Apr 2024

Member Insights: Infusing Playful Learning into Everyday Places

Infusing Playful Learning into Everyday Places

By Gregg Behr, executive director of The Grable Foundation and co-chair of Remake Learning and Amanda Charles, program officer with the William Penn Foundation

In schools across the country, teachers and administrators are working hard to innovate daily. We see new methods of teaching and assessment, creative approaches to battling chronic absenteeism, inventive uses of learning technology, and a reimagining of the skills and strengths that students can develop throughout their PreK-12 journey. 

All of this is admirable – even heroic. But consider this: Most kids spend just 20% of their waking hours in a classroom. How are they spending the remaining 80%? 

This is the time, of course, when the bulk of their lives take shape – in grocery stores, parks, living rooms, and laundromats. What if we could make these everyday places more meaningful, and maybe even more joyful? What if we could infuse them with learning and play? And what if doing so didn’t have to be expensive or complicated? 

Across the country, educators and community leaders have stepped up to answer these questions. What they’ve discovered could help grantmakers everywhere see the potential for play in a wholly different light.

The Power of Play

In Philadelphia, the work of creating playful learning landscapes has been underway since 2015. 

Among the city’s many ingenious initiatives is Urban Thinkscape, which provides opportunities for young children and families to engage in math, science, and literacy content at a bus stop. Urban Thinkscape sparks conversations that help children build their literacy and language skills and fuel their imaginations while connecting with their caregivers.  

This simple but powerful idea has been replicated in laundromats and playgrounds, and has spread across the United States and even made its way overseas. 

Elsewhere in Philadelphia, features such as a hopscotch grid, a puzzle with movable pieces, and artwork with hidden images have been added to bus stops, sparking new interactions among family members. They’ve been so successful that community members have offered to share the work of keeping the bus stops clean and welcoming.

Thanks to efforts like these, Philadelphia was invited to join The Brookings Institution’s Playful Learning Landscapes City Network in 2021, alongside Pittsburgh, Chicago, Tel Aviv, Lima and Santa Ana, California. In these and many other cities, people are redesigning public landscapes to nurture our natural impulse for play.

“We are born with the natural ability to gain skills through play,” writes Rebecca Winthrop, director of the Center for Universal Education at Brookings. “As children, we learn about social norms, roles and responsibilities, and language through curiosity-driven, playful interactions and activities. Learning through play harnesses the power of children’s imagination and inspires active engagement with the material.”

But while organizations like Philadelphia’s Playful Learning Landscapes Action Network, Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning, and others have been doing this work since before the pandemic, the development of playful learning spaces has taken on new urgency. We know that engaging kids in hands-on, joyful play can help mitigate learning loss and assuage the mental health challenges that so many students are experiencing. 

This understanding fuels the work of the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative, which includes advocacy campaigns in support of recess and the creation of Pittsburgh’s annual Ultimate Play Day, along with the grantmaking program Play for Change. 

Most recently, Remake Learning has launched the Let’s Play PGH grantmaking program to promote intergenerational playful learning in public spaces. Regional organizations, many working in partnership with one another, are designing and testing innovative ideas through this multi-year grant opportunity. 

Experience the Impact

Efforts like these have been paying powerful dividends in our cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. And we’re heartened to see educators and community leaders from around the country elevating playful learning in other incredible ways. 

Earlier this month, we had the chance – together with Grantmakers for Education – to host a study tour in Philadelphia to explore the science, outcomes and promise that play holds for advancing children’s learning and development, building relationships and trust and positively impacting teachers and caregivers.

Funders and partners from across the country learned alongside one another; heard from such experts as Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University) and Susan Neuman (New York University); and visited installations at Puentes de Salud, The Laundry Cafe, and Logan Library. As Susan Neuman commented, "If you change the environment, you change the opportunity.” Playful learning landscapes are one way to create opportunities that prepare children for school and for life. 

Building on the momentum of the study tour, we are in conversation with Grantmakers for Education about convening an impact group to continue exploring ways that playful learning might be taken up by communities around the country. Please reach out to Kara Komprathoum (ImpactGroups@edfunders.org) at Grantmakers for Education for more information, or click here to be added to the impact group’s contact list.

We are seeing in our cities just how impactful – and how possible – the creation of playful learning landscapes can be. So we encourage you: Play around with the idea. Explore and build upon the playful learning landscapes emerging in cities like our own. Discover what’s being done, then dream up your own expression of the playful learning landscapes that will serve your city best. 

Communities around the nation can do this. Our children need us to do it now.


About Member Insights

This article represents the opinion of the author; it is not intended to represent the views of Grantmakers for Education or its employees.

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