It’s cold and rainy outside and the kids are going stir crazy inside. But where to go so they can play yet you won’t be swallowed by crowds and stuck spending a small fortune? An historic and somewhat hidden spot located in Philadelphia’s East Fairmount Park may hold the answer.
Opening back in 1899, Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse is one of the oldest play spaces created for children in the United States, according to Meg Wise, the Executive Director of Smith. And with a playground that spans across 6 ½ acres (think the size of 6 football fields) and a “Playhouse” that’s 16-thousand square feet, this special spot dwarfs even the most robust playgrounds and playhouses.
Funded by Richard and Sarah Smith, the “playhouse” appears as a life-sized dollhouse/mansion filled with room after room of different play options. Information provided by this non-profit, explains it was designed exclusively as a children’s play space by James Windrim, a prominent Philadelphian and late 19th Century architect.
The play space, “comes out of an era when providing a place for children to play was an alternative to sending them to work in a factory,” Meg Wise explains adding, “Although the world has changed dramatically since Smith opened 113 years ago, most children still do not have enough opportunities to play for a range of reasons, including perceived danger in neighborhoods, or very busy schedules at school, sports and other structured learning activities. Children’s physical health and emotional well-being can be greatly enhanced through time spent in unstructured play, and Smith is dedicated to making it easy (and fun!) for families to spend time this way.”
Back To The Future
With a mission of providing “children 10 and under from diverse backgrounds with free and accessible one-of-a-kind play experiences that meet their physical, behavioral, and developmental needs,” the playspace and playground provide just that.
From a room with trains kids can climb on, to a clubhouse and puppet show stand, to a room filled with blocks and giant Lego, there are ample things to do and play with inside the Playhouse. The basement was one of the most popular rooms, decorated in murals, and with a working stop light, “gas pumps,” and parking meters and spots for various riding toys the kids can snatch up and ride.
Outside, the playgrounds are situated on the historic landscape that includes “fields, wooded terrain and sloped hills.” The playgrounds include a tree walk, climbing “boulders”, spinning jungle gyms, nets, see-saws and swings, among other things. There’s also the Tot Lot for children under five.
One of the most notable pieces of history is the Ann Newman Giant Wooden Slide. You’ll need to grab a burlap sack to sit in (or on) and let yourself go down this beautifully preserved slide. (Picture a shorter version of one of those amusement park slides where you go down in a potato sack.) It re-opened in 2005 after an extensive renovation, and was specifically renovated to be accessible for wheelchairs. Staff members explained that many children experience their first time going down a slide at Smith.
The passion that the kids have while playing has infected the staff at Smith. “In a time when kids are often in front of a screen, I love coming to Smith and seeing kids active and using their imaginations, and seeing their parents get involved in encouraging their creativity. Kids learn so much through play, and develop so many skills that will benefit them in the classroom later in life,” said Courtney Kupersmith, a Smith Communications & Development Associate.
The Good and Bad News
So the bad news is that parents must accompany children at all times and cell phone use is limited. The good news is that parents must accompany their children at all times and cell phone use is limited! And even on that rainy day, when other options seem bleak, at Smith you may find a parent or two going down the historic wooden slide with their kids.