A swing, a slide, and adults staring at smartphones. The swing and slide are staples at any playground, and the latter is becoming a similar fixture.
That’s why the Urban Thinkscape was designed to bring parents on board with their child’s early education — early education meaning talking and playing.
“You educate your child just by having conversations with them about what they’re interested in, and they learn best when they have opportunities to engage with adults,” said Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, professor of education, linguistics and cognitive science at the University of Delaware, and author of several research-based publications including her latest book: “Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children.”
Golinkoff was also among the researchers who led the Urban Thinkscape concept. On the surface, it could be categorized as just another playground, but “it’s not. It’s specifically designed to teach kids the things they need for school and lifelong learning,” she said.
Children spend approximately 20% of their time in school, yet public investment in learning is almost 100% confined to classrooms, even though research shows that the most crucial learning happens before school even starts.
That makes parents their first teachers, and that’s why it’s so important to support exchanges between them.
The Urban Thinkscape is in what used to be an empty lot next to a bus stop in the Belmont neighborhood of West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The puzzle wall, hopscotch, hidden objects game, and storyline with cues are designed to spur spatial thinking, command of gross motor skills and narrative skills. Most of all, the prompted activities, “are based in the science of learning,” said Golinkoff, and that science points to parent engagement as a key tool in getting kids ready for school and more.
Research results of the installation of the Urban Thinkscape showed that adults and children engaged in more conversations and were more interactive, even in comparison to a neighboring playground.
“We wanted to put in something that would encourage parents to talk to their kids. The talking leads to literacy, and the activities lead to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning,” she said.
Location is no coincidence. The bus stop is still there, and instead of idle time staring at a phone or nearby traffic with little to do for waiting families, it’s now an opportunity for talk and play.
The location is also about access.
Golinkoff refers to the bus stop and places like grocery stores and laundromats as “trapped spaces,” and uses them as sites to “reach families where they are as opposed to making them go somewhere special,” she said, making it more accessible to busy parents who otherwise may not have the time to invest in dedicated play destinations.
“Learning doesn’t start when kids go to school. We want parents to understand they’re very powerful when it comes to their child’s learning. It doesn’t mean they have to act or talk like teachers.”
“It’s just play,” she said.
This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.