A South Philly Playground for All, Designed by Students

It’s hard to get some good play-time in your schoolyard if the asphalt isn’t even safe to run on, and you don’t have a gymnasium. But thanks to a range of committed partners and a neighborhood ready to make it happen, things are looking very different at a South Philly school—according to the design by the students themselves.


The schoolyard makeover at Edwin M. Stanton School is the 10th park completed thanks to the Trust for Public Land in Philadelphia’s Parks for People initiative, which is a partnership between the nationwide non-profit’s local office, the School District of Philadelphia, and the City of Philadelphia.


“The strength of leadership is tremendous,” says Trust for Public Land (TPL) program manager Danielle Denk, of EM Stanton’s faculty, administrators, and surrounding community of parents and residents.


Photo by Danielle Denk
EM Stanton. Photo by Danielle Denk.

Starting in 2012, TPL began scouting school locations throughout the city, to identify the best sites for a major schoolyard revamp. Ultimately, several factors led to the selection of EM Stanton (at 17th and Christian Streets) for TPL’s 10th Philly park.


The school lacked a gym and a safe outdoor surface for kids to play on; the area is low on green features in general; and “it’s in a high-density neighborhood.” That means the finished park is accessible to many people, who can reach it within a 10-minute walk.


The surrounding neighbors were the clincher, Denk says. “The community is really strong around there, so we knew the site would be well cared for.”


After a four-month review period including consultations with principals, teachers, and school friends’ groups all over the city, TPL formally proposed the EM Stanton site to the School District, which approved the plan. TPL commenced a deep engagement process with the school and nearby groups, including Stanton Community Partners, to find out what kind of park would best serve the neighborhood.


In early 2015, the project kicked off with a school-wide brainstorming day including all students and faculty. Then, the project narrowed into a 14-week participatory design process with the school’s fourth-graders.


This project-based learning married STEM curriculum elements to the kids’ work. They applied math, budgeting, and design principles, along with lots of learning about the environment and water cycle, to develop a plan for their new schoolyard, and Denk consulted with landscape architects throughout, the keep the concepts within budget and up to code.


Photo by Interpret Green.
Photo by Interpret Green.

That work culminated in a formal RFP including the students’ plans, and A+K Architecture completed the design. The new park, which serves the school as well as local residents, formally opened in February. “We really built what they came up with. It’s really empowering for a lot of kids,” Denk says.


Alongside the project’s primary funder, the William Penn Foundation, Stanton Community Partners ended up raising about $42,000 for implementation, allowing significant upgrades on the original design, including custom playground equipment from Berlin. The whole thing, including the engagement and design process, was completed for less than $1 million.


So what do you see now when you look at the 12,000-square-foot park?


A very “thoughtful” layout from the students, Denk says. She likens the final design to “a jewel box,” because it has many functions within a relatively small space. The kids knew they’d have to brainstorm ways to share uses in the same areas.


Em Stanton. Photo by Danielle Denk.
Em Stanton. Photo by Danielle Denk.

Now, people enjoy a running track, and football and soccer games on the new field. There’s a playground with a treehouse, slide, and rope ladder, alongside spinning and balancing elements that appeal to youngsters with special sensory needs—Denk says students selected the equipment carefully to cater for many kids at once, with different kinds of play.



As the weather warms up and the park matures, more vegetation will increase an oasis-like feeling, and a rain garden for green water management runs along the border. Outdoor instruments send daily data on temperature and precipitation right into classrooms, aiding ongoing lessons on weather and the environment.


Now, Philly’s TPL office is forging ahead with more projects, including two schoolyards and two parks now underway across the river in Camden.


For Denk, the biggest satisfaction is watching kids learn that they can solve problems in their own environment with the right design tools. She’s “excited to give the students the perspective of seeing themselves as agents of change.”