Later this year, young children in 16 neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia will have the opportunity to engage with brand new playful learning installations designed to create literacy-rich environments, strengthen caregiver-child interaction and promote early language development. Thanks to Riverfront North, which applied for a grant for the project from KABOOM!, funded by from the William Penn Foundation, one of those installations will be just outside the soon-to-be-built Riverfront Park Bridesburg. It’ll be called UnOrthodox, and it’s one part of a greater effort called Play Everywhere Philly, put on by KABOOM!, a national nonprofit that works to achieve playspace equity.
“UnOrthodox is kind of a play on Orthodox Street, which is the gateway to what will be the new Riverfront Park,” said Gina Craigo, Riverfront North’s community engagement manager.
Craigo explained that despite Orthodox Street being the gateway to the new park, the corridor is hardly the most scenic.
“Right now the street looks industrial and not very welcoming,” said Craigo.
While thinking of ways to brighten up the area around the park so more Bridesburg residents are inclined to use it, Riverfront North had the idea to place the installation nearby as a way to invite children and their parents to the waterfront.
“Folks [in Bridesburg] don’t relate to being a riverfront community,” said Craigo, something she and her organization are trying to change. “We’re trying to build more engagement and connection with the Bridesburg community with this project and plan.”
However, since the installation will be constructed before the park is completed, the installation will be temporarily placed in front of the Bridesburg Recreation Center starting hopefully in early Summer. It will stay there fore “a few months,” Craigo said, before being moved near the park.
According to Craigo, the installation will feature multiple stations that teach students about the Bridesburg area. For instance, children will have the opportunity to learn about native plants and animals to the area. They’ll also get to learn about where their food comes from via the nearby shipping port, and a chance to play with a “Plexiglas reflecting maze,” as a nod to Otto Haas of Rohm and Haas, the inventor of Plexiglas who emigrated to the Bridesburg area from Germany.
In addition to serving the neighborhood as a fun spot for parents to bring their children, the installations will serve as a miniature laboratory. That’s because the implementation and impacts the installations have on children will be studied by Temple University’s Infant and Child Lab.
According to Rachael Todaro, a postdoctoral fellow at Temple’s Infant and Child Lab, trained researchers will be sent to each of the installations to study the installation’s impact on children in the context of the six C’s of child development: communication, collaboration, content learning, critical thinking, creativity and confidence.
“The way we evaluate is using a naturalistic observation tool that we’ve used different times in published, peer-reviewed studies,” Todaro said, referring to a form the trained researchers will use. The researchers will go to the installations, sit “within an earshot” of playing children and study how effective the installation is at spurring math language, spatial language or whatever the installation’s objective was.
“We wanted groups to be specific about their objectives [in their proposals] so we can measure whether they met them,” said Todaro.
Using the tool, Todaro and her team can measure how effective the installation was and use that information to learn from.
“If the installation’s objective was to spur math language or spatial language, we sit and we observe if it actually does that,” she added. “We want to spur parent-child interaction.”
Playful learning is an evidence-based approach that harnesses both free play — in spaces designed for children to discover and explore — and “guided play,” which encourages the child to lead the way through environments that have been specifically designed to spark interactions that support learning and skill development.
The installations will be implemented in neighborhoods across Philadelphia by October 2021.
For the full list of projects as well as images and an interactive map, visit the Play Everywhere Philly website and gallery.