Philadelphia Playful Learning Landscapes


In cities across the globe, young children from under-resourced communities regularly enter school lagging behind many of their peers in such areas as language development, spatial skills and early numeracy that can temper their success throughout formal schooling and beyond. High quality pre-schools are a key part of the solution, but we can do even more. Given that children only spend 20% of their waking hours in school, 80% of their waking time is spent in home and community settings. What we do with that 80% can make a difference.

At the intersection of the conscious urban planning movement and the movement to optimize early education in and out of schools lies Playful Learning Landscapes, a broad umbrella initiative aimed at transforming everyday places into learning opportunities in order to maximize learning in the “other 80%” of time children spend outside of schools as well as augment what goes on in school for children zero to eight years old.

In Philadelphia, Temple University together with expert advisors and practitioners from throughout the region, have developed a project to bring these pieces together in one place — Philadelphia Playful Learning Landscapes (PPLL). The aim is for Philadelphia to serve as an international model and laboratory for how playful learning can be embedded into a city’s public spaces wherever children and caregivers gather. Multiple interventions are being implemented across the city to showcase how communities everywhere can enrich spaces as common as bus stops, walking paths, parks and playgrounds with playful learning activities grounded in science that support children’s healthy development.

The science tells us that there is incredible power in playful learning, an approach that brings together the action and fun of play with key elements of skills building and learning. Playful learning includes both free play— unrestricted and undirected activity, which is known to be important for all children—as well as “guided play”, which lets the child lead the way through environments that deliberately are created to spark learning. In playful learning, children are active and engaged just as with free play, but the installations also offer a larger purpose. Playful learning embraces the energy and joy of free play, while adding gentle guidance that helps children reach specific learning goals. As such, playful learning is a pathway to building critical 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, negotiation and collaboration, that children need to be successful in school and later life. Lack of access to these skills can cripple a child’s ability to compete in a rapidly changing world. This is especially true for children living in under-resourced neighborhoods.

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Integrating playful learning opportunities into our cities and public spaces does not need to be complicated or expensive. That puzzle on a bench and those tangram reading nooks in a library give kids opportunities to use pre-math skills. Notches on a climbing pole or a giant ruler painted on the sidewalk invite kids to measure distances, a key skill in science and math. The designs can be as simple as imprinting learning games on sidewalks to create safe ways to go to school that support learning, or can be more complex, such as rethinking bus stops so that benches are accessorized with puzzles that promote spatial and math talk.  By creating ways to ignite children’s imagination and creativity outside of the classroom, communities can intentionally transform any space into hubs of playful learning with the opportunity to reach some of the most disadvantaged children.

Most importantly, the data already gathered from playful learning installations show that these interventions work. In pilot projects, researchers have seen significant increases in caregiver-child conversations around color, spatial, numeric, and letter language. The bottom line is that even light-touch interventions have been shown to prompt the types of interactions between young children and their caregivers that help young brains grow. If we can infuse evidence-based playful learning into the architecture of everyday spaces, we can make family-friendly cities that are also learning communities.

With Philadelphia as our model, our challenge is to spread the word about how we can enhance the 80% of waking time that children spend out of school by engaging them and their families in new ways to interact – all while they play and learn!

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