StoriesExpanding Access to Playful Learning in North Philadelphia
How a local charter school is bringing literacy, learning, and play to Philadelphia’s North Broad Street.
In North Philadelphia, teachers Julia Miller and Sabriya Wise have created a playful retreat for students of the People for People Charter School. Its hallways feature colorful paintings reminding students to “make their mark,” caterpillar-shaped collages crafted from repurposed carpet and pipe cleaners, and permanent installations of Twister and Hopscotch.
Miller, a teacher at People for People, developed an interest in play-based learning during her first year of teaching through Teach for America. After observing that her kindergarten students had trouble paying attention or retaining information while sitting still all day, she decided to give kinesthetic learning — learning through movement, touch, or play — a try in the classroom.
The difference in her students’ performance and behavior was immediate.
Miller worked with People for People to further explore the technique with both kindergarten and first-grade students, eventually pursuing a Fulbright scholarship in Helsinki, Finland to delve further into the benefits of play-based learning.
From Helsinki, Miller connected with Wise, an art teacher at People for People. The duo dreamed up the school’s sensory hallways and pursued grant opportunities to carry out the project. Now, they note, the vibrant setting is many students’ favorite part of being at school. For teachers, allowing kids to defy the norm of walking quietly in single-file lines has actually reinforced self-regulation and other positive behaviors.
Expanding Playful Learning Beyond the School
Building on that success and findings from her Fulbright research, Miller established a playful learning program at People for People called Just Play. Now, as winners of the KABOOM! Play Everywhere Philly grant competition, funded by the William Penn Foundation, Miller and Wise are leading Just Play’s charge to expand playful learning beyond the school to the surrounding community, equipping North Philadelphia’s North Broad Street corridor with a new “Play District.”
Working alongside Allen Pierce and his team at Philadelphia-based architecture firm HEIMA, they envisioned a series of playful structures with names like “Audible Alphabet” and “Serpentine Story.” Each structure will promote learning beyond the classroom and encourage kids and families to “play along the way.”
North Broad Street is a busy six-lane road running from Philadelphia’s Center City all the way up to the suburbs on the city’s outskirts, representing both a commercial center and a community hub for many North Philadelphia neighborhoods. Local organizations including the Salvation Army, the School District of Philadelphia, and the People for People Community Development Corporation offer gathering opportunities for residents of Francisville and West Poplar, two North Philadelphia neighborhoods near the People for People Charter School.
Visitors often pass through this section of N. Broad St en route to visit Historic Philadelphia or watch shows at the Met. However, like many busy city neighborhoods, kids and families visiting or living in North Philadelphia face a common challenge: a lack of safe and accessible playspaces.
The Play District represents an opportunity to bring playful learning opportunities to a community that is engaged, layered, and diverse, said Miller. Each of the proposed play structures will be strategically placed at locations along North Broad Street that are already embedded in the fabric of the community. Educators, caregivers, and kids will be able to access lessons associated with each play structure via an app or audio instructions.
Incorporating the Community
Expanding the community’s playful learning opportunities will yield many benefits. According to Miller, though the project was ideated prior to the pandemic, it is even more relevant as students and teachers transition from sometimes isolating COVID-era learning — indoors, socially distant, and masked — to outdoor, interactive activities which can rebuild or strengthen peer-to-peer or child-to-caregiver bonds.
Parents, teachers, and kids in North Philly and surrounding communities have shown up as excited and engaged participants in the planning process. Kids had the opportunity to sketch out their dream play structures during a design challenge. Architects Allen Pierce, Bunny Tucker, and Evan Ortiz are working tirelessly to ensure that kids’ feedback and ongoing community input are incorporated into the Play District’s final designs.
Adult community members have offered feedback to ensure that the structures are safe and accessible to as many kids as possible, adjusting the locations of the build sites, adding COVID-19 precautions such as sanitizing stations, and advocating for inclusive signage, which will be incorporated in partnership with Philadelphia’s Association for Public Art.
“The entire project is based off of this community, and we want to make sure their ideas are being heard,” said Miller. “And ‘community members’ means kids just as much as it means teachers and caregivers.”
Wise noted that this emphasis on kids’ involvement will help to establish their own sense of community ownership. Not only will they have access to a space designed specifically for them – they are also playing a key role in the design process.
“They feel famous right now,” she said. “Having a space that’s yours, seeing it on the news, walking past it, knowing that Grandma is going to see it — that’s something really special.”
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.