An Early Literacy Initiative Brings Reading to North Philly Playgrounds

The Philly ABCs pop-up installation aims to curb summer learning loss by transforming public spaces.

A child engages with the installation at Joseph E. Mander Playground and Recreation Center in Strawberry Mansion. (Photo courtesy Read by 4th)

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If you come across one of 14 Northern Philadelphia playgrounds selected for the new Philly ABCs campaign, you’ll find it awash in colorful banners depicting beautiful illustrations of the alphabet. These vibrant displays are a new collaboration between the Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation, and local early literacy movement Read By 4th.

Its aim: To make early reading materials more accessible to young children, providing a low-cost way to mitigate summer learning loss.

“We champion reading anywhere, anytime,” says Kelly Richards, President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia. “The Philly ABCs campaign presents an excellent opportunity to extend our love of literacy beyond the library walls and into our community.”

The initiative comes as school districts nationwide have sought to counteract historic learning loss attributed to interrupted schooling and remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. A National Association of Education Press asssessment found that that elementary school test scores in math and reading have dropped by seven and five points, respectively, from 2020 to 2022.

A child engages with the installation at Joseph E. Mander Playground and Recreation Center in Strawberry Mansion. (Photo courtesy Read by 4th)

The installations consist of a series of banners, each with a letter of the alphabet and an alliterative phrase to practice its phonetic pronunciation. Titles like “Heaping Hoagies,” “Dazzling Drumlines,” and “Wonderful Water Ice,” introduce young children to the world of words and writing, even outside of the classroom. The banners also include educational prompts to take the learning a step further and turn the playground into a classroom.

“Your neighborhood playground is a place of learning and wonder,” says Orlando Rendon, interim commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. “And thanks to our partners at the Free Library and Read by 4th, we are able to transform our public spaces to spark moments of exploration that encourage our children to fall in love with learning.”

The alphabet displays are made for more than just literacy education. The creators of the illustrations designed the visuals to represent the North Philly park-going population.According to Simone Partridge, Director of Communications for Read by 4th, it was important that the children of Northern Philadelphia should be able to learn from characters that look like them.

“Representation is so important. When I was little, I rarely saw characters that looked like me in books or learning materials,” Partridge says. “It’s important that the Philly ABCs artwork reflects the diversity of our city. So all children can see themselves celebrated as readers.”

The banners will be displayed from June to September, and will be taken down once school is back in session. Until then, the playgrounds will remain a land of alphabet wonder for Philadelphia’s littlest readers.

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Punnya Kalapurakkel is Next City's Summer 2023 Emma Bowen. She is a rising junior at Boston College, where she is pursuing a double major in communications and psychology.

Tags: public spaceeducationchildrenplaygrounds

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