Only twenty percent of a child’s waking time is spent inside of a classroom. To maximize the “other 80 percent of time” and augment the learning that takes place in school, Playful Learning Landscapes (PLL) aims to transform everyday places into fun, engaging learning opportunities that extend education into the public realm. This is especially important for children in low-income communities, as research shows that these children tend to lag behind their more affluent peers in language and spatial skills starting as early as age three.
PLL seeks to address learning inequalities that exist outside of the classroom by marrying the science of learning with urban design and placemaking. By embedding learning opportunities in places where families regularly go—such as bus stops, supermarkets, and parks—PLL strives to advance and scale evidence-based approaches for creating vibrant public spaces that foster learning and caregiver interaction, bring people together, and generate a sense of community ownership and pride.
In 2019 the Brookings Institution established a joint venture between the Center for Universal Education and the Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking to address the challenge of designing family-friendly habitats that support healthy living. Working at the intersection of both centers, Brookings Fellow Helen Shwe Hadani is leading the initiative and bringing together an interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners including Project for Public Spaces, Temple University’s Infant and Child Lab, and Playful Learning Landscapes Action Network to transform everyday spaces into powerful learning opportunities for children and families.
Research has found significant improved outcomes for children, such as increased interaction between caregivers and children, including conversations around language, literacy, and STEM. Across multiple pilot installations and activities in Philadelphia and other cities, PLL is demonstrating the power of playful learning to boost quality caregiver-child interactions:
• Urban Thinkscape infused a bus stop with learning by adding puzzles to a bench and transforming the childhood favorite hopscotch game into an executive function activity.
• Supermarket Speak transformed a daily trip to the supermarket into a learning opportunity by adding simple signage (e.g., “Where does milk come from?”) to promote caregiver-child conversations.
• Parkopolis enriched a public space with math and science learning opportunities by engaging children and their caregivers in a life-size board game where they roll “fraction dice” and move one and a half or two and three-quarter spaces around the board.
• The Ultimate Block Party brought over 50,000 people together in Central Park to engage in research-based activities including make-believe, construction, and adventure games highlighting the link between play and learning.
To harness growing momentum and address gaps around scaling and integrating PLL approaches into citywide policies and initiatives, Brookings launched the PLL City Network in late 2020 to bring together city-level decisionmakers and stakeholders in a community of practice for peer learning, knowledge building, and network strengthening. The network serves to advance the mission of PLL at Brookings by creating a forum to collectively pool expertise, resources, and skills around a shared vision of reimagining the potential of cities as supportive ecosystems for children and families.
Photo credit: Sahar Coston-Hardy