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Learning Landscapes

Learning Landscapes transforms cities into opportunities for playful learning.

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Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

Mentorship feedback helped us better articulate our action plan, express our key priorities moving forward, and clarify our messaging. Our emphasis on the learning science and research that underlies our work is now accompanied by a specific action plan that makes more clear how we hope to have impact. We now chart three goals, 1) implementing and testing new Learning Landscapes installments; 2) developing an evaluation plan that captures community-level impacts of having multiple Learning Landscapes installments in the same neighborhood; and 3) creating a Learning Landscapes "hub" at the Brookings Institution where we will develop and share the process principles and products (designs and implementation strategies) that have been developed for the project. The mentor also suggested that we be more clear about the partnerships that we have developed. We now mention our high level steering committee at the Brookings Institution that includes Gregg Behr who rallied the community to morph Pittsburgh into Kidsburgh and Jackie Bezos who brought us VROOM. We also talk about our city-wide and neighborhood partnerships and our scaling experts from Brookings and from New Profit. We also mention our dissemination efforts around the creation of our "playbook" or guidebook, our toolkits for Learning Landscapes and the hub that we hope to create to share materials with other cities. We also added scientific papers and media to our portfolio.

Name or Organization

Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, Professor and Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Distinguished Faculty Fellow, Dept of Psychology, Temple University; Senior Fellow, Center for Universal Education, Brookings Inst. Partners Brenna Hassinger-Das, Assistant Professor, Dept of Psychology, Pace University Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Chair, School of Ed., University of Delaware Rebecca Winthrop, Director, Center for Universal Education, Brookings Inst. And others unable to list due to space


United States ● Philadelphia, PA ● Chicago, IL ● Pittsburgh, PA South Africa Switzerland

What is your stage of development?

  • Advanced Innovator with 3 to 10+ years of experience in ECD


  • University

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

By 2050, over 70% of the world’s children will live in cities. With less opportunity to read or play spatial/math games with caregivers, children from under-resourced neighborhoods enter school far behind their more affluent peers. In this context, public spaces hold immense potential to provide learning opportunities from infancy onward. Enter Learning Landscapes, an innovative project where city rejuvenation meets early education. By demonstrating the power of infusing learning into public spaces, we make a compelling case for cities to integrate these installments into their normal budgets.

Select an Innovation Target

  • System design: Solutions that target changing larger systems.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

Families in under-resourced communities cannot easily access high-quality enrichment opportunities. Children from these families have few opportunities to read with a caregiver or to play spatial/math games and are already behind academically by the age of 3 - a trajectory that will extend throughout their school years. At the same time, existing urban public spaces are often underutilized. More needs to be done to put these spaces to work for young children in these communities and their families. Learning Landscapes offers a combination of architecture and learning science that meets families where they live by embedding playful learning into daily life. By creating installations targeted at under-resourced communities, Learning Landscapes fosters family and neighborhood cohesion. It does so through placemaking that creates community investment in the process of reimagining neighborhoods as places for playful learning. It further recruits the neighbors themselves as co-creators in the playful learning experiences. Playful learning combines the enjoyable nature of play with specific learning goals. Consistent with existing efforts like Urban95, Learning Landscapes extends this work into public spaces by enhancing civic and family engagement. Adding the science of learning to the "conscious city" movement we develop new public resources that are responsive to the neighborhood and to needs of citizens at large.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Children from low-income families hear 30-million fewer words by kindergarten than their high-income peers, a fact that results in fewer opportunities to engage in stimulating language, preliteracy, spatial and mathematical experiences. This, in turn leads to a persistent achievement gap. Learning Landscapes sparks opportunities for playful learning in the everyday places where children and families spend their time. It enhances social interactions, language and academic outcomes.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

Funds from the Early Childhood Innovation Prize will be used for three main purposes: 1) Implementing and testing new Learning Landscapes installments; 2) Developing an evaluation plan that captures community-level impacts of having multiple Learning Landscapes installments in the same neighborhood; and 3) Creating a "hub" at the Brookings Institution where where we will develop and share the process principles and products (designs and implementation strategies) that have been developed for Learning Landscapes. Our team has conducted several Learning Landscapes pilot projects with great success with several more underway. First, we displayed the science of learning in 28 activities in Central Park to help people understand the links between play and learning (Grob et al., 2017). Over 50,000 diverse people attended the event with impact to over 10.2 million people. This was replicated in Toronto and Baltimore. Second, Supermarket Speak added attractive signage that transformed supermarkets into children’s museums and used everyday environments as springboards for prompting caregiver-child conversations. Ridge et al., (2015) noted a 33% jump in language interactions in low-income neighborhoods. This intervention is being replicated in South Africa and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Third, Urban Thinkscape infused a bus stop with learning science in the under-resourced Belmont neighborhood of Philadelphia with projects supporting STEM and literacy. Measurable impacts of Urban Thinkscape include: 1) Families will interact and be more engaged with the public space; 2) Caregiver-child discourse around public spaces will be increased; and 3) Families will understand and change attitudes regarding links between play and learning. Neighbors from the Belmont Civic Association are co-creators and co-owners of this project and are taking part in the evaluation spawning job training and income. The Innovation Prize funds would support us in implementing two new Learning Landscapes projects. The first, Parkopolis, is a life-sized playful learning board game that targets STEM and scientific reasoning. This project will be tested in partnership with the Philadelphia children's museum (Please Touch). The second offers a novel way to re-imagine hospital waiting rooms by engaging playful learning activities. In partnership with The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, we hope to use waiting time as fun learning time. The second goal we will pursue with the Innovation Prize funds is in devising a plan for evaluating community-level effects of a neighborhood saturated with Learning Landscapes. In partnership with economists at the Brookings Institution, we will determine a strategy for both scaling effective neighborhood-level interventions within and across cities and for evaluating community-wide change in attitudes and behaviors. The economists are already on board and though the funding will not be enough to implement the plan, there is great need to develop the survey so that we are implementation ready. Our third and final goal will be to create a "hub" for Learning Landscapes at the Brookings Institution. Our colleagues at Brookings are leading experts in communication and in policy. With their assistance, we will develop a web-based hub for sharing the principles that go into Learning Landscapes, for sharing the designs themselves and for documenting and sharing progress in our initiative. Brookings also has expertise in projects that are developed within metropolitan areas and is committed to spreading the word about this project. Importantly, this hub will enable other cities to tailor non-essential components to meet the needs of local cultures, children, and families. This will maximize the chance that Learning Landscapes can be disseminated broadly while maintaining effectiveness. This hub will also host examples of Learning Landscapes in other communities. We anticipate global impact from these ideas. The Innovation Prize funds will be a part of this larger initiative and allow us to implement, evaluate, and disseminate these powerful early childhood interventions. Learning Landscapes can empower communities to take the lead in revitalizing their neighborhoods while infusing them with playful learning opportunities that can have profound implications for children and families. By shifting the power to the community, Learning Landscapes instills a sense of ownership and pride in the projects which greatly increases how much they value and care for their neighborhood while also impacting parent behavior and attitudes towards learning.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Young children, families, and the neighborhoods in which they live are the main beneficiaries. Using the city as the agent of change, we engage citizens through opportunities for playful learning that are strategically embedded within daily living environments. With the ultimate goal of improving and expanding learning skills, Learning Landscapes rigorously examines its effects to ensure that goals are met. An additional benefit is community revitalization and reinvigorated public spaces. This project also allows different stakeholders (e.g., scientists, architects, community advocates, and policy makers) who often do their work in separate arenas to unite under an umbrella with at least one common set of goals around narrowing the achievement gap. Our data suggest that each of the individual projects has the intended impact of creating changes in parental attitudes and behaviors. We have developed a set of principals for community based participatory research in which we co-create the installations with the community. We have a strong record of success of working with community leaders and city planers to effectuate our idea. To date (see video on Urban Thinkscape), the neighbors have celebrated our partnerships and have taken ownership of the projects. This response is consistent with the many projects that we have initiated in under served areas with the neighbors who live these areas.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

With a dearth of educational and social resources, urban neighborhoods face an opportunity gap. Fostering neighborhood civic engagement in local, safe, and familiar places has the potential to improve quality of life. Learning Landscapes retrofits cityscapes to change parental attitudes, behavior, and child learning. By adding onto everyday public spaces and redesigning common objects (e.g., streetlights), families start moving, talking, and thinking about language, literacy, mathematics, and science. This presents a new platform for informal learning. Replicable in cities worldwide, Learning Landscapes promotes dialogue and interaction in public spaces and empowers community partners as they become champions and owners of the installments. For example, Bettye Ferguson--head of the Belmont Civic Association and West Philadelphia native --took a leadership role in the Urban Thinkscape project and represented us through her lecture at Harvard University that spoke to how Universities can work with community partners to affect positive outcomes for children. In this way, community members become experts, providing a voice for their community. Another welcome impact is seen through a quote by one of the neighbors who said, "we wanted a reason for our kids to come into the neighborhood rather than to flee it." She added, "we wanted safe spaces for families."

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

To date we have proof of concept that Learning Landscapes installments can promote learning and interactions among toddlers, preschoolers, and their families from low-income communities, instilling community pride and civic engagement. What remains unknown is whether there is any collective impact beyond individual installations. We see changes in adult attitudes and behaviors with young children within the installations, but we do not know if these newly established behaviors transfer outside of our installations, nor how many of the installations it will take to shift attitudes and behaviors of caregivers. Thus, our next step is to combine these projects to create a “playful learning city” and to test for a tipping point where we are able to change the way people view their role in educating young children. We hypothesize that Learning Landscapes will engender neighborhood-level effects, including knowledge of how young children learn best, the importance of play for learning, and the potential for public spaces to make a difference in children’s outcomes. This type of community-level change makes the case to embed Learning Landscapes into city-budgets, providing a scalable way to invest in city revitalization and in children who will become productive citizens of the 21st century. We will leverage this analytic approach with survey specialists and economists who are experts in capturing community learning and understanding.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

City revitalization is a key movement that is sweeping the globe. Conferences on global cities are omnipresent. Early childhood is also a relatively new priority around the world with international interest from the UN and from the World Bank. Learning Landscapes is the only initiative that melds these two movements. Lying at the intersection of city growth and 0-to-5, Learning Landscapes hopes to invigorate learning in public spaces. There are initiatives designed to bring play into city environments that are as diverse as Rotterdam in the Netherlands, to New York and Pittsburgh in the US. Learning Landscapes adds another dimension to these projects by using the science of learning as a foundation for implanting learning potential in public arenas. Since children of all ages spend only 20% of their waking time in school, it is imperative that we address what we call the "other 80%." Learning Landscapes is a novel idea that occupies this space. Cities around the world are thriving in many sectors, yet many continue to struggle with early education and opportunities for children and families. These cities in particular are well positioned to demonstrate and profit from the concept of “Learning Landscapes”—designed to improve children’s learning by transforming everyday spaces into opportunities for playful learning. The challenge is to unite these efforts around initiatives that are systemic, organic, and supportive of learning in both formal and informal environments, creating a “surround sound” learning experience that amplifies and connects diverse efforts. With early childhood research indicating the link between various playful learning approaches and increased skill development, our innovative approach transforms cities into a holistic agent of change to improve young children’s learning. This initiative is different than anything that currently exists on the landscape of early childhood education. While some have thought about the power of cities as a platforms for play (e.g., Kaboom), Learning Landscapes adds the element of learning potential to these installations with the backing of and sound testing of the science behind the learning. Learning Landscapes is also innovative in that it only requires philanthropic dollars once. Each of the installments, once tested, can be replicated and folded naturally into city budgets. Cities have to build sidewalks and bus stops. Budget lines are already in place for these items and our designs can be easily fitted into these existing budgets. With our partners at the Brookings Institution, we will be reaching across department lines to include those who work with city change to bring Learning Landscapes to mayors and city counsels. Another innovative aspect of Learning Landscapes is that it is purely glocal in that the principles for developing the models offer the science with wide variation in how one can implement the science. By way of example, Urban Thinkscape was designed to use puzzles at the back of bus stop benches to enhance STEM learning. The choice of the puzzles and even the look of the puzzles required input from the community. Learning Landscapes is also innovative in giving community voice to the neighbors who are impacted by the installations. They not only give input, but are fully engaged partners in the creation of the designs, choice of spaces and choice of installations. For example, over 100 community members helped in the build of Urban Thinkscape and community neighbors are the data ambassadors who were trained to collect data at the site. Learning Landscapes is also novel in the way it leverages long-standing theories of public health in educational interventions. Rose's Theorem holds that light touch interventions that reach a wide audience have greater impact than do high dosage interventions administered to a small number of high-risk individuals. Public health prioritizes programs that are easy to disseminate, affordable, and replicable. A common example is installing exercise equipment in public parks. They are free to use, inexpensive, require no staff or supervision, and are easy to disseminate to parks around the world. Learning Landscapes embodies this public health approach by providing playful learning opportunities in the places and spaces where children and families already spend their time. The installments are easy to use, free to access, and require no staffing or supervision. In short, community public spaces are underutilized and have enormous potential for invigorating neighborhoods and for building learning potential among the youngest citizens. It is somewhat surprising that we have not cultivated these opportunities before. But, we have reason to believe that Learning Landscapes is indeed innovative at its core.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Learning Landscapes has potential to reach end-users around the globe. By 2050, 70% of the world’s children will live in cities. Targeting urban public spaces to promote playful learning meets toddlers, children, and families where they are. Learning Landscapes also allow cities to customize installments to meet the needs of their local population (language, cultural, educational, or other). Cities and urban economies should see educational gains and substantial economic returns on investments in Learning Landscapes in the form of a workforce prepared for the challenging, work environments of the 21st century and community cohesion that should lead to neighborhood pride. With clear data on the feasibility and impact of these projects, we can make a compelling argument to cities to integrate Learning Landscapes into their typical design, operating, and construction budgets for parks and public spaces, resulting in a sustainable and scalable model that can provide sufficient density. Our partners at The Brookings Institution and New Profit will play key roles in this process as world leaders on scaling educational initiatives. With their help, we will develop a "playbook" for guiding other cities and sharing successful designs so that all interested can implement Learning Landscapes in ways that should engender strong outcomes.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

We have three goals for this project, each of which is imminently feasible. We aim to 1) implement and testing new Learning Landscapes installments; 2) develop an evaluation plan that captures community-level impacts of having multiple Learning Landscapes installments in the same neighborhood; and 3) create a Learning Landscapes "hub" at the Brookings Institution where we will develop and share the process principles and products (designs and implementation strategies) that have been developed for the project. 1) We are already in the process of developing new installments that will be tested for proof of concept. It is important to have a range of possible installments that are well tested so that we can achieve the dose response necessary in a neighborhood. Two projects are currently in the test phase -- Urban Thinkscape and Playbraries. The first (see video) transformed a public bus stop into a Learning Landscape installation. The second, reformed three neighborhood branches of the public library into spaces that have puzzle chairs and a wall for science experiments. Preliminary data is promising. Two projects are under development: Parkopolis, the life sized human board game that will be tested at the Philadelphia children's museum, and the Children's Hospital Waiting Room project. The first is designed to inspire STEM learning with dice that support the learning of fractions. This will be in pilot testing by April of 2018. The second is in the design process with the community and posed the interesting de. 2) The evaluation team, partnering with Brookings and with Harvard University's Frontiers of Innovation will consist of social scientists and economist who are experts in survey design who will help to develop a plan for measuring neighborhood impact. 3) Brookings has already agreed to amass all of the information, designs and manuals and to form a web-based hub that will allow us to best disseminate information for those interested. Their communications team will also lead the effort to share information through blogs and policy reports to educators, policy makers and city administrators. The Brookings team, in concert with a team from New Profit -- a philanthropic group out of Boston-- will also be central to plans for scaling Learning Landscape and for working through a plan so that as we roll out the implementation, we do so with fidelity to the scientific learning principles. We have developed the partnerships and expertise that should allow us to move forward in our plan to move from a proof of concept to evaluation and scaling and dissemination. We have recruited the top talent in each area and have even witnessed some of the scaling as the idea has fertilized in communities like Chicago and Seattle. With proper funding to develop the strategic plans, we should be ready to move forward on all fronts with few challenges.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)

Our model builds playful learning opportunities into urban spaces and holds great promise for business viability. The ultimate goal of Learning Landscapes is to demonstrate a proof of concept that each individual installment creates opportunities for learning and interaction, and that the combination of a cluster of installments in a single neighborhood results in community-level change in caregivers’ attitudes toward play and learning, and the role of public spaces in educating children during the 80 percent of time they spend outside of school. With this evidence, we can make a compelling argument to finance Learning Landscapes with public resources already allocated to renovating city resources such as public parks, libraries, community and recreation centers. Thus, sustainable funding for these projects could ultimately come from city government sources, including Parks and Recreation departments, City Transportation departments, School Districts, and other sources. By demonstrating the educational value of these public fixtures, we offer cities an opportunity to allocate existing funds in a way that intentionally targets learning outcomes for children and families, and revitalizes public spaces foster community pride and civic-engagement. This is a unique strength of the Learning Landscapes initiative, in that it only requires philanthropic dollars once to demonstrate efficacy to city officials, at which point it can be completely sustained through existing budget channels. However, Learning Landscapes also has tremendous appeal to private investors. The installations are beautiful and prominently displayed in the public eye. For example, our supermarket language intervention enhanced parent-child interaction, with children asking more questions and families exploring more food items together with large, visually attractive signs. If supermarkets received a "playful learning seal of approval" or a similar designation, this is likely to increase business to the supermarkets employing this design. Similarly, laundromats, drugstores, and other high traffic locations that incorporated playful learning and were seen by families as places their children could play and learn while carrying out everyday tasks would also likely gain business. Cities that achieve sufficient density to become known as "playful learning cities" may also enjoy increases in tourism as well as in use and engagement with public parks, libraries, and playgrounds. Because the next generation of workers will require the ability to think critically, create new technology, and solve problems in novel ways, supporting playful learning is a valuable investment from the standpoint of workforce development and entrepreneurial innovation. We aim to develop a "menu" of playful learning installation options with typical associated costs and logistics for implementation that individuals, policy makers, or organizations could refer to when expanding playful learning in their localities. Our partners at the Brookings Institution vastly increase the viability of spreading these ideas, as they are world leaders in communications and their hosting of the Learning Landscapes hub will ensure that the ideas and materials are disseminated on a global scale. An additional goal is to generate a Learning Landscapes "consulting arm" that can be hired by cities that want to partake in the initiative. This arm will advise interested partners on fostering genuine community partnerships, designing installations that meet the needs of each cities’ citizens, and capturing effects to justify continued monetary investment. Through this consulting arm, we will ensure that the overall vision for the Learning Landscapes initiative remains intact through multiple iterations, while also leaving room for individual locations to dream big and add their own stamp to the initiative. In these ways, the Learning Landscapes initiative is primed for organizational and financial success.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)

(Video option above not working. Here is the link to our video: Human-Centered Design has been at the heart of our approach to developing Learning Landscapes. We have designed the installations based on the most cutting-edge evidence on cognitive development, included users in the design process, and collected observational data based on user experience and outcomes. Therefore, HCD has been integral to our approach and the viability of our interventions.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

1. Where did your idea come from? What was your inspiration? As researchers who study the science of learning, we saw missed opportunities where children from underserved environments could profit from more and higher quality learning environments. Putting the evidence to work within underused cityscapes seemed like a natural extension of our findings and sparked a paradigm shift in how we envisioned ways to move the needle forward for toddlers and young children who are often behind upon entering preschool at age 3. While most of the emphasis in closing achievement and school-readiness gaps has been placed on schools, the fact that children only spend 20% of their waking hours in school, and that young children spend even less, has inspired us to begin transforming the communities and public spaces in which they spend the other 80% of their time. 2. What excites you about working in the early childhood space? We were working in this space before it was popular to do so. Young children and their families offer infinite potential for what our society will be like in 40 years. If we can find ways to give every child a real chance for success and we can do so without extinguishing the fire or curiosity that lives in a young child’s eyes and heart, then anything is possible. We believe that children’s early years are critical to their growth as playful, creative, flexible thinkers who can learn more than just academic content - they can get a lifelong love of learning and how to contribute to making their society better. 3. Tell us about your experience more broadly. If you have relevant experience in the early childhood field, we’d love to learn more about this, too. A mother of three sons, I bring not only practical but also professional experience to this initiative. I love children and know that they are our nation’s greatest resource. As an author, I have published 14 books, several of which won awards, most of which were translated into multiple languages and a recent book that reached the New York Times best seller’s list (Becoming Brilliant, 2016). As a professor, I am well known for over 200 professional papers in the areas of language learning, literacy, STEM and playful learning. As a scientist, I have won lifetime achievement awards from every major organization serving research on young children. As a mentor, I have graduated doctoral students and postdoctoral students who have the energy a vision to do the science and to make the world a better place. They have been rewarded with faculty and research positions around the globe. There is growing consensus about what works to help children grow and develop as social, thinking and caring adults. It is time to put the evidence to work.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

Our diverse team has a variety of backgrounds and we are well prepared to tackle this challenge. We have leading experts in child development and education (Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff), experts in community-based research (Hassinger-Das), architectural designers (Palti) who are leading the charge in developing conscious cities intended for play and learning, experts in scaling and dissemination (Winthrop), community partners, and liaisons to the global community. Our interdisciplinary team is ready to come together to reach a common goal—to prepare children for success in a 21st century society.

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

We have developed a strong network of experts from the team of experts in the academy to the scaling experts and policy scholars at Brookings and New Profit to the community leaders in the cities interested in participating. Our idea is a big one, and even with our strong network we know it can be stronger. We welcome those in evaluation who have a sense of how one might study community wide change. We would like to partner with others who can help us write up the project for lay people, who can best communicate through video and other social media. We desperately need help in infrastructure as we are a small team with long arms, but it means that each of us is carrying a disproportionate load. And we have little business acumen but recognize that we need to develop a non-profit that will serve as a consulting arm so that we can help cities carry out the projects when they express interest. We look forward to bringing different expertise under the tent and to learning as much form others as we can so that this project spreads and is sustainable. Thank you for asking.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)

We would benefit from review by additional experts in scaling and/or assessing effects of large-scale projects. We are open to feedback and suggestions for refinement!

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek is the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Distinguished Faculty Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University and is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Personal website: Lab website: Twitter: @KathyandRo1

[Optional] Attachments: Please upload relevant attachments or graphics or show us how you prototyped.

These images show the pilot test of Urban Thinkscape in the Belmont neighborhood of Philadelphia and the supermarket project in Dunoon, South Africa.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Ira Kassiel

Hi Kathy,
I love that your idea is really focused on children in cities, who often lack designated public spaces outside to learn and develop. It'd be great to see learning spaces like that be integrated at schools!

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