Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek is the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her research examines the development of early language and literacy as well as the role of play in learning. Her recent book, Becoming Brilliant: What the Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, released in 2016, was on the New York Times Best Seller list in Education and Parenting. Hirsh-Pasek received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and is a frequent spokesperson for her field, appearing in the New York Times, on NPR, and on international television outlets. She is also the founder of Playful Learning Landscapes, a project that aims to transform everyday places into learning opportunities for children.
How did your education and previous professional experience shape your current work with Playful Learning Landscapes?
I have studied early childhood education for decades. I try to optimize environments for young children so they have an opportunity to shine. All of the energy in our field has been spent on enhancing the classroom as a way of enhancing development. There has also been tremendous work done with parents. Yet, we have not really moved the needle with respect to enhancing development for all children. I realized that there was a hole that we had not yet considered: the community. It turns out that children are only in school 20% of their waking time. What are we doing with the other 80% of the waking time? That led us to ask: how might we shape out-of-home and out-of-school environments in ways that optimize opportunities for all to grow?
What has been the response to Urban Thinkscape from children who have engaged in the playground?
We do not think of Playful Learning Landscapes as building playgrounds. There are many people who build playgrounds and will build them better than we can. We are adding research from the science of learning into the architectural design of everyday spaces like bus stops, supermarkets, or parks, challenging ourselves to imagine everyday spaces in a new way. We are just starting to work with hospital waiting rooms, and we’re working in Seattle to see whether we can apply some of these ideas to sidewalks and create safe sidewalks to school. We are also working with people in New York to see if we can completely change our image of what low-income housing looks like. We don’t view this as building better playgrounds, we view it as building a better public spaces.
The response has been unbelievable and more than we would have ever expected. The data show us that playful installations that exercise the mind can work! In the same way that you put gym equipment in a park, you can put mental gymnastics out in public spaces. We have now seen better results than most interventions in the world. At the city level, there has been a lot of interest in using the kind of design and ideas we are playing with. People are ecstatic and want to be part of it. A number of my colleagues have joined in to help create the designs.
What are some broad trends you think will have an impact on learning in the years ahead?
I think there are many broad trends that will impact learning. First, there is a big initiative to make sure that we don’t just have access to childcare but that the childcare we have is of high quality. This is critically important. The second thing is a big push for zero to three as an age group of interest. There are just not enough programs to date for very young children–or programs that can support young parents. People understand the power of home visiting and the power of coaching parents, and I think we have begun to move the needle. I also think it’s time to make playful learning a part of every city structure. Not in a teachy preachy way, but by creating powerful experiences for all kids and their families so that, again, everyone has the opportunity to become a vibrant part of their society today and in the future.
What are the future plans for Urban Thinkscape?
Urban Thinkscape is just one project that is part of a larger initiative called Learning Landscapes. On our website, you will see that we have a number of videos so that people can actually see what we have constructed. My dream is that all cities should have kid-friendly places. There are places where kids and families can go, congregate, and spend time stretching their mental muscles with other families and kids. I think it would be amazing if all cities could construct beautiful, meaningful spaces that would allow families to be active and enrich their everyday experiences. Cities already pay for sidewalks and bus stops. We are only asking that we change the design of these spaces to energize the families who use them.
What are some of the most interesting people you follow on Twitter?
What a great question. I follow a lot of thought leaders who are working in the area of education. People like Dan Pink and Dan Willingham. I am just realizing they are all called Dans, but I think there are some really wonderful people out there. I like to think we have put good stuff on Twitter too. I have a term that I use all the time–that I love. It’s called edible science and is part of the Twittersphere. It will be really fun to create more edible science that’s accessible, digestible, and usable.
Image: Courtesy Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek