Visitors to the Sister Cities Café and the Sister Cities Park, located at 210 N. 18th St., might find the usually-sleepy spot a little more crowded this summer.
The city park, which is adjacent to the 10-geyser Franklin Square fountain, the Children’s Discovery Garden, and a toy-boat pond, which is usually filled with splashing children instead of boats, is the summer home to the Parkway Pals. The program brings staff from organizations like the Free Library, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Fabric Workshop and Museum, the Franklin Institute, and the Academy of Natural Sciences to the park to host free interactive, educational activities every Monday through Wednesday, between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., until August 21.
“The Center City District (CCD) took on Sister Cities in 2012,” said Krissy Kaighn, manager of marketing and events at CCD. “They put in the fountain and the pond and then started this programming immediately after that, although Parkway Pals got its official, branded name just last year.”
According to the Pew Foundation’s Philadelphia: State of the City 2019 report, only about 53 percent of 3- and 4-year olds in the city are enrolled in some kind of preschool or daycare. Programs like this offer these kids, as well as elementary schoolers on summer vacation, enrichment they might not find otherwise.
“Honestly, I didn’t know this program existed until today,” said Kim Hearn, a mother from Center City. “I was just walking by and was drawn to the sights and sounds. It’s such a creative thing the city is providing!”
Zoe Siswick, a mother from South Philly, agrees.
“I found out about this [Parkway Pals] on Facebook, so I decided to bring my daughter to check it out,” she said. “She heard a story, grabbed a book, did some artwork, and now we’re just relaxing together in the sun.”
Hearn, Siswick, and their kids weren’t the only ones enjoying the program. All over the park, families were reading together, enjoying lunch, and doing crafts. Staff from the Free Library brought a cart of books over and hosted a story hour. Children checked out books and languished in the grass to read.
Since Parkway Pals’ start on June 3, Kaighn said attendance has grown each week.
“First week was a bit slow because the kids were still in school, but I think we had a better turnout than we expected with 30,” she said. “And then last week was more like 50 and today was 65 attendees, so it’s definitely improving week after week. But we want more.”
A report published by The Trust for Public Land ranked Philadelphia’s park system 19th out of 100 major cities (up from 30th in 2018) and found that 95 percent of Philadelphians live within walking distance of a park. Kaighn said that because Sister Cities Park is a central location, Parkway Pals can offer educational programs to families throughout the city.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art joined the Parkway Pals program last year. The museum’s marketing and audience development manager Morgan Gengo helped kids during a craft activity on Monday, June 17.
While kids made art with yarn, glue, and construction paper, Gengo gave their parents info about Art Splash, an art-making event for all ages at The Perelman Building from July 5 through September 2. Art Splash is included in the cost of admission to the Art Museum but is always free for children 12 and under.
“We’re going to have tours, exhibitions, and a kid-friendly gallery hunt,” she said.
Organizers ask each institution to bring different activities each week so that kids have a reason to come back, Kaighn said.
“The kids I take care of live right down the street, so they knew about this program before I did,” said nanny Carrie Snyder. “They love coming here, especially for Wednesday’s ‘Grow Up Green’ program,” an initiative run by the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation department.
On Wednesday, June 19, Mary Grace Gorman and Lisa McLaughlin from the Parks and Rec department taught the kids about various types of birds and feathers and gave them twine to build their own nests and binoculars to bird-watch.
“I’m in the dog-house today because I forgot my daughter’s swimsuit,” said Joe Mason, father from South Philly. “She likes coming here to hang out with the other kids and do crafts – like building a bird’s nest today – but that also includes playing in the water, and she can’t do that today in her regular clothes or her mom will kill me.”
The overall mission of Parkway Pals is to connect Philadelphia’s youngest citizens to the city’s cultural legacy, Kaighn said.
“Philadelphia is a cultural city, and we’re just trying to do our small part with Parkway Pals, especially with the younger generation,” she said. “We want to keep that art-driven trend going and keep kids reading, learning, and playing all summer long.”
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