StoriesPlayful Learning is a Crucial COVID Recovery Strategy in La Habra, CA

By KABOOM! | October 20, 2021

David DeLeon, Recreation Manager at the City of La Habra, wants every child across the city to have access to the many benefits of playing on a playground. This experience is crucial for the physical, social, and emotional development of any child. But for a generation experiencing a worldwide pandemic which exacerbated existing gaps in learning, the new playground at El Centro-Lions Park will play an especially important role. Created in partnership with KABOOM! and The CarMax Foundation, the new space will offer La Habra kids a pathway to equitable learning recovery; improving math and cognitive skills while also getting active and spending time with friends.

“Play is important in any context, but the City and our partners saw the opportunity here in La Habra to create playspaces that go above and beyond,” said DeLeon. “We wanted to incorporate playful learning approaches that help kids build valuable skills and supplement classroom learning while they are enjoying playing with their friends.”

Playful learning is a research-based approach that transforms everyday places into fun and engaging learning opportunities. Extending education into the public realm – like a basketball court, a laundromat or bus stop – is a crucial strategy for responding to COVID learning loss, especially for children in traditionally underserved communities and communities of color.

Kids typically spend just 20 percent of their waking hours in a classroom. Outside of school, racialized disparities and systemic disinvestment translate to fewer options for recreation and play. Experts estimate that during the pandemic, the average student may have lost as much as half of their expected progress in math, making the need for a built environment that stimulates learning and play more important than ever.

Easily accessible spaces that encourage play and informal learning play an important role in closing those gaps. In La Habra, DeLeon and his colleagues at the City recognized an opportunity to improve the City’s early development index (EDI) rankings by creating school- and city-based playspaces that emphasize learning opportunities. The City partnered with Professor Andres Bustamante from the University of California Irvine to build a child-centered approach to these projects, with the ultimate goal of creating a child-centered community, said DeLeon.

Together, Dr. Bustamante and the City of La Habra designed a new playspace at El Centro-Lions Park that would not only spur active and social play, but promote childhood learning and development. The basketball court incorporates Fraction Ball, a game created by Dr. Bustamante and his colleagues at the UC Irvine School of Education, which reimagines the lines of the basketball court to emphasize fraction and decimal learning. Dr. Bustamante’s team also worked to create colors, shapes, and activities throughout the new playspace that will encourage kids to use their motor skills, turning active play into a brain-building activity.

“I’m so excited to see these playful learning designs and activities come to life in La Habra. Infusing play and learning opportunities into public spaces can have a powerful impact on children’s development and shift caregivers’ ideas around where and how they can support their child’s learning.” For DeLeon, this new playground marks an important milestone for La Habra as it works toward the vision of public infrastructure that supports community members’ long-term health and development. “This is more than a playground – it’s an oasis of learning,” he said. “It shows what’s possible when we come together with partners to center childhood wellbeing and early learning.”

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