not here to check out books after-hours. We’re here to see how the library has been transformed into a play and learn center or Playbrary–a free library initiative designed by the firm Ludo and Digsau.

Dr. Hirsh-Pasek and her team take us to a corner of the library where there’s something you wouldn’t expect to see in a building associated with quiet, peaceful reading time: a place for kids to ram around. A climbing wall has been installed. it allows local kids to scramble around and get some physical activity in during specific hours when they’re supervised and proper safety precautions can be taken. Once playtime is over, it’s time for the kids to retire to various nooks around the library and dig into some reading.

this is happening in the United States of America.

Why is it so important to get children playing and reading here? Well, in many Philadelphia public schools, the situation is so dire that there are not enough textbooks to go around. Dr. Hirsh-Pasek wonders aloud how it is that “this is happening in the United States of America.” Reasoning aside, it is indeed happening here in the heart of the country’s sixth-largest city. She can’t fix the classroom problem—no one person can—but she can make a meaningful contribution to that 80 percent of time kids spend out of it.

There is just one age-appropriate book for every 300 Philadelphia children, so pushing children into libraries where books can be read and borrowed for free is a much-needed initiative. Judging by the reaction to the Playbrary, it sounds like the community agrees.

“On the day we opened, people in the community, people showed up, they wanted to be a part of it,” says Dr. Hirsh-Pasek.

Play and Learning Anywhere

The focus today may have been on what the professor and her team are trying to accomplish in Philadelphia, but they see the city Temple calls home only as a testing site and a place for the first phase. The hope is that Playful Learning Landscapes will continue to flourish here and pick up community and municipal support before spreading to other urban areas.

Still, one of the early responses has been to question why the focus is here in a “very low-income city” and so much on young children. Dr. Hirsh-Pasek actually agrees with the criticism. And she sees the opportunity for her initiatives to help kids of all ages in urban settings around the world.

“But I think when you live in a place like this, the deficits are so staggeringly overwhelming, and the people have so little, and what that means that even in the city where we have just started preschool for all, this is really just gone on dockets,” she says.

Again she returns to the reality of children only spending 20 percent of their waking hours in the classroom. With that being the case, she questions just how much we can ask teachers alone to do for children.

“We’ve got to do something. And so that's why we've come up with these public spaces where we thought, ‘Let's at least start somewhere. Let's start somewhere.’ And we’ll inch ourselves along with proof of concepts that can be used anywhere.”

Related Articles

Recent Media Mentions

via The New York Times
via The New York Times
via The New York Times
via The Washington Post