Sunday, October 16, 2016

An Urban Twist on Learning Everywhere

Temple University's Urban Thinkscape
Everyday in cities and towns across the country, young children sit in grocery carts while parents shop. They watch busses pass, wait for the street light to change, and look at the laundry swirl and tumble at the Laundromat. Accompanying their parents and caregivers on daily errands and going to and from work, day care, and school, children are passing fascinating sights and abundant sources of information about their world and their place in it. They are curious and eager to know about what they are seeing and hearing. 

These everyday moments and the conversation and questions that flow back and forth, are full of opportunities for children to make connections with others and understand the world. They hear new words, follow the rhythm of conversation, remember other experiences, and have ideas. These moments also foster meaningful adult-child relationships that serve as protective factors throughout life.

A recent story on NPR (10/03) reported on several related projects in the Philadelphia area that intend to bring opportunities to more children to explore and engage with their cityscape and their parents. Emerging from the work of researchers at Temple University, the projects’ broad goal is to level persistent inequalities in young children’s learning experiences. The project focuses on increasing opportunities for them to learn in their everyday world and to expand parent and caregiver engagement with the child that is critical to that learning.

The Supermarket Speak study posted signs with “questions for your child” in grocery stores in Philadelphia. Conducted by a team at Temple University, the study found that, in low-income neighborhoods, the signs prompted more and higher quality talk between adults and children under 8 years–an increase of one third.  Implementing low-cost ($20), simple interventions in everyday environments appear to boost children’s language development; that, in turn, can boost school readiness skills. Supermarket Speak has inspired projects in other cities including London, Ontario.

Urban Thinkscape is a pilot project in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone that offers children opportunities for engaged learning around their neighborhood. The Temple University team designed activities into streetscapes where families walk, wait for busses, meet and connect. Five installations, an Animation Streetlight, Puzzle Bench, Jumping Feet, Stories, and Hidden Figures, stimulate spatial skills and support executive function skills. On-site signage and a website connect caregivers to additional resources. The group is considering additional sites like a Laundromat and doctor’s waiting rooms for Urban Thinkscape. The project received the KaBOOM! 2016 Play Everywhere Challenge.

In connecting research and practice, this project brings another innovative approach to its goal of addressing early inequalities. One of the researchers is training local residents to unobtrusively collect data on site. Data collection will look at conversational turn-taking between parents and children and the use of spatial words and number words. Not only will this generate useful insights about the impact of Urban Thinkscape, but it will also build a range of skills among neighborhood residents.

Seeing Children In Everyday Places

In addition to creating a space that helps reduce barriers that undermine the potential of children growing up with limited learning opportunities, Urban Thinkscape also expands the range of safe, interactive urban spaces planned with children in mind. Outside of playgrounds, there are few places to linger and enjoy. Moreover, playgrounds are typically segregated from the flow of daily urban life.

Placing activities in a real world urban context increases the visibility of enrichment opportunities that are everywhere, accessible, and critical to children’s growing, learning, gaining confidence, and becoming thinkers. Everyday places where parents and caregivers spend time with young children are truly informal learning environments. Sidewalks, bus stops, streets, shops, Laundromats, park benches, and street corners are full of small and large fascinations for children. They inspire countless conversations between adults and children, conversations that are essential to children making sense of their immediate world and the larger world.

Active thinkers and learners in the everyday moments of their lives, children ask where the number 14 bus goes and what makes stoplights change. They have ideas about where food comes from and where water goes after a rain. In the conversations that follow their questions and ideas, children are constructing explanations about how transportation systems work, noticing how things change, and figuring out the relationships among the places they go. On-the-spot resources that are salient to adults make it easier for them to support and extend these interactions, encourage curiosity, build vocabulary, and explore ideas together.

Places like Urban Thinkscape also invite the city–residents, neighbors, and passersby–to participate in children’s learning and play in ways that information campaigns and strong programs to close the 30 million-word-gap cannot. When we are on the street, we overhear children's questions, notice their interest in signs, and pause to look at the symbols they have drawn on the sidewalk with chalk. As we hear their voices and watch them explore, we see them becoming readers and storytellers. We connect with them as neighbors, friends, guides, learners.

What Takes Us So Long?

Initially finding Urban Thinkscape reposted and retweeted was heartening. Sharing information keeps core supporters current. Spreading the word about this innovative and practical concept and its purpose may inspire stakeholder interest and support.

The more I thought about the project and the enthusiasm it is generating, however, the more I wondered: What takes us so long?

There is no lack of evidence of the environmental factors that make a positive difference in life outcomes for children, especially children facing multiple challenges at home and in their neighborhoods. The original study that inspired Supermarket Speak and Urban Thinkscape and the 30 million word gap efforts was conducted in 1995, more than 20 years ago. While promising and interesting, Urban Thinkscape shouldn’t be a rare example of innovations in everyday places and urban spaces that encourage conversations between adults and children. There should be dozens and dozens of examples of strategies and design ideas that tap unrecognized neighborhood assets and engage children and adults in talking about and exploring them.  

Four years ago, at the Association of Children’s Museums’ Reimagining Children’s Museums conference in May 2016 in Portland, a presenter asked, What would an everywhere and all the time children’s museum be like? This was a bold challenge to bring well-designed, interactive experiences that engage children and adults in talk and play in neighborhoods, libraries, parks, playgrounds, vacant lots, and apartment complexes.

Even before I read that the Urban Thinkscape experiences were “children’s museum quality exhibits,” I wondered, why children’s museums haven’t already been dotting their city landscapes with such spaces. This is precisely the convergence of children’s museum missions, strategic interests, and demonstrated strengths. They have a position, if not an actual track record, of championing the value of play in children's thinking, learning, and wellbeing and the critical role of adults in their learning lives. They have created innovative experiences and activities that invite exploration and conversation indoors and out, in cities and in towns.

Credit: David Zinn
Of note is that two of the 50 winners for the 2016 KaBOOM! Play Everywhere Challenge that Urban Thinkscape project received are children’s museums, Madison Children’sMuseum (WI) and Children’s Museum of Eau Claire WI). Two other children’s museums, Habitot Children’s Museum (Berkeley, CA), and Marbles Kids Museum (Raleigh, NC) were finalists.

I would like to think that still more engaging spaces are in the works. Perhaps Little Free (Children’s) Libraries are already sprouting up in neighborhoods and on playgrounds. Maybe swings are replacing benches and supporting conversation while murals and 3-D chalk art bring forgotten corners of the neighborhood to life and invite descriptions, questions, and stories. There could be playpaths, storywalks, exercise tracks; Eye Spy games and dioramas animating spaces and inviting conversations.

Clearly, there is no lack of ideas of what might transform, engage, and delight children and adults. There’s no lack of evidence of the value of safe, engaging experiences for children and adults to explore together. How can we harness what we do well as museums with what we know is needed in our communities?

Related Museum Notes Posts


  1. Thanks for introducing me to the Urban Thinkscape project. What a fantastic idea. Fond memories of "landmark"-strewn daily walks with my kids -- here's where we walk on the low stone walls, here's where mom looks at that lady's garden, here's where we throw rocks into the creek. Imagine ramping that up just a bit to slightly more focused fun activities here and there. Sounds delightful for kids and adults to encounter this level of playful engagement.

  2. Mary, thank you for sharing this lovely description of being out and about with your children, with a glimpse at the thinking and linking of places along the way, making connections and talking about them. That very conversational walk is just what is not happening for too many children. Ramping up what does happen sometimes for some children is a great opportunity.