Building better cities for children: Coordinating within and across city agencies to harness the power of playful learning

Children play and learn at a city playground.

Today, more than half of the world’s children are growing up in cities. By 2030, up to 60 percent of the world’s urban population will be under 18 years old. Yet, children are often invisible to urban planners, developers, and architects when creating citywide policies that impact transportation, air and noise pollution, and health and well-being, as noted by Tim Gill in his recent book “Urban Playground.” “The truth is that the vast majority of urban planning decisions and projects take no account of their potential impact on children and make no effort to seek children’s views. … All too often, this is down to a simple lack of respect for children’s rights or abilities,” he writes.

What does child-friendly urban planning look like? A growing number of cities are prioritizing early childhood by infusing play and playful learning—child-directed activities that often include learning goals initiated or designed by an adult—into programs and installations to promote healthy development and learning.

In our Brookings report on the steps cities can take to scale playful learning, we called out the need for coordination within and across city agencies to support the design and integration of playful learning efforts into new and existing projects. This was the topic of discussion in our recent Playful Learning Landscapes (PLL) City Network meeting with teams from Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Tel Aviv.

These were the key takeaways from the city presentations and discussion.

1. Building capacity within the system is critical, especially when cross-sector coordination is required.

A key step in prioritizing early childhood development in Tel Aviv was creating a position in the municipality to work with city officials across administrations to implement reforms including creating citywide parenting services, adapting public spaces for the needs of young children, and improving urban mobility so families with young children could access the services they needed. While the Education Administration or Social Services and Public Health Administration were the logical choices for the home of the new project manager position, the mayor of Tel Aviv placed the position in the Community, Culture, and Sports Administration—a group that collaborated with other administrations to address a wide range of issues that impact the lives of young children and their families. “Many foundations will fund an NGO that works with the city from the outside,” shared one of the Tel Aviv team members. “In my experience, it’s not enough to have resources and work from the outside. You need to build capacity from the inside.”

A Playful Learning Landscapes installation in Tel Aviv.Children play in one of the sandboxes on the streets of Tel Aviv. (Photo credit: Bosmat Sfadia Wolf)

2. It is valuable to create champions on the ground, as well as at every level in the system, for sustainability of the program.

Leveraging its strengths and hosting collaborative professional development sessions in partnership with Playful Learning Landscapes Action Network (PLLAN) and Free Library, the Office of Parks and Recreation in Philadelphia helped create champions for playful learning and literacy at the ground level. The goal was to turn the recreational leaders into role models for others in the system. “To make things stick in a big system, you have to really find your ‘champions’ on the ground,” shared one of the city network members—“the people who are going to stay and work with children and put them in a position of strength.” At the city agency level, Parks and Recreation and Free Library came together to turn PlayStreets (which was traditionally a meal distribution program) into a playful learning opportunity by leveraging the playful learning elements that already existed in their own work. Identifying champions, especially when resources are limited, goes a long way in helping to pinpoint synergies and implement programs.

PlayStreets in Philadephia, PennsylvaniaPhiladelphia families engage in playful learning activities on PlayStreets. (Photo credit: Philadelphia Parks and Recreation)

3. Finding an entry point through existing initiatives or structures can help build important connections, especially in the early stages of aligning across municipalities.

In the early stages of Tel Aviv’s journey to becoming a leading city for young children and families, the mayor asked an innovation team from Bloomberg Philanthropies to pinpoint solutions for alleviating the city’s high cost of living. A citywide survey identified early childhood services—particularly for children ages 3 years and under—as one of the top contributors to the high cost of living. This created an opportunity for Urban95—an initiative of the Bernard van Leer Foundation that asks, “If you could experience a city from 95 centimeters (the height of a three-year-old) what would you change?”—to launch a broader discussion on early childhood. “We [Urban95] were aligning with the municipality’s agenda of [reducing the] cost of living,” shared one of the Tel Aviv team members. “The goal was to change the way the municipality worked and improve the way children play, learn, and move throughout the city.”

4. Alignment and coordination across city agencies doesn’t happen overnight and is a continuous process.

Philadelphia’s Office of Children and Families (OCF) was established in early 2020 to bring city departments including Parks and Recreation and Free Library under one umbrella to ensure that city policies and services for children and families are coordinated in partnership with the school district of Philadelphia. While city departments had playful learning projects that aligned with their department’s missions before OCF was created, the new city agency is fostering stronger connections and a broader vision for how to keep families safe and healthy, especially during the pandemic.

Tel Aviv’s journey to becoming a family-friendly city that prioritizes early childhood started in 2016 and is captured in a case study from Princeton University. The study documents the transformation of a city that once showed little interest in its youngest residents to one in which every city agency embraces early childhood as a strategic priority. “I think it’s an ongoing work in progress because people leave their post after you have invested in them,” shared one of the city network members. “How do you constantly build your champions and connect with your champions? This is something that always needs to be on the table for working with municipalities.”

Note: The Center for Universal Education receives funding for its work on Playful Learning Landscapes from the Bernard van Leer Foundation, which also supports Urban95. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the authors.