Designing Everyday Spaces for Playful Learning

PAS Memo 119

By Jennifer Vey, Juanita Morales


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The most disruptive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic may have finally receded, but the lingering effects on children and families are unfortunately still very much with us. Children's learning suffered significantly due to the pandemic, with losses particularly acute among Black and Hispanic students and those attending schools with a large share of students from poor families. Outside of school, the pandemic also magnified long-standing geographic and racial inequities in economic opportunity and overall health and well-being. These challenges highlight the importance of investing in the urban realm in ways that better support children and families and improve overall quality of life for all city residents.

One initiative adopted by numerous cities across the United States and abroad aims to do just that. Playful Learning Landscapes (PLL) addresses learning inequalities that exist outside of the classroom by marrying the science of learning with urban design and placemaking. By embedding educational opportunities in places where families regularly go — such as bus stops, supermarkets, libraries, and parks — PLL strives to advance and scale evidence-based approaches for creating vibrant public spaces that foster learning and caregiver interaction, bring people together, and generate a sense of community ownership and pride.

This PAS Memo explains Playful Learning Landscapes and its impact on learning, public space revitalization, and social and civic engagement. It highlights cities that lead on playful learning and the varied roles of the stakeholders within them, with a more in-depth focus on Urban Thinkscape in Philadelphia as an exemplary case study, and concludes with guidance to help planners begin to implement playful learning throughout the communities in which they work.


Page Count
Date Published
Dec. 1, 2023
Adobe PDF
American Planning Association

About the Authors

Jennifer Vey
Jennifer S. Vey is the Executive Vice President for Policy and Research at the Greater Baltimore Committee; she was formerly a senior fellow with Brookings Metro and the director of the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking. She is the co-editor of Retooling for Growth: Building a 21st Century Economy in America’s Older Industrial Areas (2008) and Hyperlocal: Place Governance in a Fragmented World (2022). Prior to joining Brookings in 2001, she was a community planning and development specialist at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Vey holds a master’s degree in urban and environmental planning from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in geography from Bucknell University.

Juanita Morales
Juanita Morales is a Project Coordinator and Research Assistant with Brookings Global Economy and Development and its Center for Universal Education. She supports Playful Learning Landscapes, Innovative Pedagogies, and Early Childhood Education endeavors. Prior to her role at Brookings, she worked as an elementary school teacher in one of Washington, D.C.’s historically underserved communities. She has lived in the United States for the last 15 years but is originally from Colombia. Morales holds a B.A. from Dartmouth College, where she studied philosophy and education.