Learning can happen anywhere. That’s the philosophy behind the Playful Learning Landscapes project, which studies and creates educational activities for public spaces. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to rethink shared spaces and community activities, as we face new challenges – but also new opportunities – for playful learning.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Andres Bustamante, Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine, had just begun working on a new Playful Learning Landscapes project with a community in Santa Ana, California. Because of the pandemic, however, he was no longer able to bring people together in person to discuss the learning activities they wanted in their neighborhood, but instead had to find creative ways to get them involved over Zoom. “We mailed out arts and crafts kits and engaged the families in hands-on activities, so they wouldn’t be just staring at a screen,” Bustamante says.

“The pandemic has influenced how people think about shared spaces.”

During this socially distanced collaboration, the Santa Ana residents came up with ideas for games to be installed at bus stops, educational murals, and other interactive elements to encourage children to learn even when they couldn’t be in the classroom.

The pandemic has influenced how people think about shared spaces. “When we’re designing spaces and activities, we’re now thinking about a different future,” says Bustamante. For example, there may be much less interest in hands-on activities that require many people to touch the same materials or crowd together in a group.

At the same time, he noticed that schools were looking for ways to reduce COVID-19 transmission by increasing time spent outdoors. “For me, the biggest takeaway during COVID was that school partners were looking for outdoor learning activities and really embraced the idea of playful learning landscapes,” says Bustamante.

“Schools were looking for ways to reduce COVID-19 transmission by increasing time spent outdoors.”

In response, he helped a school in Santa Ana make a minor change to its schoolyard: repainting the lines on a basketball court so that it could be used to play math-based games. In one game, called Fraction Ball, kids compete in shooting baskets. Scoring from the area closest to the basket might earn them a quarter point; a shot from further away might be worth up to a whole point. This helps the students grasp the relative sizes of fractions – understanding, for example, that 1/2 is larger than 1/4, although 2 is smaller than 4.

Photo of the Fraction Ball court by Andres Bustamante, taken at El Sol Academy in Santa Ana, California

Working directly with schools has made it easier for Bustamante to assess the impact of Playful Learning Landscapes on student learning. “That has been a silver lining of the pandemic,” he says. Normally it’s quite difficult to determine whether a public educational installation is having an effect on learning outcomes in the local area, but schools are able to collect the relevant data quite systematically. For example, comparing pupils who played Fraction Ball for several weeks with others who did not, Bustamante’s group found that those who had played the game were subsequently better than their peers at converting fractions to decimal numbers.

Overall, the pandemic seems to have led to renewed interest in learning in shared spaces – not just in schools, but in public areas as well. “We learned how much we need people,” says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Professor of Psychology at Temple University and co-founder of the Playful Learning Landscapes project. She believes that the project can play an important role in building new public spaces, thanks to its collaborative approach that gives communities an important voice in determining which activities they want to see in their neighborhoods. “The result is a public square, or a public space, that is owned by the community that helped to build it.”

“Those who had played the game were subsequently better than their peers at converting fractions to decimal numbers.”

We won’t have to wait long to find out what it looks like when a community co-designs a public space during a pandemic. After months of online meetings, children and families in Santa Ana have finally play-tested prototypes of interactive murals, bus stop games, and other educational activities that they have come up with. And when the final installations go up in another few months, the people of the community can take pride in having helped design these activities themselves, during a very challenging time.

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