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Young children from underserved communities often enter formal education lagging behind their peers (Duncan et al., 2017). Historically, policymakers have addressed this gap with more equitable education (Yoshikawa et al., 2016); however, children only spend 20% of their waking hours in school (Meltzoff et al., 2009). Through Playful Learning Landscapes, we address the other 80% of time children are out of school with playful learning in public spaces that augment school curricula. Playful learning is a broad pedagogical approach integrating child-directed play with skill building activities in which children are active, engaged, and socially interactive with meaningful content (AUTHORS, 20XX). Playful Learning Landscapes range from building puzzles into bus stop architecture, to human-sized STEM board games, to placing signs in supermarkets prompting adult-child conversation. Research is just beginning to unravel the wide academic and social reach of playful learning, and how public installations increase relevant adult-child talk, fostering literacy, mathematics, and science foundations for children (AUTHORS, 20XX).
Amidst the playful learning wave, there are few descriptive data about how children play, and how neighborhood play translates into playful learning. This project begins to fill that void with community-based research examining play memories in very underserved and mixed socio-economic neighborhoods; with the goal of increasing the effectiveness and ecological-validity of future Playful Learning Landscapes iterations.
Chalkboard walls were installed in low- and mixed-income neighborhoods of Philadelphia, PA, with the prompt, “when I was little, I loved to play…”, adapted from artist Candy Chang’s (2017) “Before I Die” art installation. During five weeks in 2017, 175 responses were recorded in the low-income neighborhood in front of an elementary school that serves students living 130% below the poverty line, and 227 responses in a mixed-income playground. All responses were coded for type of play (e.g., sports, playground games, digital, see Figures), domain (e.g., social-emotional, cognitive, physical), and degree of enrichment (e.g., number of domains strengthened) by two expert coders (Kappa=0.95–1.00). Respondents were anonymous, but likely a mixture of children and adults reported how they loved to play when they were young.
Most responses were playground games (31.1%) or sports (17.1%) – such as tag or basketball, respectively (see Figures). Just over half (58.7%) were highly enriching play that foster social, cognitive, and physical development (e.g., kickball, double-dutch). These games, for example, can be played in groups to encourage social skills and self-regulation, rely on flexibility and attention that nurture cognition, and require motor skills and exercise that promote physical development. However, more responses at the low-income site were highly enriching (70.6%) than the mixed-income site (48.4%).
This community-based assessment indicates playful learning is occurring in low- and mixed-income communities; critically, the underserved community reported more highly enriching play than the mixed-income community. The results describe differences in naturally-occurring playful learning in different communities, help us create more ecologically-valid Playful Learning Landscapes installations for specific neighborhoods, and foster increased community recognition in playful learning that can lead to greater community-based playful learning (Grob et al., 2017; AUTHORS, 20XX).