Halifax mural

How a Virginia community transformed a disused public space into a place for playful learning

This US community came together to give a disused local space a new lease of life and create a place where local children could learn.

Imagine you could reinvent a space in your town, and create more playful moments for your community? Denise Barksdale, who works for the town of Halifax in Virginia, did just that. 

Denise received funding from the Southern Virginia Community Challenge, supported by Microsoft, to start an Urban Thinkscape project in her home town.

Urban Thinkscape, an initiative of Playful Learning Landscapes Action Network, enables people to transform a public space in their community into a joyful learning opportunity.

Getting started

Denise and her team identified an alley in downtown Halifax that they wanted to transform into an inviting space for local residents.

“People didn’t really use this space. It wasn’t attractive. It was dark and dull,” she says. “Now it’s well lit, and already we see more people using the space.”

The alley before the project started
The alley before the project started

How the idea works

According to Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, founder of Playful Learning Landscapes, Urban Thinkscape helps the ordinary become extraordinary.

“Imagine a supermarket that doubles as a children’s museum, a bus stop outfitted with puzzle walls and cognitive games, or a human-sized board game where children intuitively solve math problems.”

Playful Learning Landscapes believes that infusing public spaces with playful learning opportunities for children and families creates vibrant and inclusive social environments that nurture a strong sense of community. 

More than 100 Urban Thinkscape projects have been started through the ChangeX platform to date. These projects are up and running in communities across the United States and Latin America, and have been supported by Microsoft and the LEGO Foundation.

Urban Thinkscape
Urban Thinkscape

A new lease of life

For Denise and her community, starting an Urban Thinkscape project was an opportunity to create a space that people could use in multiple ways.

A sketch showing the plan for the alley's transformation
A sketch showing the plan for the alley’s transformation

“We wanted to transform a dull alley into an area where kids could learn,” Denise says.

“Instead of just walking straight through this space, we thought ‘why not stop and create art on the art wall or learn about our town from the history map’.”

Funding from the Southern Virginia Community Challenge has enabled the community to clean up the alley, install lighting and purchase materials, such as seed planters. Local tradespeople have also donated their time to help transform the alley into an attractive public space.

The project was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but is now back on track.

Denise said that a town map mural, featuring local landmarks and completed by a local artist, was already encouraging people to use the alley. A chalk art wall, to sit alongside the mural, is also planned. Denise and her team are also planning to introduce free libraries, a space within the alley where locals can deposit used books and both adults and children can pick up a book to read.

Denise found it easy to apply for funding via the Southern Virginia Community Challenge. “You couldn’t ask for a simpler and easier process,” she said. “If I can do this, anyone can.”

The alley at night
The alley at night with new lighting installed

Inspired by Denise’s story? Start an Urban Thinkscape project in your community today!

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