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Newly renovated Fairmount Park playhouse offers kids serious fun as an antidote to screen time | Inga Saffron

After being closed for two years, children of all ages were finally able to return to the beloved Smith Playhouse on Saturday.

After years of upgrades and renovations, Smith Playhouse is reopening.
After years of upgrades and renovations, Smith Playhouse is reopening.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Most people know Smith Memorial Playground for its giant wooden slide, the analog-age attraction that has amused generations of Philadelphia kids. But the Fairmount Park destination has a serious side, too. Smith’s original building was erected in 1899, during a period of rapid urbanization and industrialization. The city’s educators were worried that young children weren’t getting enough play time, especially in Philadelphia’s poor neighborhoods, where many started working before they had even finished middle school.

To counter the damaging effects of that labor, two Philadelphia philanthropists, Richard and Sarah Smith, decided to create a place where those children could be children again, even if it were just for an afternoon. The Smith playhouse, which has always been free and open to people of all races, quickly became a leader in a national movement that championed unstructured play as an essential part of every child’s education.

What goes around comes around. Twenty months into the pandemic, educators across the country are again concerned that children aren’t being given the freedom to indulge in the kind of free-ranging exploration that allows them to fully develop their minds and bodies. Rather than laboring on assembly lines, they’re now tethered to their screens, where they dutifully process information from morning till night.

That digital encroachment on childhood is what inspired Smith’s board to undertake an $8 million renovation of its historic building, located on the park’s Reservoir Drive. The playhouse has been given a complete overhaul, the first since the Smith family gifted it to the city. Don’t worry — it’s still the same Smith, with the same analog attractions. The beauty of the project is that it will enable the playhouse to update its mission for our digitally obsessed times.

All the features created by architect James H. Windrim, who also designed Philadelphia’s Masonic Temple and the Academy of Natural Sciences, have been preserved and restored. The handsome wraparound terrace was rebuilt. Asbestos was removed and modern infrastructure installed. But the project, which was overseen by architect Claire Donato and the construction management firm W.S. Cumby, allowed Smith to carve out extra space to operate a full-time preschool for the first time in its history.

The playhouse, which could easily be mistaken for the kind of stately mansion you see in Chestnut Hill, now looks as good as it did the day it opened — maybe better. Starting Saturday, children of all ages were finally able to return to Smithville, the miniature “town” where kids can bike through imaginary streets. Other attractions, like TinkerTown, where kids can play with tools, will open in stages over the next several weeks. For the first time, families using the outdoor playground will have easy access to restrooms — no small thing, especially if you have young children.

But those renovated playrooms and amenities are really just the opening act. Smith aspires to once again become an innovator in early childhood education. Next fall, Smith will begin operating Philadelphia’s first nature-based preschool aimed specifically at children from low-income homes, using the forested surroundings as an extension of the classroom. Because the program is year-round, “it will be especially appealing to working families,” Smith’s director, Frances Hoover, told me.

Preschools that offer nature-based curriculums aren’t exactly a new thing. In the early ’90s, researchers began touting the cognitive advantages that children gain from spending time outdoors. As Patti Bailie, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Maine, explained, playing outside “helps children discover and learn through their senses.”

Things we might think of as meaningless activities, like climbing trees or digging in the dirt, enable kids to fine-tune skills they will use later when they learn to read and do math. For instance, teaching kids to distinguish different bird songs helps build the “auditory discrimination” that is essential for sounding out words. Spending time in nature is also believed to counter modern childhood ailments such as obesity, anxiety, and attention deficit disorders.

But city kids rarely benefit from those outdoor lessons. Most nature-based preschools are run by local nature centers, which means they are usually in suburban areas. What makes Smith’s effort noteworthy, Bailie said, is that it is an easy walk from Strawberry Mansion, an urban area with high rates of poverty. Nearly half the 40 spots at Smith’s preschool will be reserved for neighborhood children.

Smith is undertaking its experiment at a crucial time for both Philadelphia and Strawberry Mansion. The city has been using revenue from the soda tax to fund more preschool classes, in the hope of raising student performance later on, but it has been slow to make its target numbers. Meanwhile, Strawberry Mansion, which sits on Fairmount Park’s eastern flank, has come under intense gentrification pressure as development spreads from Brewerytown and Francisville.

Because its curriculum is so rigorous, Hoover hopes Smith will be designated a city preschool so students can qualify for subsidized tuition. It’s hard to imagine how Smith could miss. The classrooms are spectacular spaces, flooded with natural light and equipped with a full complement of play equipment. The rooms are located in the back of the playhouse, just below the reconstructed terrace, and their entrances overlook Fairmount Park. The minute you step out the door, you’re in a protected garden where Hoover intends to install raised planting beds so students can practice gardening. While many of Philadelphia’s public schools still have asphalt yards, Smith offers its preschoolers a lush, amenity-filled playground.

For something that is all about fun, there has always been a lot of ideology surrounding play-based learning. Many progressive educators believe it’s not enough just to play outside. They hate the kind of standardized playgrounds that are going up around the country and believe that children should instead be encouraged to create their own playspaces. That philosophy has inspired the free-range parenting movement.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, said some of that pushback from the free-range parenting advocates is a result of the regimented approach to education that began in the 1960s, after the United States “freaked out” over the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik launch. “Now in 2021, we have overstressed kids, stuck in front of screens,” she said. “We’ve lost touch with the very thing that makes kids, kids — that ability to experiment, explore, and find solutions.”

Smith has always been the antidote to that. But there was a time when it looked as if the innovative playhouse might not survive modern times. In 2003, it was nearly bankrupt. The playhouse shut down for a year while the nonprofit was reorganized. My colleague Ronnie Polaneczky fretted in a column that insurance companies would force Smith to replace its quirky slide with a standardized version, causing it to succumb to the “wimpification” of childhood.

But Smith board member Hanley Bodek, a construction executive, helped Smith get back on its feet and plan a renovation that stayed true to its original spirit and mission. The board kept all the unconventional play equipment, even though things like the giant slide still make insurance companies nervous.

Even after the preschool opens, Smith’s work won’t be done. In an aging building that has welcomed thousands of high-energy children, an $8 million budget goes only so far. Smith had to forgo renovations on its third story, a wonderland filled with the bits and pieces of a historic carousel. Bodek worries it will take another million dollars to make that space accessible to curious children.

Philadelphia is lucky that Smith has been able to remain true to its original vision. The value of this treasure, like that of a happy and free-spirited childhood, is priceless.