Back in mid-April, when Philadelphia’s coronavirus cases were approaching their peak, the city’s parks and recreation commissioner, Kathryn Ott Lovell, began her campaign to save summer for the city’s neediest kids.

“When we realized the pools weren’t going to open, we started scrambling,” Ott Lovell said. “We weren’t sure about spraygrounds. We weren’t sure what was going to happen with summer camp. But we had to do something. We couldn’t just cancel summer.”

So starting next week, the Playstreets program is getting a big boost for kids across the city, particularly those in the poorest neighborhoods. Originally designed in the 1950s as a way to give kids free lunch and snacks while school was closed, Playstreets this year is getting activity kits, visits from Gritty, and more.

Here’s what Playstreets has to offer this year.

Gritty will make appearances at Playstreets through the summer.
Cynthia Greer
Gritty will make appearances at Playstreets through the summer.

Lots of partners

This year’s program is a partnership with a number of groups, including the Greater Philadelphia YMCA, the John S. and John L. Knight Foundation, Mural Arts Philadelphia, and even the Eagles, the Phillies, and the Flyers. Other partners include Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Wawa Welcome America, Clay Studio, and Book Smiles Book Bank, New Jersey. Between donations and in-kind contributions, Playstreets is working with about $600,000 this summer.

New, enhanced Playstreets

The Playstreets program typically works like this:

  • Each weekday in summer, a city representative drops off breakfast and a snack to a volunteer Playstreet supervisor at one of roughly 300 locations. The supervisor — often a parent, grandma or auntie — distributes the food.
  • Designated streets are also closed to traffic between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. so kids can safely play in the streets. Volunteers often would use their own money to buy art supplies and sports equipment for kids to play with.

This year the city is supplying all the toys and equipment for kids to play with. On Monday, city officials will distribute a number of activity kits assembled last week at the Philadelphia Horticulture Center. The kits will belong to the block even after summer.

What’s in the kits?

The cooling kit. There are 100 cooling kits and they include misting fans, giant water guns, tents, patio umbrellas, and neck-cooling rags. These kits will be sent to blocks the city has defined as “urban heating islands,” Ott Lovell said, named so because they lack green space and trees, so it always feels hotter.

An example of some of the items one might find this year in a Playstreets cooling kit.
Courtesy Philadelphia Parks & Recreation
An example of some of the items one might find this year in a Playstreets cooling kit.

The sports kit. These have footballs, basketballs. soccer balls, Wiffle Balls (and bats), flag football sets, and dodgeballs.

Arts and craft kits. These are filled with construction paper, markers, and glue, coloring books and sidewalk chalk. These kits include arts and crafts projects for kids to make wind chimes and magnets.

That’s a lot of cool stuff. Does every Playstreet get every kit?

No, but every Playstreet is getting something special. “All of the close to 300 streets will benefit from the expanded resources that will include a special guest visit or a kit,” Ott Lovell said.

There are, however, 50 Super Streets which are located in some of the city’s poorest zip codes. The Super Streets will get each of the three kits plus daily programming from arts and recreation staff that includes arts and crafts demos and pop-up dance parties. Gritty and the Phillie Phanatic are scheduled for visits, too.

An example of the Triangular A-frames that will demarcate the Super Streets
City of Philadelphia Parks and Rec.
An example of the Triangular A-frames that will demarcate the Super Streets

Every Super Street can expect a day when a special playground will be set up on their block that includes a jungle gym-like play area and a seesaw, the perfect socially distant toy.

There are also 10 Playstreets of Wonder. These streets will focus on playful learning and literacy, Ott Lovell said, and are sponsored by the William Penn Foundation. These locations will receive visits from representatives of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Fab Youth Philly, and officers from the Police Athletic League.

Who can visit Playstreets?

Playstreets are designed for only the children on the block and those who live in the immediate vicinity. (It is too late to sign your block up for a Playstreet.) That’s even more important this year because of COVID-19, Ott Lovell, said. “We want kids to stay as close to home as they can,” Ott Lovell said. “It’s safer for all involved: the parents, the children and the city workers who will play with the kids. The city worked with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to develop a safe program. “The idea,” Ott Lovell said, “is for kids to have fun and minimize the risk [of spreading COVID-19] as much as possible.”

What if I don’t live on a Playstreet?

The good news, Ott Lovell said, is that while free city camps are changing how they operate — that means no field trips or pool time — they are still open.

Normally about 8,000 kids enroll in summer camp. This year there are only about 2,000. That means there are spots left. For more information about a camp near you, visit phila.gov/parksandrecreation. All kids over 8 years old and staff will have to wear a mask at summer camp.

Playgrounds are open, as are spraygrounds. Tennis courts are open as well. And Ott Lovell said the city is reinstalling basketball rims. “We will have summer,” Ott Lovell said. “We just have to work harder to make sure it’s safe.”

PlayStreets are getting a major boost this year
Cynthia Greer
PlayStreets are getting a major boost this year

When is the program running?

The children who live on Playstreets have been able to get lunch since June 15. The enhanced programs on close to 300 city streets will begin on Monday, July 12, and run through the end of August.