School and childcare closures due to COVID-19 have underscored the important role families and communities play in shaping children’s learning and development. Research shows that healthy and positive child-caregiver interactions and learning through play and experimentation set a positive trajectory for lifelong skills attainment and healthy development. Policymakers have largely invested resources in improving access and quality of preschools in order to address inequities in language development, spatial skills, and numeracy that often already exist between children from higher- and lower-income backgrounds when entering formal schooling. While this is a key part of the solution, children only spend 20 percent of their waking hours in school, so the “other 80 percent” of time spent outside the classroom, including in the home and community settings, also offers important opportunities to supplement and extend school learning. Playful Learning Landscapes (PLL) has sought to address the learning inequalities that exist outside of the classroom by marrying the science of learning with urban design and placemaking to embed learning opportunities in places where families regularly go, such as bus stops, parks, and supermarkets, transforming public and shared spaces into enriched learning hubs for the development of healthy children, families, and communities. In partnership with local community leaders, funders, and nonprofit organizations, PLL installations have been piloted in neighborhoods across the U.S. Findings from these pilots shows that PLL promotes the kinds of caregiver-child communication that supports language learning and relationship building, encourages children’s talk about numbers, letters, and spatial relations, and increases caregivers’ attitudes about the connection between play and learning. With more children growing up in socially, economically, and racially stratified neighborhoods, city and community leaders are increasingly looking to PLL as a promising way to engage families living in low-resourced communities to build community cohesion and bring learning to the public realm.
Helen Hadani, Ph.D., Fellow, The Brookings Institution
As a fellow at the Brookings Institution, Dr. Hadani leads Playful Learning Landscapes—an initiative that brings together the fields of developmental science and placemaking with the goal of improving child and community outcomes. She has more than 20 years of experience in research and has worked with toy and media companies, including Disney, Sesame Workshop, and LEGO. Helen holds a B.A. in Cognitive Science from the University of Rochester and a Doctorate in Psychology from Stanford University.