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Research: Urban Thinkscape

News Story

By applying unorthodox uses to regular spaces, Dyson Assistant Professor Brenna Hassinger-Das is reshaping the way children and parents experience educational opportunities.

Cities are in a constant state of flux. From Pittsburgh to Pensacola, each passing week sees the construction of new buildings, parks, roads, and bridges—ultimately creating an organism whose infinite uses and functionalities are always evolving.

Understanding the dynamics of the urban landscape, Pace Assistant Professor of Psychology Brenna Hassinger-Das, PhD, wondered what would happen if public spaces were transformed to something that was at once recognizable and familiar, but also provided a tangible educational benefit to children. Thus, the idea for Urban Thinkscape was born.

“The idea originally came about three years ago. This project is in collaboration with my post-doctoral mentor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek at Temple University. We’d be thinking about ways to address kids learning in nontraditional settings.”

As Hassinger-Das explained, one of the primary motivations for the project was the simple fact that children only spend approximately 20% of their waking time in school—meaning that there’s another 80% of time that isn’t accounted for in terms of childhood educational development. The goal of Urban Thinkscape was to tackle the other 80%—the time children spend playing, interacting socially, and developing into a young member of their community.

Hassinger-Das and Hirsh-Pasek had done quite a bit of research on applying learning into the community setting, and decided to put their idea into action. After receiving a grant from the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, they began to work with community members in West Philadelphia to devise and select an ideal location for a community-minded learning installation—the initial thought was something akin to a public children museum, which later morphed into a setting that would encourage playful interaction and learning.

After a thorough discussion with the Belmont Alliance Civic Association and community input, they ultimately decided on a site in the Belmont section of West Philadelphia. The pilot site—which was selected in part due to its strategic location adjacent to a bus stop—was launched in October 2017. Taking the form of an educational playground, the Thinkscape features four concepts that focus on an aspect of child learning related to a particular content area.

“There’s the Puzzle Wall, which focuses on spatial skills, a hopscotch called Jumping Feet, which relates to patterns and executive function, Hidden Figures, which has some objects hidden in a metalwork structure, and Stories, which helps develop narrative skills and encourages physical activity.”

Although Urban Thinkscape’s primary target is children, its goal is to also spur conversation among participants of all ages.

“We also want to get parents and kids talking to each around these installations, and using the public space in a different way than it was used before. Before it was this bus stop with an adjacent lot, with not much going on.”

While Hassinger-Das is still compiling much of the research for the data analysis portion of the project, she notes that there is certainly an increased and distinct manner in which the space is being utilized as compared to the months prior to the launch. Additionally, her team is analyzing how Urban Thinkspace compares to a more traditional playground—which will help them continuously evaluate and improve the designs in the coming years.

Given that Urban Thinkspace is a community development project, Hassinger-Das stresses the importance of community involvement and ownership.

“A lot of times, projects just come in, come out, and community members don’t know what’s going on or don’t have any involvement. We hired several community members to be data engagement ambassadors,” says Hassinger Das.“We really see it as a space that has community ownership, and is something that people in the area feel a part of, because they’ve been involved from the very start.”

While the initiative has been a success thus far, Hassinger-Das sees room for continual improvement. Currently, she’s working with the Belmont Alliance Civic Association to potentially introduce sponsored and community-minded event programming, which would add yet another layer to its positive functionality.

Ultimately, Hassinger-Das hopes to extend the ideas behind Urban Thinkscape into areas frequented by the general public, and figure out how to further optimize under-utilized spaces.

“Urban Thinkscape is part of an umbrella called Learning Landscapes—there are other projects we’re working on. We worked with a team putting playspaces into libraries, we’ve done some work in supermarkets, to see how we can transform these everyday spaces and encourage parents and kids to talk to each other more in them.”

The next time you’re on a busy street corner or perhaps strolling through the park, just remember—you may very well be sitting on an educational gold mine.