'Jumping Feet' hopscotch installation at a West Philly bus stop

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What if parents didn’t have to take kids to a playground to get in some fun activity — but instead, the play space came to them?

That’s the idea behind Kathy Hirsh-Pasek’s Urban Thinkscape project, one of several initiatives planting activity and learning spaces all around the city where people naturally spend time with their kids. Think doctor’s offices, grocery stores, even bus stops.

For instance, Urban Thinkscape has taken a swath of land in West Philly — comprising a bus stop and surrounding empty lot and sidewalk — and turned it into a kid learning paradise. A puzzle on the back wall behind the bus stop inspires children to play while improving their math and spatial skills. Footprints on a hopscotch pad builds focus, and helps them understand patterns as they jump around.

Another initiative, funded by the William Penn Foundation, will create a climbing wall inside the Cecil B. Moore Free Library branch, as well as other learning-oriented play spaces outside it and the library branch in Kingsessing. Hirsh-Pasek assisted with the project, which is being carried out by design company Studio Ludo, architecture firm DIGSAU, Smith Memorial Playground and Erector Sets.

All of these installations integrate play and learning in creative ways.

“You have a playwall along one of the walls in the library that you can climb up — just like a rock climbing wall, but you climb on letters and you get to make words” said Hirsh-Pasek, a faculty fellow at Temple University’s psychology department and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“The first data that’s coming back,” she added, “is suggesting that families are playing together and interacting more.”

Credit: Courtesy of Studio Ludo

Research linking play and learning is the inspiration behind these and other, similar efforts that are proliferating throughout Philadelphia.

“Children learn by doing. They learn when they are active,” Hirsh-Pasek explained.

“We call it ‘minds on’ when they are engaged rather than distracted, when something is meaningful to them rather than dull, and when it’s socially interactive rather than solo…when you’re playing, you really are learning a tremendous amount.”

In playful learning or “guided play,” children take the lead through the support of adults who provide props, mentorship and interaction. The goal is to foster play as a foundation for learning skills.

Urban Thinkscape, which is funded by the William Penn Foundation, has a larger motive: to narrow the socioeconomic gap by bringing learning spaces to disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, and inspiring extracurricular activities and educational interaction between kids and their caretakers.

“For years we have been trying to move the needle for young children who come from under-resourced areas,” said Hirsh-Pasek. “The achievement gap has barely budged in half a century.” Merely providing kids access to high quality preschools (not guaranteed, by any means) is not enough to level the playing field, she said, “because even children who are in full-time school are only there for 20 percent of their waking time.”

So where do these kids spend the rest of their time? Waiting in bus stops, walking on sidewalks, reading at libraries.

The benefits can extend beyond academics and help with social learning, noted Meghan Talarowski, a landscape designer in Philadelphia. Talarowski has collaborated with Urban Thinkspace and also runs Studio Ludo, a nonprofit with a mission to build better play through research, design, and advocacy.

The ‘Puzzle Wall’ at a West Philly bus stop Credit: Courtesy of Urban Thinkspace

“The behaviors that we develop in our teens actually set the stage for many life behaviors in adulthood,” Talarowski said. “We are seeing huge rises in obesity and diabetes, and emotional and mental health issues. Play helps mitigate a lot of those.”

Involving the community and bettering the general landscape is another beneficial feature of these play area projects.

On Lancaster Avenue, a community design nonprofit called Tiny WPA enlisted the neighborhood’s help to create “playable sidewalks” where children can play on bike racks and planters, entertain themselves with street furniture like “switchback benches” and climb and leap on a “fort gym.”

Tiny WPA’s Alex Gilliam and Renee Schacht offer a free program for city youth and adults to learn tools for their own personal and financial empowerment, enable teamwork and leadership skills, and improve the neighborhood via hands-on building and design.

Putting play areas everywhere should benefit not only kids, but also adults, advocates say. More and more, we have everything we need in our houses, and have less and less reason to go outside. Play spaces can provide that excuse, explained Studio Ludo’s Talarowski.

“The more we can take everyday spaces and invite play into them,” Talarowski said, “the more we can use play as a vehicle to connect people to one another.”