As millions of people across the U.S. and around the world are getting vaccinated against COVID-19, communities are starting to think about life beyond the pandemic. One of the biggest shifts will be sending our children back to school, as many students did not set foot inside a classroom for over a year. While school administrators, teachers, and parents are thinking through the logistics and practical challenges of hybrid or full in-person models, education policymakers and thought leaders are seizing this moment to think creatively and not default to the status quo. That is, the pandemic’s impact on pre-K-12 education has generated more interest than ever in innovations that complement school-based learning, such as playful learning games and activities, and highlighted the important role of communities in supporting children’s healthy development.

As highlighted in a Brookings report on scaling playful learning, engaging with the community to understand broad needs and preferences, foster neighborhood trust and cohesion, and ensure local buy-in is critical to the success of playful learning initiatives and projects. In fact, community engagement was the theme of our recent Playful Learning Landscapes (PLL) City Network meeting. We launched the network in late 2020 with four cities—Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Tel Aviv—to provide access to peers and knowledge as a way to facilitate the process of infusing playful learning in public and shared spaces easier.

These were the key lessons from the city presentations and discussion:

  • Viewing the community as partners in the project from the beginning makes them feel valued and heard.
  • A rigorous and iterative design process needs to include community culture and values.
  • Rather than building something new, simply connecting existing community assets around play can be an effective approach for infusing playful learning in public and shared spaces.
  • Long-term maintenance of installations is key for playful learning spaces to remain a valued part of the community.
  • Remember to ask the kids.

Read the full article about playful learning by Helen Shwe Hadani and Jennifer S. Vey at Brookings.