Photo credit: Sahar Coston-Hardy Photography

A Professor’s Research on Playful Learning Spaces

Brenna Hassinger-Das, Assistant Professor of Psychology on the New York campus, is serious about play.

There is a lot of learning that occurs when children play. Hassinger-Das’s interest in this area has led her to research the role of play and games in the context of children’s learning, and in everyday environments where people live and work - no special trips or admissions fees needed.

She is the driving force of the team behind Urban Thinkscape, a project that creates fun and engaging spaces for “playful learning.” Examples include puzzle pieces on the back wall of a bus stop for children to complete, footprints to hopscotch on, and images to name. The intent is to improve spatial, math, concentration, and literacy skills.

Piloted in October 2017 in a West Philadelphia neighborhood, the project serves inner cities where academic achievement for children tends to be lower as compared to children in higher socioeconomic areas, a trend beginning as early as preschool. It also aims to address how to best utilize the roughly 80 percent of time that preschool children spend outside the classroom. Further, with increases in school standardized testing, “playful learning” outdoors has been shown to benefit mental, emotional, and physical health.

It takes a village

Members of the community, including residents, civic organizations, and architects collaborated with the research team from the outset to bring Urban Thinkscape to fruition.

Hassinger-Das says, “Community leaders and members have been involved with Urban Thinkscape from the very beginning, because community ownership of the project is so important. This was not going to be another instance where academics bring a research project into a neighborhood, extract data, and leave. This was going to be a collaborative process.”

The community, in turn, has benefited, as anecdotal evidence has shown greater communication while people utilize these spaces, and a newfound interest in caring for what otherwise would have been dull and weed-laden eyesores.

If you fund them, they will come

This research has been an on-going passion for Hassinger-Das, who joined Dyson faculty in fall 2017.

As part of her dissertation studies at the University of Delaware, Hassinger-Das looked at ways in which storybook reading combined with play helped kindergarten children learn the conceptual vocabulary of math, and she continued this work as a postdoctoral fellow at Temple University.

While at Temple, and in collaboration with her mentor Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, she received a $500,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation to fund Urban ThinkScape. It falls under the umbrella of a larger initiative called Learning Landscapes, aimed at placing “playful learning” and interaction opportunities in inner cities. It is also a collaboration with the University of Delaware, the Centric Lab of London, and the Brookings Institution.

Further, the project’s data collection methods and community focus has caught the attention of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, and thus, it is a part of their portfolio of projects.

Student participation

Back at her lab at Pace, students are entering data collected at Temple University and conducting analyses to see if engagement in Urban Thinkscape spaces translate to school success.

It has been a learning experience for them, too.

Ashley Sally Quinones ’19, MA in Psychology, is a research assistant in the lab, and says, “Professor Hassinger-Das always challenges me to see the broader perspective, make my own questions and conclusions, and has taught me so much about research.”

Next steps

Hassinger-Das plans to create similar types of projects in New York City while at Pace, as well as in Chicago. She also plans to expand this initiative to include other everyday spaces such as laundromats and supermarkets.

As the current grant expires in August 2018, she will apply for funding from both private and governmental organizations.  “Once we have demonstrated proof of concept, we expect that community organizations and local governments will support the Thinkscape installations in other locations.”

We look forward to seeing playful learning spaces in New York City soon.

For a visual illustration of Urban Thinkscape spaces, click here.