How communities are transforming public space into ‘space for reflection’ where children practice reading and STEM skills

A rotating wall puzzle helps children develop spatial skills and understand how different objects relate to each other. Sahar Coston-Hardy Photography, CC BY-NC-ND

A park bench can be more than just a place to sit and wait. Maybe it contains a puzzle or weights that allow children to take action.

This story also appeared in The Conversation

As researchers studying the links between play and development, we are interested in how the reinvention of public spaces can infuse playful learning opportunities into the time children spend outside of school.

In a July 2021 article we wrote for the peer-reviewed journal Trends in cognitive science, we describe how experts can help communities create fun public spaces where children can learn while playing.

To support children’s learning, public play spaces should be designed according to the six Learning Principles, which reflect how children most effectively absorb new information.

According to the six principles, activities should be active or “mental”, not passive. They should demand that participants be engaged and not distracted. They must be meaningful, linked to the children’s previous experiences and knowledge. They should elicit social interaction with caregivers and friends. They should be iterative – updating understanding based on new information – rather than repetitive. And finally, they should be cheerful and generate positive feelings or a sense of surprise.

The following public space projects illustrate how these principles come to life. We provided scientific advice for the first two projects, and this work helped inspire the creation of the non-profit Playful Learning Landscapes Action Network.

Urban Thinkscape Bus Stop

In the Belmont neighborhood of Philadelphia, an installation called Urban Thinkscape has transformed a bus stop into a playful learning space.

Along with a neighborhood civic association, a group of psychologists and architects partnered with community members, city leaders and nonprofits to redesign a land where Martin Luther King Jr. led the Freedom Now rally in 1965.

An updated version of hopscotch has kids jump into different patterns. Sahar Coston-Hardy Photography, CC BY-NC-ND

“Stories” consists of a climbing wooden deck with embedded images of familiar objects, such as a book and the sun, designed to help children create and tell original stories. “Hidden Figures” is a metal sculpture with hidden images like fruits and shapes designed to exercise spatial skills. By reading the shadows on the ground, families can find figures that change as the sun moves across the sky. “Jumping Feet” is a version of hopscotch that requires executive skills such as attention, memory, and self-control. And the “Puzzle Wall” is a series of four puzzles featuring different images of important characters and events chosen by the neighborhood civic association. It also promotes spatial skills.

The project involved hiring and training community members to observe adults and children using the space. They found that caregivers and children on site interacted more – both with each other and with the space – than they did before the facility was created. In fact, the level of interaction was similar to that of a neighborhood playground a few blocks away.

Play-and-Learn Libraries

Also in Philadelphia, Play-and-Learn Spaces has reinvented three children’s library spaces.

The design process, led by Studio Ludo and Digsau and assisted by Smith Playground, began by inviting families who regularly visit libraries to rethink what a children’s library could be. One of the installations is a climbing wall where children create words by climbing different paths on the surface of the wall. Another is to sit with large movable puzzle pieces. And the third is a scene with magnetic letters where children can create stories on the wall.

An orthographic climbing wall at the Cecil B. Moore Public Library in Philadelphia. Halkin Mason, CC BY-NC-ND

By observing how people used the spaces, the researchers found that adults and children in Play-and-Learn spaces had more literacy-related conversations, such as speaking and spelling words, and using more words. spatial, such as talking about objects being “over” or “under” other objects, versus libraries where Play-and-Learn spaces were not installed. Installations also increased positive emotions and interactions physical, and reduced the use of mobile phones and tablets.

MathTalk sidewalks

A final example comes from the Port District of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the nonprofit MathTalk and community members co-designed six temporary play sites for a neighborhood sidewalk. For example, a gigantic digital line has spurred counting and measurement discussions by presenting opportunities to measure the length of objects in the environment and play games as Simon says. Sidewalk Math encouraged children to jump, jump and jump to learn more about counting and patterns.

MathTalk interviewed and observed community members using the site and documented how the activities supported conversations and math learning. Building on the success of the project in encouraging families to find math in everyday places, MathTalk has since expanded to libraries, health clinics and other spaces.

By working with local communities and basing designs on the Six Pillars of Learning, these places serve as models for how neighborhoods can create new, family-friendly play sites in everyday spaces.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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