By Beth Miller

and Sharon Easterling

In his first budget address, Mayor Kenney called for a $256 million investment in universal pre-K and a $300 million bond initiative to improve parks, recreation centers, and libraries in neighborhoods across Philadelphia. While this combination may seem ambitious to some, we believe it's an absolute necessity if we are to move forward as a city.

As the mayor mentioned in his speech, nearly 80 percent of Philadelphia schools are in Pennsylvania's lowest performance tiers. Forty-six percent of kids enter kindergarten unprepared. Two-thirds of city job seekers test at or below the eighth-grade level in reading, writing, and math - excluding them from family-sustaining jobs and negatively impacting our economy. And nearly half of our population lives in distressed communities with high poverty rates and low business investment.

The mayor believes that investing in pre-K and public spaces can reverse these trends. We couldn't agree more. In fact, we believe public space that encourages children to play is a vital contributor to creative, capable children and safer, healthier communities.

That's why the Community Design Collaborative, in partnership with the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children, is pursuing Play Space, a 24-month initiative to explore where design comes into play and how innovative urban play spaces can improve the quality of early-childhood education and the vitality of communities.

The value of outdoor public space in urban areas - particularly in the venues that Kenney is suggesting - should not be underestimated, especially when the space is designed to allow for play.

Outdoor play spaces provide children and families with places to interact. Successful play spaces provide children with opportunities to become more competent and confident. They strengthen basic social and conflict-resolution skills. Play spaces significantly enhance the quality of child-care settings, narrowing the achievement gap and increasing children's readiness to learn in school.

Communities benefit, too. Play spaces provide the chance for children and adults alike to build strong interpersonal relationships, which makes these spaces a critical element in healthy childhoods, strong communities, and family-friendly cities. Getting children outdoors and active in the digital age is key to addressing our alarming childhood obesity problem.

Many of Philadelphia's libraries, recreation centers, and schools - institutions designed to nurture children and communities - have limited access to engaging and welcoming outdoor play space. Thanks to a grant from the William Penn Foundation, we have engaged the community in reenvisioning play space in Philadelphia and exploring the what-ifs of investing in innovative urban play spaces in our neighborhoods.

Most recently, we held an international design competition focused on the possibilities of play space in Philadelphia. The competition released a global call in September for design concepts for three real-world locations. The venues? A public school, a library, and a recreation center.

Forty interdisciplinary teams responded, representing five countries and 11 U.S. states. Following a three-tiered review process - which included input from design and early-childhood education experts, community stakeholders, and public agencies - the 40 entries have been narrowed to nine finalists, three designs for each location. The winners were chosen at the Play Space Design Awards on March 16.

The results are innovative and community-focused. Each submission responded with designs to fit the needs of the surrounding community. All of them could have incredible impact on our children, families, and neighborhoods.

Now, we must work together to make these concepts a reality. We have the ideas, and we have an engaged community - now we need the support and funding to help nonprofit and public-sector agencies bring innovative play space to every neighborhood in Philadelphia.

It's crucial that Philadelphians take an active role in improving early learning, education quality, and health outcomes for their children. And giving all communities - regardless of zip code - access to outdoor play space is a vital piece of that effort.

Elizabeth Miller is executive director of the Community Design Collaborative. beth@cdesignc.org

Sharon Easterling is executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children. sharon@dvaeyc.org