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Most kids only spend about 20% of their waking time in the classroom. The other 80% is spent outside the classroom—not just at home, but at bus stops and supermarkets, accompanying parents on errands and hanging out at libraries and parks.

Researchers agree that at least part of that time is a wasted educational opportunity. That’s why a team of US-based psychologists and educators have launched a project called Urban Thinkscape, which aims to turn everyday public spaces into a chance for kids to learn more through play.

Led by developmental psychologists Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Brenna Hassinger-Das, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, the Urban Thinkscape pilot program launched in Philadelphia in October 2017. The researchers hired designer Itai Palti to build four different game installations into the public spaces of the Belmont neighborhood in West Philadelphia. There’s a puzzle wall running along a street, which aims to develop kids’ spatial and math skills. A wooden deck features icons that kids can use to tell their own stories, stimulating their narrative skills and socio-emotional skills. A hopscotch-like game of shoe prints called “jumping feet” helps kids learn to identify patterns, which in turn aids their attention and emotional development. And a metalwork panel installation asks kids to find hidden shapes, strengthening their natural curiosity.

Each installation is focused on stimulating kids’ cognitive functions through play—and turning downtime into a learning opportunity for the children of one of the United States’ poorest large cities.

The “Jumping Feet” installation in Belmont, Philadelphia.
The “Jumping Feet” installation in Belmont, Philadelphia.
Image: Sahar Coston-Hardy Photography

Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff say that both kids and parents benefit from their project. Busy parents who might not otherwise have time to play with their kids during the day can engage in the “serve and return” interactions that benefit their child’s cognitive and emotional development. And kids get to turn what might otherwise be a boring moment—sitting on a public bench or shopping for food with mom and dad—into a chance to have some fun.

The science of playful learning

Urban Thinkscape is centered around the idea of fostering playful learning—a combination of free play and guided play (in other words, a mixture of kids running wild and free and more structured, adult-supervised play with an educational purpose). Research shows that play is crucial to child development, especially during the early childhood period of infancy through the age of five years old.

Guided play helps kids develop cognitive skills like language, math, and reading, as well as social skills, like emotional regulation and impulse control. It also encourages agency, initiative, and self-directedness in kids. Meanwhile, free play stimulates kids’ creativity and has been proven to promote early brain development. Play also creates the conditions that allow for optimal learning: Kids learn better when the process of learning is joyful; when what they are learning is meaningful to them; when they are active and engaged; and when the learning process involves “iterative thinking” (like experimentation) and social interaction.

Playful learning fulfills all of these criteria. There is no consensus yet on whether play itself stimulates learning, or whether it just creates conditions under which kids learn better. After all, wouldn’t everyone learn more in school if the lessons were all fun, engaging, social, active, and personally meaningful? “Play coalesces the very features that are known to advance learning,” Hirsh-Pasek says. But either way, there is a consensus that play-based learning is good for kids and should be encouraged.

And yet play is on the decline in the US. In the last two decades alone, kids have lost eight hours of free play time. American kids generally spend more time studying and less time outdoors or playing sports. In January 2016, The Atlantic sounded the alarm about early education turning away from play: “Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their ‘work’ before they can go play.” The trend means that the US is creating kids with fewer school-ready skills—not more.

The lessons of Urban Thinkscape

Enter Urban Thinkscape. The project’s choice to use Philadelphia as a pilot city is not a coincidence. Philly has an absurdly high poverty rate of 25.7%. Nearly half of the poor residents are in deep poverty, which is particularly concentrated in areas like West Philadelphia. 

The puzzle wall installation in Belmont, Philadelphia.
The puzzle wall installation in Belmont, Philadelphia.
Image: Sahar Coston-Hardy Photography

Many low-income families in Philadelphia can’t afford to send their kids to after-school programs and summer schools, which means that kids miss out on learning opportunities. Having public, educational play installations available throughout the summer that specifically target math and literacy skills could help balance the scales a little.

Itai Palti designed the installations in West Philadelphia, involving community members in the project. He says that, beyond creating play opportunities for kids, the project can help address socioeconomic inequality in the area. “When you enrich the urban environment and make it safer, or more interesting, or more engaging, you also are bringing people out into the streets, and they’re interacting, and that has an effect, socially, on the neighborhood,” he says.

Does it work?

It remains to be seen whether Urban Thinkscape’s installations can truly make a difference for kids in Philadelphia. According to Hirsh-Pasek, early results are encouraging. Using a team of locals acting as “coders,” they observed the interactions between parents and kids before and after the Urban Thinkscape installations were put in place. The coders were told to see whether the installations increased parent-to-kid interaction, and to observe the quality of that interaction—specifically, whether parents used spatial terms, like “under,” “in,” or “behind,” while conversing with their kids, which contribute to better math skills later in life. According to Hirsh-Pasek, initial results from these experiments show that the West Philadelphia games “increased adult-child interaction, increased language among adults and children, and the type of language used reflects greater use of spatial terms.”

Similar projects have also produced successful results. In a supermarket study, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, and Katie Ridge turned supermarket aisles into games by putting up signs that encouraged conversations between parents and their children. Initial findings showed that in low-income neighborhoods, conversations between kids and parents grew by 33% when the signs were up.

In the big picture, Urban Thinkscape is part of a broader cultural shift in the way that urban designers, policymakers, and communities are thinking about public space. Urban design, an efficiency- and profit-driven process, is being reimagined to incorporate what the latest science tells us about how urban spaces can help the people who inhabit them. The goal, Palti says, is to “start designing for a different measure of success—a measure of success that is based on the human.”

This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation.

Urban Thinkscape footage courtesy of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University