William Penn Foundation has renewed and expanded the Informal Learning Initiative, a network of 24 local organizations – including many of the city’s premier cultural institutions – collaborating to bring new, engaging learning experiences to families with young children in neighborhoods across Philadelphia. Cultural institutions – including museums, science centers, and arts institutions – are important places where children can make new discoveries, deepen their interests, and engage in informal learning outside of their school or early childhood education center. This initiative creates and strengthens partnerships between cultural institutions and organizations with deep roots in low-income communities and makes it possible for Philadelphia families to engage with the city’s cultural assets, regardless of income level.
Begun in 2017, the initiative pairs a cultural institution, such as Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial or The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, with at least one community-based organization that has strong relationships with families, such as Sunrise of Philadelphia, Congreso de Latinos Unidos or ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania. Together, they design a series of learning opportunities to engage children and their caregivers in creative play and discovery geared toward developing children’s vocabulary, oral language, writing and comprehension skills – known together as early literacy skills. The partnerships are vehicles to bring early learning programming directly to families in ways that not only engage children, but also involve adults as active participants.
"Children begin to learn from the very first days of their lives, years before the first day of kindergarten,” said Elliot Weinbaum, Great Learning Program Director at William Penn Foundation. “When we launched the Informal Learning Initiative two years ago, many of the partnerships were brand new and cultural institutions and community groups were learning to work together. We wanted to create more free and accessible high-quality early learning opportunities outside of a traditional classroom and bring the unparalleled assets of Philadelphia’s cultural sector directly to our neighborhoods. Now, we know these programs and community partnerships can be successful in Philadelphia, and we want to see them continue to grow and establish themselves as part of our city’s early learning landscape.”
Participants in Phase I of this initiative found that the experience broadened their reach and helped them develop new and exciting programming for young children and families in their partner communities. For example, The Barnes Foundation worked with Puentes de Salud to engage Spanish- speaking families in South Philadelphia in building their children’s vocabulary through the exploration of art and artists. The Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium worked with the Indochinese- American Council to engage families in the Lower Northeast with learning opportunities focused on science and the environment.
“We are building upon our collaborative partnership with Puentes de Salud to support the biliteracy needs of a growing ELL/ESL immigrant Latinx community in Philadelphia,” said Thom Collins, Neubauer Family Executive Director and President of the Barnes Foundation. “Together, we are generating access to high-quality learning and enrichment opportunities for pre-K and kindergarten children through a program where arts and culture provide a platform for biliteracy development. We are thrilled that ‘Puentes a las Artes’ has seen measurable success, with students showing a true curiosity to learn and make observations about art with the guidance of bilingual teaching artists.”
New organizations joining the initiative will benefit from the experience of others in this cohort and will quickly begin developing strong partnerships to ensure engaging, relevant, and effective programming in neighborhoods across Philadelphia.
“Through this opportunity to join the Informal Learning Initiative, we will build on the innovative family- based programming we bring to the Tacony community,” said Alex Balloon, Manager of the Tacony Community Development Corporation. “We are excited to team up with the Center for Aquatic Sciences, Indochinese-American Council, and Tacony Library to build stronger families and advance literacy in our neighborhood by connecting children to enriching early learning experiences offered through Adventure Aquarium.”
The nine programs in Phase II (many of which are continuing from Phase I) are expected to serve at least 2,300 children ages 3-8 across Philadelphia over the next three years. Children’s Literacy Initiative will provide support to ensure the activities designed by each partnership adequately support literacy development. Evaluators from University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments will evaluate effectiveness by measuring changes in children's interest, abilities and engagement with literacy, as well as caregiver attitudes, knowledge and skills, as measured by surveys, interviews and observations. During Phase II of the initiative, participating organizations will take steps to sustain programming after the grant period ends and prioritize early literacy and community engagement as core focus areas.
The programs offered by all partners are free and scheduled at convenient times and locations for participating families. Free access and transportation to the cultural institutions are also arranged through the programs.
The nine Informal Learning Initiative partnerships and programs include:
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, and ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania – These partners will offer "Discover, Play, Share," a pretend play and natural science program, to families in North Philadelphia, reaching 360 children ages 3-8. Each partner will host family literacy days and other free activities, including three day-long Family Museum Days at the Academy of Natural Sciences. For more information, contact Jacquie Genovesi at 215-299-1100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Barnes Foundation and Puentes de Salud – These partners will offer "Puentes a las Artes" ("Bridges to the Arts"), a bilingual art-based program, to families in Southeast Philadelphia, reaching 240 children ages 3-5. Activity sessions and family workshops will be held at Puentes de Salud and other community locations, and the Barnes Foundation will host free Family Day visits. For more information, contact Barbara Wong at email@example.com (www.barnesfoundation.org) or Alexandra Wolkoff at firstname.lastname@example.org (www.puentesdesalud.org).
Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium, Indochinese-American Council, Tacony Library branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, and Tacony Community Development Corporation – These partners will offer "Nature, Play, Read," a pretend play program about aquatic sciences, to families in the Tacony-Wissinoming neighborhoods of Northeast Philadelphia. New to the partnership in Phase II, Tacony Library and Tacony CDC will help the program reach 300 children ages 5-8 and their families. Free family literacy sessions will be held at the Indochinese-American Council, Tacony Library and other community locations, and Adventure Aquarium will host free Family Museum Days. For more information, contact Angela Wenger at 856-361-1011 or visit http://www.aquaticsciences.org.
The Clay Studio and Cecil B. Moore Library and Kensington Library branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia – New to the initiative in Phase II, these partners will develop and implement “Clay, Play, Read,” a free art-based program for 360 children ages 3-8 and their families in Kensington and North Philadelphia. Sessions will be held at each library and a third community location, and the annual community day in South Kensington known as “Clay Fest” will begin to feature family literacy programs. For more information, contact Megan Millman at 215-925- 3453 or email@example.com.
Fairmount Water Works and Edward Gideon Community Partnership School – These partners will offer "The Watershed is an Open Book," an outdoor exploration program about the urban watershed, to families in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of North Philadelphia. New to the initiative in Phase II, Gideon Community School will help the free program reach 150 children ages 3-8, hosting sessions on-site, as well as facilitating sessions at Fairmount Water Works and local environmental centers. For more information, contact Ellen Schultz at 215-685- 0721 or Ellen.Schultz@phila.gov.
Mighty Writers, WHYY, Inc. and Mill Creek Recreation Center – New to the initiative in Phase II, these partners will develop and implement “Mill Creek Learners,” a science and technology- based program for 300 children ages 3-8 in the Mill Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia.