Let’s redesign public spaces so that learning through play is possible
Photo: Sahar Coston-Hardy

Let’s redesign public spaces for learning through play

By Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta M. Golinkoff and , | December 2018 

Transforming supermarkets, bus stops and park benches for learning through play could cut educational gulfs between rich and poor.

In the supermarket, signs prompt parents to ask children where milk comes from. ‘Count the carrots,’ suggests another sign. At a bus stop, children complete puzzles on the back of a bench. Some play hopscotch, jumping from one foot to another. Others search for images of food and animals hidden in the metal work. They wonder why, as the day passes, the images cast different shadows on the ground. This is learning through play.

Is this the future for child development – where academic skills are built by learning through play out and about, in the community, not just in school? We think it’s possible.

Rethinking public spaces for creative learning

That’s why we’ve transformed often mundane public spaces into places of learning through play to foster interaction, conversation and real learning in areas like language, literacy and STEM subjects. Behind the fun lies a big ambition: to use the 80 per cent of waking time that children spend outside school to improve their readiness to learn, social-emotional skills, scientific curiosity and educational achievement.

““Can you spot a big one,” a picture of a giant tomato asked at the fruit and vegetable aisle. Suddenly, low income families were chatting much more.’”

We need to do more than expand early education to put lower income children on a more equal footing with their peers. Our approach augments what’s often used in children’s museums, with the potential to reach greater numbers. It’s not confined to single locations that require entry payments.

Our goal is to create communities intentionally designed for learning through play by all children. We’re not trying to shove learning down children’s throats but rather to enhance cities so they’re rife with opportunity for families and children to communicate. The aim is to avoid extra financial burdens and focus on everyday facilities, such as bus stops and benches that cities already maintain.

Each initiative is evaluated, and our early findings are promising. Crucially, they suggest that such initiatives hold the promise of reducing gaps between children from underserved communities and their more affluent peers.

The supermarket becomes a fun school

Take the supermarket as a place of learning through play, for example. Before signage went up, carers and children in a low-income neighbourhood supermarket interacted considerably less well than those in a middle income supermarket. Then, we added our ‘healthy language’ signs in each store.

“Is this the future – where academic skills are built out and about, in the community, not just in school?”

‘Can you spot a big one?’ asked a picture of a giant tomato in the fruit and vegetable aisle. ‘A small one? Which ones are heavy? Or light?’ Suddenly families were chatting much more: language interactions in families from underserved neighbourhoods rose by a third. Parents described more of what they could see for their children. They asked them more questions, pointed out more products. Children did likewise for the grown-ups. And it turns out that these conversations can make all the difference in building foundations for language growth.

Increased parental interaction for lower income children 

However, there was little impact among families in the higher-end supermarket. That difference led to an intriguing outcome. There are no hard and fast rules tying conversation levels to socioeconomic status – some lower-income families talk a lot, and some higher-income families don’t. Still, there is a generally identified conversation and interaction gap between middle- and lower-income families, and it was eliminated by our supermarket learning through play experiment. Such findings suggest that transforming public spaces might help families ‘catch up’ – chipping away at educational inequities between socioeconomic groups that remain stubbornly large, despite preschool education.

The supermarket initiative is one example of the ‘Learning Landscapes’ project, begun in the United States but now undergoing experimentation internationally, from Johannesburg to London. It takes the goal of greater educational equity and combines it with the Conscious Cities movement, which aims to create more intuitive, responsive, people-centric cities. Urban areas are a good place to start learning-through-play initiatives since by 2030, 70 per cent of children are expected to be living in cities, worldwide.

Reduced learning through play in classrooms

 The potential benefits could be huge: much of the ‘other 80 per cent’ of children’s waking time – when they aren’t at school – is spent in the home and community. Can we design playful learning to infuse public spaces with fun, engaging and stimulating learning possibilities? Can we create playful learning piazzas? This could be an important breakthrough at a time when play is diminishing in many preschool and kindergarten classrooms.

“We’ve taken the science of learning out of the ivory tower and into the streets.”

Underpinning each initiative is the science of learning which we’ve brought out of the ivory tower and into the streets. At supermarkets in Philadelphia, the signs target language and mathematics skills. At bus stops, the puzzles build early spatial and mathematics skills. Hopscotch targets executive functions – working memory, problem-solving and planning. Shoe prints encourage children to jump, developing their abilities to control impulses and to think flexibly as they match the random patterns and find their next steps.

The ‘hidden figures’ in the bus stops’ metal work, casting different shadows on the ground, are like a version of hide and seek, promoting curiosity and exploration. They build problem solving. Spatial skills develop as children figure out how the shadows are cast upon the ground

Learning through play in hospitals, jails and streets

The possibilities are numerous. One learning through play project plans to transform hospital waiting rooms, where families are often bored for hours. Another seeks to transform jails that house new mothers, so they can play better during visits with their babies. Seattle is developing stimulating and safe sidewalks on the way to school. And yet another city is considering how we might reshape low-income housing.

These projects use public spaces to forge a suite of 21st century skills that children are expected to gain in school but may find difficult in formal settings. In ‘Parkopolis’, in Philadelphia, a life-sized, playful-learning board game aims to enrich maths and science learning opportunities by playing outside.

Children roll dice to advance around the board and draw cards that engage them in mini-games along their way. The dice include not only whole numbers but also fractions. Spaces are divided into fourths. These help children to embody the fraction learning experience that can be difficult in formal school settings.

The next step is to test these learning-through-play initiatives at scale and in conjunction with one another. That would allow us to look for neighbourhood as well as individual affects.

We’re accustomed to seeing parents and schooling as important determinants of learning opportunities. At the juncture of the global cities movement and educational initiatives, we’re on the cusp of making the most of another determinant – place and neighbourhood.


 Hassinger-Das B, Bustamente A, Hirsh-Prasek K & Golinkoff RM (2018), Learning landscapes: Playing the way to learning and engagement in public spaces, Education Sciences, 8.74

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