The lobby of the Nationalities Service Center, on the fourth floor of a building near the Reading Terminal Market in Center City, is a boring place to wait.
Some 5,000 people from 130 different countries — complete families — come into the agency’s office each year for classes, legal and employment assistance, health services and even for a farmer’s market. But only a mural and a few other objects in that lobby represent the rich cultures and over 30 languages they carry. Time gets wasted as the children and adults pass the minutes without much to hold their attention.
“There’s really not much there,” said Gwen Soffer, the wellness coordinator at NSC who, along with her colleagues, saw the space as a missed opportunity for a learning space — an unfunded ambition, until now.
The Nationalities Service Center is one of 16 community organizations that will over the next year transform an everyday space into a place for play thanks to an initiative created by the national nonprofit Kaboom! and funded by the William Penn Foundation.
The Play Everywhere Philly initiative awarded a total of $1 million for these non-traditional play spaces with individual grants ranging from $20,000 to $80,000. The 16 interactive installations located mostly in outdoor public spaces, such as sidewalks or underused lots, vary in size and scope and include murals, playing structures, exploration gardens and parks.
With a $65,000 grant, the Nationalities Service Center will transform its bland lobby into a kidsized town center. The town will have a library, a market, a computer lab, an “Alphabet Alley” and a “Counting Court.” There will even be a town clock. All of it will come with colorful signage in multiple languages and multicultural elements.
“Not only will it be a great way to engage kids and engage caregivers with their kids in playful learning, but it’ll also look beautiful,” said Soffer. “We’ll honor the languages and the traditions of our clients, but also have this opportunity to build English literacy while they’re waiting.”
The coronavirus pandemic has intensified the need for kid-centric public spaces, especially after the closure of schools and daycares. About half of the child care centers in the country might be lost because of the pandemic, researchers say.
Meanwhile, access to play is already uneven in the city, with schools in poorer areas less likely to offer playgrounds.
“We know through decades of research that kids learn through play and that their early learning has tremendous impacts on their trajectory throughout their life,” said Jenny DeMarco, Kaboom!’s senior partnership manager of foundations and initiatives. “And we also know that there’s a big equity gap in terms of educational outcomes in Philly.
All 16 projects are slated for completion by October 2021, right on time to celebrate the Nationalities Service Center’s 100th year.
Bringing equity to Philly’s play spaces
Play Everywhere Philly is part of Kaboom!’s nationwide Play Everywhere initiative, which brings play opportunities to places that kids and families use every day — the bus stop, the grocery store, the laundromat and the sidewalk. All 16 Philly projects center the needs of low-income communities. The project marks a first experimentation with new educational elements through a partnership with the local organization Playful Learning Landscape.
Play isn’t just about getting wiggles out, research shows. It “means brain-building activities, having these caregiver-child interaction moments, that means developing their physical, and social, and psychological muscles that they’ll be able to pull on for their entire lives.” DeMarco said.
While Philadelphia ranks highly among U.S. cities for park access, the opportunities for play vary greatly depending on zip code. Yue Wu, neighborhood planning and project manager at the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, said kids in her neighborhood don’t have many safe options. That’s why the group applied for Play Everywhere funds to transform the 10th Street plaza, which crosses the Vine Street Expressway, into a “PlayZa.”
“Chinatown is the only minority, low-income neighborhood in Center City and residents are living in a very dense, urban condition,” Wu said. “The closest playground is in Franklin Square, but it’s very dangerous to get to Franklin Square. The kids need to cross several intersections where the crosswalk is in the state of disrepair and the traffic on the street is very fast.”
The pandemic has made the lack of open space in the neighborhoods especially urgent as families seek outdoor spaces where they can enjoy fresh air in a safe, socially distant environment, said Wu.
Play Everywhere Philly awarded the PCDC with a $70,000 grant to install maps, interactive learning panels and Chinese games in the plaza, with English, Mandarin and Cantonese translations. The idea is to include elements for children and parents to discuss their history and culture, connect to the neighborhood and foster cultural identities through safe play.
Those criteria included the strength of the learning opportunity presented by the play installation; feasibility, which included conversations with city government about permits and the play value — the ability to “spark joy” and engage with kids and caregivers. Another factor: the population served by each installation.
“We originally came up with a list of target neighborhoods based on an equity lens of places that have experienced historic disinvestment, where the highest need is across the city,” DeMarco said. “And we ensured that we targeted outreach in those areas.”
The grant covers the costs of building the installation as well as the community-driven design process that will further define plans.
Philly’s first ‘traffic park’
One of the first Play Everywhere projects in Philly will be a traffic park, a place where children and adults can safely learn how to ride bikes and the rules of the road.
The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, which created the project, wants to open it in North Philly’s Hunting Park on May 21 — National Bike to Work Day.
“This would be the first of its kind in the region, and so we thought it would be really a great thing for us to shoot for,” said Stephanie Fenniri, BCGP’s deputy director.
Hunting Park residents, who are mostly Latino and Black, are statistically more likely to struggle with health problems and adults are more likely to live sedentary lifestyles, according to city public health data. The neighborhood itself struggles with outdated road infrastructure that has contributed to dangerous traffic conditions. Several main thoroughfares are in the city’s Vision Zero High Injury Network, the 12% of Philadelphia streets responsible for 50% of all traffic deaths and severe injuries.
Fenniri said lower-income Philadelphians, especially those living in areas like Hunting Park shaped by discriminatory lending and planning, have a hard time finding places to learn street safety. The “Lil’ Philly Safety Village” wants to change that with a kid-sized, colorful park with roads, traffic lights, intersections, pedestrian crossings and bike lanes.
“With the pandemic, we found that there’s a huge bike boom, and that people are using bikes more than ever in order to get to work and also for recreational purposes,” Fenniri said. “It’s a great way to get outside, to stretch your legs, and it has a huge mental health benefit. And we’re hoping that we can encourage it not only for people to get out onto trails and all the roads during this time, but that we’re able to also pass this gift on to future generations.”
The project was awarded $60,000, which will pay more than half of the total cost of the project budgeted at $110,000.
Disclosure: WHYY receives support from the William Penn Foundation.