Back to School! Celebrating Community One Schoolyard at a Time

Students at ten Philadelphia elementary schools are beginning October with preparations to reinvent their schoolyards as part of a citywide initiative sponsored by The Big SandBox (TBS). With support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, TBS and landscape architecture students from the University of Colorado (CU) and Iowa State University (ISU) will work with schools and communities in North Central, Lower North and South Philadelphia to breathe new life into old schoolyards, making them more useful during school hours and on weekends.

“The Big Sandbox connects people to their community and each other, helping to create a culture of civic engagement across generations and backgrounds, while improving neighborhood life,” said Patrick Morgan, Knight Foundation program director for Philadelphia.

Fall 2016 efforts will build on the success of last fall when 43 graduate and undergraduate students from CU & ISU collaborated with schools in Lower North Philly—and a cohort of schools in Mt Airy, Chestnut Hill and Germantown—to engage each community in the redesign of their schoolyards.

“We saw a piece of land that was of no use turn into great use from having graduate students and community members come together to create a safe space for children to learn and play outdoors. said Duckrey Principal, David Cohen. “Our playground is in much better condition because of Lois and her team at TBS.”

For each school, graduate students worked alongside leaders and visionaries within the community to inspire neighbors and business owners alike to shoot hoops with students, draw and interpret full scale chalk-art blueprints on the asphalt, and most importantly, listen to the concerns of parents when it comes to the needs of a shared space.

This human-centered design and dialog continues throughout the semester on digital platforms like text surveys and social media campaigns.

“This kind of immersive experience is the only way to ensure every voice in the community is heard. It should be the only way to design shared spaces.” said Lois Brink, chief strategist for the Big SandBox, and professor at the University of Colorado. “Plus, it’s always fun for students.”

This fall marks the end of the first phase of the #DIGPhilly campaign. The TBS campaign is a 2015 winner of the Knight Cities Challenge , a Knight Foundation initiative, which seeks ideas to make cities more successful by helping them keep and attract talent, expand economic opportunity and create a culture of civic engagement. #DIGPhilly’s impact will reach approximately 8,800 students at 22 schools and thousands of parents, caregivers and residents.

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit