Uni at NYC Play Streets
Play streets are a tradition in New York City. They are exactly what they sound like—streets closed to traffic for play, usually during summer when school is closed. Play streets are growing in NYC, thanks to support from the city and work by Transportation Alternatives. So far, the focus has been on creating open space for play and physical exercise. The Uni Project is spearheading an effort to add reading and learning to the mix.
In 2013, we brought the Uni reading room to six different play streets a total of 10 times, thanks to a partnership with Transportation Alternatives and start-up support from the Shippy Foundation. Kids loved reading in a casual setting outside, and our seating and activities attracted new participants, like parents and caregivers with toddlers. The Uni also made community organizers think differently about the potential of play streets. As one play street manager told us: the Uni “doesn’t just complement the play street—it elevates it.”
In 2014, the Uni Project invested heavily in play streets. We brought the Uni reading room to six different play streets in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn a total of 35 times, thanks to a grant from the Shippy Foundation and support from Target. Play streets were run by the farmers’ market organization, Harvest Home, the youth organization, Caldwell Programs, and the Nelrak Child Development Center. We estimate that we served approximately 1,800 kids (the recorded average was 60 per day, with some repeat visitors), ages 4 to 20, with the majority being 8-10 year olds. We added math games, writing exercises, and brought an artist in residence to sketch on the street. And we kept coming back, weekly and sometimes daily, to build relationships in the neighborhood and create an oasis for learning.
“Are you bringing out the Uni library today? Yes? Boo-yah!” – Ivan, 10
Kids described the Uni as “cool,” “different,” “inspiring,” and “fun.” They liked that it was free, outside, and social, for all ages. They liked our high-quality books, and appreciated that we were trying to make an attraction that “makes kids come over here.” They particularly liked that The Uni was “helping kids in their environment.” Their responses to interviews conveyed a sense of agency and choice, describing reading in the Uni as something you “get” to do, “could” do, or “can” do, in stark contrast to they way they described reading and learning in other, more traditional environments. Kids were aware of how they appeared, sitting and reading a book on the street, and it made them feel good. And although many acknowledged the threat of negative stereotypes associated with reading and learning (a serious issue for boys in particular), they nevertheless embraced the role of “reader” in public with pride and a newfound sense of responsibility.
“[Being here] just makes me feel comfortable—like I’m reading, like I’m a beautiful person.” – Shayla, 7
“I’ve never seen anything like this in 25 years working in this neighborhood. It’s wonderful.” – Bronx mailman.
So why invest in play streets? What can the Uni Project contribute? Play streets are where at-risk kids tend to gather in the summer. We see a unique opportunity to reach them. We’re good at creating an appealing, supportive learning environment for kids that can be deployed under almost any conditions. Access to out-of-school learning environments has been identified by educators as critical to closing the achievement gap. So let’s make more of them, using pop-up. Lots more.
In 2015 and 2016, we continuing to expand our work at play streets. If you are an educator or after-school program provider, contact us to get involved. 2014 Photos below.