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Santa Ana Families Design Playful Learning Experiences for Kids in the Community

A small boy smiles as he places his ear over a colorful tube and listens.
A small boy plays at Parkopolis. | Sahar Coston-Hardy
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Messages of gratitude and excitement from parents filled a Zoom chat on May 19, 2021, as organizers concluded the seventh workshop for the research project Stimulating STEM in the City: Co-Designing with Latinx Families to Promote Informal STEM Learning. As part of the project, Santa Ana families have been meeting with organizers to help design STEM-inspired installations for their city. Following the virtual sessions, research leaders will finalize the project's designs and locations.

"Kids learn from exposure," said UC Irvine (UCI) Assistant Professor Andres Bustamante, who leads the project with his research team.

One of the project's central ideas is that through the installations, children will be able to engage with math, reading and science with their parents and caregivers in public spaces, such as grocery stores, bus stops and laundromats.

"The more that parents [and kids] interact, play and use math language, science language and read books together, the better it is for kids' development," Bustamante said. "If we can promote those kinds of interactions in everyday spaces, it can be really powerful."

The project was granted $2.57 million to by the National Science Foundation in part thanks to co-principal investigators for the grant, UCI Associate Professor June Ahn and Temple University Professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. It is an extension of Playful Learning Landscapes, an initiative committed to turning public family spaces into areas where children can play and learn.

The UCI research team is also partnering with the Santa Ana Early Learning Initiative (SAELI) to integrate playful and educational opportunities in the Santa Ana area. The group comprises parents, Santa Ana Unified School District principals and teachers, and nonprofit organizations and local politicians.

The more that parents [and kids] interact, play and use math language, science language and read books together, the better it is for kids' development ... If we can promote those kinds of interactions in everyday spaces, it can be really powerful.
Andres Bustamante, UCI assistant professor Andres Bustamante

"They offer community knowledge and their community wisdom," Bustamante said about SAELI. "What we can bring is knowledge of child development and education research on how kids learn best. By marrying these kinds of knowledge, we can hopefully make something really powerful that works for the community."

Bustamante said the research team is aiming for four to six installations, and SAELI's Steering committee will be making the final decision on where they will be implemented.

More than 40 parents from SAELI attended the May 19 virtual workshop to discuss designs and activities for different types of locations. The workshop kicked off with an online poll where participants voted for the top public areas they would want to see an installment in. Parks took first place while plazas and school sidewalks tied at second. The fourth most popular choice was school drop-off zones. The workshop then broke off into brainstorming groups, allowing parents to discuss specific spaces, highlight values they want to focus on and create blueprints of their ideas.

Bustamante said that the purpose of the installations is to promote collaboration and interaction among children. He also wants a hands-on, engaging, and iterative design so that kids can play with it in different ways multiple times. It should also spark joy and be meaningful for children.

"This is where culture plays a lot. Something that is relevant to kids' daily lives and experiences and answers questions they're curious about," he said. "It's a way for them to not only learn developmental skills, math, science, language and literacy, but also their culture and community."

In breakout groups, many of the workshop's parent groups emphasized culture and public safety in their designs, while others highlighted family unity and history. As the groups reconvened, participants shared their carefully constructed ideas and designs, made from construction paper, markers, popsicle sticks and foam cutouts.

One Santa Ana mother suggested a plaza with a field for sports, a library for reading and a community garden where children could learn about measurements and grow vegetables. Others proposed the idea of incorporating bingo in Spanish into a mural and a game of hopscotch on sidewalks.

Bustamante said that by having parents engage with the planning process, they will feel more connected to the final product, and families are more likely to interact and play with it. He hopes they will also feel community ownership over the fixture and will be more inclined to tell their friends and loved ones about it.

"The general idea is that when you partner with the folks who will be using the designs or installations from the very beginning, and you center their values, beliefs and goals, then you come up with design artifacts that are more usable, more sustainable and more reflective of their community," he said.

Additionally, the focus on family input in children's learning enforces the feeling of empowerment and pride in parents.

"They feel like now there's no limit in the kind of impact they can have in their community," Bustamante said about the parents.

Children play a fraction game on a basketball court.
Children play Fraction Ball, which focuses on fractions and decimals, at El Sol Science and Arts Academy of Santa Ana. | Kenny Lewis

Bustamante is not a beginner when it comes to bringing math to communities. His previous ventures in early learning and STEM education include Parkopolis, a life-size math and science board game he designed and implemented in Philadelphia. In 2019, he created the first playful learning installation in Santa Ana, called Fraction Ball, at the El Sol Science and Arts Academy of Santa Ana. The game, which is played on a basketball court, focuses on fractions and decimals.

As a part of the Stimulating STEM in the City project, another Parkopolis will be built in a community park in Santa Ana. The UCI team also plans to design different iterations of the Parkopolis board game to reflect the city's culture and the ideas discussed with Santa Ana parents in the virtual workshops.

In the following months, Bustamante and his team will review all the parents' suggestions and identify common themes. The goal is to show prototypes to SAELI parents for feedback in the fall before having the installations built. Organizers said they will be updating the community throughout the summer.

While the focus for the installations is currently on Santa Ana, Bustamante said he hopes that this project will serve as a model for city infrastructures — one that will inspire leaders in Orange County, across the country, and worldwide to integrate their public spaces with learning value.

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