Whitman: Library Play Spaces Bring Active Learning Across the City

Upon entering the Whitman Free Library at 2nd and South Philip streets, it is impossible not to notice the wooden tower stacked to the ceiling in the center of the children’s section. At first glance, a structure like this may seem out of place in a library, but the play space is a staple for the kids who enter daily.

The Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia architecture firm DIGSAU, the Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse and Studio Ludo all came together between 2015 and 2017 to bring play spaces into Philadelphia libraries, with the Wyoming, Cecil B Moore, and Whitman branches now all sporting play equipment for kids.

“The thing that the three libraries had in common were very engaged communities that  would use these libraries and buildings that hadn’t been renovated in awhile,” said DIGSAU principal and founding partner Jeff Goldstein.

Joel Nichols, a data strategy and evaluation administrator, was part of the original group at the Free Library that came up with the idea for the play space project. After attending a conference, he and his team were impressed with the architecture of the play spaces they saw. The team proposed bringing similar play spaces to Philadelphia.

“We had this opportunity from the William Penn Foundation to propose a relatively large project of a three-year-long grant project to them,” Nichols said. “Internally, we came together and we proposed that we would transform these three libraries kids areas into areas and spaces that have playful opportunities.”

Nichols worked closely with children from the chosen branches and asked them to share their ideas for the possible play spaces. Their imagination led the design process.

“We had kids draw what they would want to see in a play experience in a library,” Nichols said. “We gave the parents a survey and we had the kids sort of fill out a Mad Libs prompt.”

Meghan Talarowski, founder and director of Studio Ludo, was impressed with the the children’s ability to articulate what they wanted in their libraries.

“The kids were so easily able to explain what they needed, to draw what they needed, to build what they needed and they conveyed what they needed really, really well,” Talarowski said. “I was really impressed with that and we provided a lot of different types of coloring sheets and storyboarding and different ways that they could share with us what they needed, so it wasn’t that hard as designers for us to develop that.”

Along with gaining insight from children’s perspectives, one of the main goals in the development of the play spaces was getting the input of members of the community about what they wanted their library to look like.

“Some people have still been like, ‘There’s a what in the library?’” Nichols said. “But, libraries aren’t really that quiet anymore, as much as people think they should be.”

Kate Zimich, director of community programs & fun at the Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse, was asked by DIGSAU and Studio Ludo to help with the project’s community engagement, design and construction.

“During the engagement process we pushed the librarians to test what they would be comfortable with,” Zimich said.

One of Zimich and the team’s tests was having kids paint on a huge plastic sheet.

“We did that on purpose just to see how comfortable they were, see their limits and see how the kids negotiated it themselves to see how they self-manage,” Zimich said.

Although working with the kids was effortless, Nichols and Zimich did have to convince skeptics that there is legitimate learning that can be done through play.

“No one has to convince a 3-year-old, or 6-year-old or even a 10-year-old that they can play in the library,” Nichols said. “So, for most kids who understand how little kids learn and understand that the work of a child is play. And the way that kids first start to learn about the world is play and the way they talk can be through play, those people got it.”

Some librarians compared the play spaces to a playground, which led Zimich to host design sessions with community members for them to build their own prototypes to see for themselves the influence play spaces have on kids’ learning.

For many families, the libraries are the “number one after-care provider,” Zimich said. These play spaces allow students to move and learn freely after they’ve been constricted in school for hours. Families were also engaged in the design process, such as coloring prototypes, to prove to parents that libraries don’t have to always be traditional in order for kids to be productive.

“We got some cool feedback from parents where they felt like the library was a really good place for their kids,” Zimich said. “One of the parents talked about how the library was a space for their kids to dream and think about stories.”

Talarowski thinks one of the best results to come out of the play space projects has been that these spaces have attracted more people to the library, with book checkouts doubled by some metrics.

“Maybe they came for the play,” Talarowski said. “But they stuck around and they started reading.”

The process was a big undertaking that required cooperation from multiple entities and Talarowski was impressed just how well everyone worked together.

“It was such a collaborative effort,” Talarowski said. “And we need the library to say yes to a climbing wall, which is a big deal. We needed them to say yes to play and play outside of the box.”

At every branch where the play spaces are present, the staff design programs and activities around these spaces.

“My biggest take-away is that I wish we could continue to support the staff because they’re the ones that do the work,” he said.

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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