Learning underfoot: vibrant installments of words, letters, shapes, and numbers migrate from Philadelphia to Chicago
In my last post, we reviewed the many benefits of incorporating play into early learners’ educational experiences. This time, we’ll show how the same innovative outdoor learning principles that began in Philadelphia inspired new installations in Chicago.
That initial Playful Learning Landscapes project, led by early childhood researcher Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, transformed an abandoned street corner in an underprivileged neighborhood into a park filled with educational toys, math games, climbing activities, and other playground equipment designed to spark conversations between parents and their young children.
The program’s migration from Philadelphia to the Chicago region has been a long and challenging one, but a successful one nonetheless. Much of the project’s success is attributable to the selection of three disadvantaged Chicago-area neighborhoods as pilot areas.
Metropolitan Family Services (MFS), founded in 1857 as the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, became Chicago’s first official charitable organization. In the 164 years since its founding, the nonprofit has focused on helping underprivileged families connect to much-needed resources in their communities. Examples range from legal aid to early childhood education, childcare, and support for single parents.
In 2017, MFS caught wind of what Playful Learning Landscapes had achieved in Philadelphia and enlisted Legat Architects to help create a local version of the installations in some of Chicagoland’s most deserving communities. The intent was to create colorful puzzles and spaces where children could explore shapes, letters, and basic numbers at their own pace, while a parent or guardian provides insight and direction.
What followed was over three years of community meetings, programming sessions, project updates, and many challenges. Early in the process, MFS partnered with an anchor organization in each of the three communities it targeted: the Little Village Chamber of Commerce in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, Illinois Actions for Children in the North Lawndale community, and SPARK (Strong, Prepared and Ready for Kindergarten) in Aurora, a suburb about 40 miles west of Chicago. Additionally, MFS enlisted researchers from Northwestern University to develop and hone some of the early childhood features. Although each community had different ideas for what kinds of installations it wanted to see, all three retained the core tenets of making early math, language, and spatial skills accessible to all children.
The resulting Playful Learning installations help develop early number/letter recognition, shape and pattern awareness, and early math skills in communities where early childhood resources are limited. The team, after consulting with Dr. Susan Hespos from Northwestern University’s Department of Psychology, created eight prototype designs that would be used at the different sites according to the space available and each community’s needs. Following are explanations of the four examples illustrated above:
- The Math Snake is designed to help kids associate groupings of numbers, as well as escalation of larger numbers. Multiples of five are shown inside “beans” to help with numerical association.
- The team customized the Letter Scramble for each community. This game distinguishes between vowels in blue and consonants in pink. The image above shows a bilingual version designed to help Latino youth find words in both English and Spanish.
- Each shape in the Math Dragon was designed to incorporate the number of “points” indicated by that number—so “1” is created with a single line, “2” has a point at each end of the crescent, “3” is a triangle, etc.
- The Life Sized Ruler encourages children to think vertically and horizontally about the relationship between sizes in the physical world. Metric units are also provided, so comparisons can be made cross-culturally.
Valerie Coffman, early childhood education specialist at Enlace Chicago, said “The outdoor learning installations incorporate a thoughtful, culturally relevant design with bright colors. The designs truly invite children and their families to learn through play!”
Little Village: A Lively Latino Neighborhood
The first Chicago playful learning project finished in Little Village, where 84% of residents are Latino. One, located at the famous Little Village Arch and next to a bustling shopping and restaurant center, features two sets of sidewalk puzzles. A mile and a half down the street is the second Little Village installation at Manuel Perez Jr. Plaza. It offers a sprawling network of play puzzles and games in a quiet, tree-filled park.
North Lawndale: By the Community, for the Community
In the North Lawndale community, 87% of whose residents are Black, the installations appear on sidewalks across from the Dr. King Legacy Apartments, as well as on sidewalks near the Central Park Pink Line stop for Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) “L” system and near the Farm On Ogden development.
The installations at the apartments are located just one block from Penn Elementary School—they focus primarily on fractions, early math, and distances. These games are also located along a community garden, allowing children to play while their caregivers interact amid the biophilic elements in the gardens.
Conversely, the installations at the Farm On Ogden and at the CTA station (across the street from each other on Central Park Ave.) are more focused on letters, games, and word puzzles. They stretch northeast and southwest along Ogden Avenue (the origin of the famous Route 66 in Chicago) to cater to young visitors heading in either direction.
Aurora: Reviving a Dated Playground
In October 2020, MFS wrapped up the first phase of its Chicago-area Playful Learning projects in Aurora. These puzzles were painted on an aging playground at Hesed House, a homeless shelter that caters to abused women and their children. According to Program Director Karen Swandby, many children have interacted with the installation since its completion.
“Legat went the extra mile when it came to completing the sidewalk installations,” said Maya Portillo, education program fellow at Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which managed the project’s daily operations. “From start to finish, the team was attentive to the needs of the community and extremely responsive. The installations are inviting for young children and their parents.”
What ultimately propelled these projects was the strong groundswell of support for more outdoor learning installments. The Brookings Institute commented on several Chicago Playful Learning initiative contributors, including “city government leaders from the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Housing Authority; an early childhood education specialist from Enlace Chicago—a community organization in Little Village; and a representative of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.”
MFS, the McCormick Foundation, Chicago Children’s Museum, and Legat are now teaming for a second phase of playful learning installations in North Lawndale.
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