The Harlem Playspace and Learning Center was a beautiful, light-filled, facilitated play area in the multipurpose room of Storefront Academy. It was designed to be a safe, appealing, nurturing, and developmentally appropriate environment where trained early childhood facilitators were available to support caregivers. The space was free to families and lasted 12 weeks from June to August. During the summer project, children ages 0 to 3 enjoyed circle time, stories, unique climbing structures, and a multitude of sensory filled toys. Other activities included painting, play dough making, and other sensory filled projects. Read below on what this fabulous center was and, with your help, what it will become for Harlemites!

What is the motivation behind the Play Space and how did it come to fruition?
The Harlem Playspace and Learning Center is the successor to a tuition-free independent school called the Storefront Academy Harlem, that thrived on East 129th street for 53 years. Last year the school closed, and a charter school called the Storefront Academy Harlem Charter School, opened in the same space. The charter school carries the same successful model that the private school once did. The non-profit that ran the original school has a new focus, very early childhood development and is in the process of developing a comprehensive early childhood center.

Recognizing that a full 80% of brain development takes place in the critical first three years of life (first 1,000 days), the Early Childhood Center will be anchored by a free, facilitated playspace, and will ultimately consist of a set of programs and services to support families and children from the prenatal period until age four. This will include classes for children, child development workshops for parents and other caregivers. It will also serve as a teacher development, research and training hub, drawing on the expertise and resources of New York City colleges, hospitals and other child welfare institutions. The Harlem Playspace and Learning Center pilot project investigated whether there was interest in the community in such a center and explored ways to support and educate parents and caregivers as they play with their children.

What are the benefits or long-term takeaways of offering a free PlaySpace in Harlem? What can families expect to gain?
The goal of the pilot project was to create a sense of community in a safe and developmentally appropriate play environment. Facilitators modeled how to support children in the confident play and exploration that nurtures the brain and leads to the cognitive, fine motor, gross motor and social-emotional development which is the critical foundation of all success in school and beyond. Using age appropriate books, toys and other materials, the focused was on encouraging caregivers to follow their children’s lead in play, to talk responsively to their children, narrate their play, and extend it whenever possible. Facilitators were also available to answer caregivers’ questions about general child development. All the feedback from families indicated that the Playspace pilot project was a terrific success, providing a unique, much-needed space in Harlem, where no other free– facilitated spaces currently exist.

What does the future of Harlem PlaySpace look like?
The not-for-profit is currently in the process of identifying and leasing a large enough, appropriate space in Harlem that would enable us to serve more families in the Harlem community year-round.  We hope to open our doors this fall. If anyone knows of street-level (upper floor with an elevator) commercial real estate that might be available for this purpose, please contact us as soon as possible at HarlemPlayspace@cstorefront.org.

It is free for families, but do you take donations?
The Harlem Playspace and Learning Center was – and will continue – to be a free playspace, open to all with newborns to three-year-old, but of course, as we are a not-for-profit, we welcome donations! Please email us at HarlemPlayspace@cstorefront.org for more info!

Consider giving what you can, this giving Tuesday!