Playful learning in everyday spaces

Urban architecture designed to spark children's development
Sahar Coston-Hardy Photography
Urban Thinkspace, Sahar Coston-Hardy Photography

With 70% of children expected to be living in urban areas by 2050, it is very important for our cities to become more child-friendly places. What if we could transform everyday spaces so that they organically prompt interactions known to foster learning in math, spatial skills, language, and literacy? Can we put the science of learning to work by embedding it into physical architecture?

In March 2018, BOLD posted a video with a brief introduction to Urban Thinkscape—a project designed to transform a bus stop and adjacent lot in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, into a place for children and families to engage in playful learning. The goal of Urban Thinkscape was to determine whether a cluster of four areas designed to encourage playful learning would change the way families interact with the space and how family members talk with one another.

We found an increase in families’ conversations and interactions after Urban Thinkscape was installed—and these families used more numerical and spatial terms than families at a nearby conventional playground.

Urban Thinkscape is part of a larger initiative called Learning Landscapes, which draws from the Conscious Cities movement and from efforts to equip all children with the skills needed to succeed in a 21st-century world.

How can cities spark the kinds of interactions between children and adults that will promote such skills? One answer has been to concentrate on increasing access to high-quality early childhood education. But this is not enough. Children spend only about 20% of their waking hours at school. One way to reach children and families during the other 80% is to transform cities into places for playful learning.

“Can we put the science of learning to work by embedding it into physical architecture?”

Learning Landscapes projects employ playful learning—including free play, guided play, and games—to get families moving, talking, and interacting. This augments and extends what children might learn in school: academic content, communication, creative innovation, critical thinking, collaboration, and confidence.

In 2010, the first Learning Landscape project, Ultimate Block Party, brought more than 50,000 people to New York’s Central Park to experience 28 playful learning activities related to such areas as executive functioning and mathematics. An evaluation showed that after parents had visited at least four of the activities, their attitudes about the links between play and learning had changed.

“Children spend only about 20% of their waking hours at school. One way to reach children and families during the other 80% is to transform cities into places for playful learning.”

Another project, Supermarket Speak, asked whether colorful signs placed in supermarkets in low- and mid-SES areas might encourage parents and children to engage in more and higher-quality conversations while they were shopping. The study showed that in the case of low-SES areas, the signs produced a 33% increase in parent-child interactions.

One of the latest Learning Landscape projects, Parkopolis, is a life-size playful-learning board game that fosters STEM learning. Inspired by cutting-edge research in the science of learning, Parkopolis is designed for installation in public spaces, and is intended to promote engagement and dialogue among children and families. A pilot study conducted in Switzerland by We Are Play Lab demonstrated that relative to the control group, the group that played Parkopolis engaged in significantly more STEM talk and showed higher levels of engagement, persistence, and confidence.

Currently, Parkopolis is being implemented and evaluated at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Early data suggest that when children play Parkopolis, their number talk and learning-to-learn skills increase more than when they interact with a STEM exhibit focused on rockets.

“The fundamental goal is an ambitious one: to change the very nature of the modern city, so that it is both family-friendly and imbued with learning science.”

Finally, we consulted with the design team of DIGSAU, Studio Ludo, and fabricator Erector Sets, Inc. in the creation of playful learning spaces, known as Play-and-Learn Spaces, at three Free Library of Philadelphia branches. These spaces feature climbing walls and building blocks as well as quiet reading nooks, and they are attracting children and families from all over Philadelphia to play, read, and learn.

The fundamental goal is an ambitious one: to change the very nature of the modern city, so that it is both family-friendly and imbued with learning science. We are putting the science in our labs to work in the architectural designs of our cities.

Co-authors of this blog post: Andres S. Bustamante, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

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