StoriesConnecting With Culture and History Through Play

Play Everywhere Philly installations create inclusivity and build pathways to positive outcomes

By KABOOM! | August 20, 2021

This is the third in a series of Stories about winners from Play Everywhere Philly. See other stories from this series. Learn more about Play Everywhere Philly.

Play Everywhere innovations can transform any place into a stimulating outlet for play. The flexible nature of Play Everywhere allows communities to wield their creativity and create a space that tells kids a story about the place where they learn, live, and play.

For Play Everywhere winners like Puentes De Salud and Nationalities Services Center, these playful spaces are a way to help kids and their families connect with their own heritage or that of their friends and neighbors. For our community partners, including cultural learning in these playful spaces builds pathways to improving childhood outcomes such as health, literacy, and learning.

Inclusive Literacy Builds a Bridge to Health

Puentes de Salud (Bridges of Health) is a nonprofit organization that promotes the health and wellness of Philadelphia’s rapidly growing Latinx population through high-quality health care, innovative educational programs, and community building. Based in South Philadelphia, it offers services to a large Mexican-American diaspora that has been present in Philadelphia for two decades, as well as an increasingly diversified Latin American immigrant community whose members speak indigenous languages such as Nahuatl, Q’eqchi, and K’iche.

“This is a remarkably resilient, creative, and talented community,” said Leah Reisman, Health and Wellness Director at Puentes de Salud.

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A tapestry representing the various indigenous languages.

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A look inside Puentas de Salud wellness center where interactive, multi-lingual murals will be installed.

However, families visiting the community health center often don’t have the chance to interact with their own languages or foster their own cultures outside of their homes. According to Reisman, building linguistic inclusivity is a necessary strategy to create public spaces where caregivers and children feel valued and comfortable. Without this sense of inclusion, parents may not have the opportunity to act as full partners in their children’s growth and wellness.

To Puentes, the concept of literacy extends beyond the ability to read and write in one dominant language to fluency in cultural traditions and creative practices. In many Latin American cultures, children often develop language skills through the intergenerational practice of storytelling –an inherently playful practice.

To promote literacy in accordance with that more inclusive definition, Puentes de Salud is working closely with community leaders to create interactive, multi-lingual murals at its wellness center. By exploring concepts like food and music in both Spanish and indigenous languages, the new playspace will celebrate the diversity of the community and prompt cross-cultural connection.

Community leaders are working together to identify specific areas of cultural heritage to feature in the mural. Including animals, objects, or food items that are used in different ways across multiple cultures will act as drivers of meaningful conversation and linguistic discovery –and help children and caregivers feel that their culture is recognized and interact with language in a new and exciting way.

The new playspace is intended to address the complex situations of children in a multicultural neighborhood – learning both English and Spanish, succeeding in their classroom but also understanding, valuing, and practicing their own cultural inheritances. Ultimately, said Reisman, those are important influencers in how each child visiting Puentes de Salud understands themselves as an individual, as well as the way they fit into the world around them.

A Playful “Town Center” Evokes the Feeling of Home

Each year, 5,000 immigrants and refugees from 120 countries seek services ranging from legal protection and health and wellness to English language classes and community integration at Philadelphia’s Nationalities Services Center (NSC). In the NSC lobby, cultures and languages converge as families from opposite ends of the world await case management and legal assistance appointments, digital literacy classes, and yoga sessions.

NSC is creating a Play Everywhere installation emulating a town center — a familiar and beloved hub for socialization, learning, and discovery for adults and children from every corner of the world, according to Gwen Soffer, Manager of Wellness Services at NSC. The new playful space will create room for children to interact with both peers and caregivers, learning about their own cultures and others.

Early design of NSC's Future town center

An early design of the NSC’s future “Town Center”

Framed by a cityscape running the length of the lobby, the Town Center will include kid-centric spaces, such as a computer lab, a library, and a children’s marketplace, as well as moments for children to engage with others. Playful features include an “I spy” game at the window with stairs for children to reach, a gallery displaying kids’ artwork, a town clock with movable hands and time-telling activities, clocks displaying times in cities around the world, bookshelves full of books in all languages, computer tablets with reading activities, an “alphabet alley” with a magnetic wall with letter magnets in multiple letter systems, and e-drawing pads disguised as windowpanes for children to color, and a weekly story hour with books in multiple languages.

These activities will infuse opportunities for learning and growth – two concepts key to NSC’s mission — into kids’ everyday experience, while parents and caregivers are utilizing NSC services to expand their own skillsets. In line with NSC’s mission of empowering immigrants to thrive in the Philadelphia community, dynamic learning will happen in a way that also honors the languages and cultures of its families.

It’s key for the Town Center installation to serve as a place where families can see themselves, but can also learn about and celebrate the many other cultures and communities represented at NSC, said Soffer. “This is the essence of NSC,” she said. “It’s a central meeting space that not only supports families through services, but also evokes a feeling of home.”

About Play Everywhere Philly

Play Everywhere Philly is a city-wide competition to create playful learning spaces that support child development and literacy skills in everyday locations across Philadelphia.

The program has awarded $1 million in Play Everywhere grants to groups working with designers to create playful learning features at places like sidewalks, bus stops, footpaths and areas outside businesses.

With support from KABOOM!, William Penn Foundation, Playful Learning Landscapes and Community Design Collaborative, these grantees will develop places for kids aged 0-8 to play and learn together with caregivers.

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