By Sam Piha
The Play Captain model is an excellent way to engage older youth over the summer in community service and promote safety for younger kids. This model was developed in Philadelphia by Rebecca Fabiano and her organization, Fab Youth Philly. Below Rebecca responds to a few of our interview questions. If you are interested in learning more or having an exchange with Rebecca, contact us and we will arrange a Zoom discussion. Rebecca is also available for remote or in-person training.
Q: Can you briefly describe the Play Captain’s Initiative?
A: Coined after the Block Captain and Jr. Block Captain roles, the Play Captains Initiative is a workforce development and civic-engagement initiative with the mission to empower and train teens in leadership, playful learning and facilitation to make the Playstreets and neighborhoods of Philadelphia more playful.
There are over 400 Playstreets in Philadelphia every summer, which are part of the Free Summer Meal Program, overseen by Parks & Recreation and serve as a safe place for children to receive two free meals a day during the summer. The Playstreets are closed off to cars between 10am-4pm and a resident on the block applies to be a Playstreet Supervisor; they distribute the meals. Not all of the Play Streets are as ’playful’ as they could be, which is why I created this initiative. I saw the opportunity to tap-in-to two underutilized resources in our City; the Playstreets and teens.
Q: Do you provide training for the Play Captains?
A: We do provide training for the Play Captains. Play Captains are teens ages 15-19 and they receive about a week (35 hours) of pre-employment training where they learn about concepts like playful learning and effective facilitation. They spend a lot of time playing games and learning how to modify them for a number of conditions and situations they may face on the Playstreet. They ALSO receive weekly professional development (PD) on Fridays on a variety of topics. They are paid ($9/ hr) for their time in training and for PD.
Q: How do you work with the community?
A: We work all year round with the community to build relationships with both individuals and other organizations. We attend community meetings both to learn about the happenings in the neighborhood and to promote the program. We also work with the Police Department and the Community Relations Officers (CROs) and created a “how to work with our Play Captains” guide for the CROs to encourage positive interactions.
Q: How are youth selected and assigned?
A: Youth complete an application and typically participate in a group interview. For most teens (over 85%) this is their first job and so we want them to have a positive experience that really reflects what it takes to get a job. If we don’t hire a teen, we provide them with resources where they can keep looking for jobs.
The Play Captains work on a team of 5 teens, supported by 1 adult Group Leader. The Group Leaders are youth work professionals that we hire and train. We are often able to hire youth work professionals that are from the neighborhoods where we are playing/on the Playstreets, which helps in a number of ways. They are often known to others, so that helps bridge a connection between our organization and the community and, then after the program is over, they are able to maintain connections to the teens. We prioritize placing teens on Playstreets in the neighborhoods where they live. Then, day to day, they follow a schedule where they rotate to a number of Playstreets throughout the day, for a total of 4 days per week (Mon-Thur) for 5 weeks. They go to the same streets over the course of their employment in order to build consistency and relationships with the children that play on the Playstreets.
Q: How are you amending the model in response to the COVID pandemic?
A: We ran the program last summer in the height of the Pandemic and put several safety measures into place, which we plan to put into place again this summer. For example: everyone wore masks indoors and outside; we did a deep clean of our indoor space 3x per day; we deep cleaned all of the supplies (balls, jump ropes, etc.) at the end of each day; and we created special socially distance arm signals to help the children on the play streets keep a distance. For example: Airplane arms (arms out to the side) when we wanted to have them stand in a circle or near each other, Frankenstein arms for when we needed them to line up and maintain some distance and Hands on Hips, once they are in their socially distance position.
Q: What do you believe are the benefits to the youth participants?
A: One of the biggest benefits is that this opportunity provides teens with a first job experience. About a quarter of our teens go on to get afterschool jobs the fall after they are a Play Captain. Other benefits that the teens often report include: feeling valued by their community and feeling like they can make a difference in the lives of younger children; and many teens that self-define as shy say that they had a chance to meet new people and “come out of their shell.”
Q: What do you believe are the benefits to the community?
A: I’ve been told by residents how much they appreciate seeing the teen Play Captains engaged in something positive and that they feel it is good for the community that the teens have something meaningful to do.
Q: How do you assess the impact of the program?
A: For the past three years we’ve worked with a Playful Learning Landscape Action Network (PLANN) who developed a data collection tool and who train data collectors to collect data on the Playstreets to see if the activities the Play Captains facilitate help foster the Six Cs of Playful learning (collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence). We also pre/post survey our teens to understand what they learn during training, and what they retain over the course of their employment. We conduct exit interviews with staff and engage in post programming focus groups with residents, Street Supervisors and other stakeholders. We use the data to revise training and to improve the selection of the activities that the teens facilitate on Playstreets, as some examples of how we strive to be a data-driven project.
Q: If there is interest, would you be able to assist others in replicating this initiative?
A: Absolutely! We’ve built a program based on best practices in youth development, workforce development and community engagement, yet it is adaptable and flexible. I would encourage people to check out our website: www.playcaptains.com and watch our videos on YouTube to see the Play Captains in action.
Rebecca Fabiano (She/Her/Hers) is the President and Founder of Fab Youth Philly and The Play Captain Initiative. For nearly 25 years, Rebecca has worked in various capacities across nonprofit and youth-serving organizations, served on boards and helped to build solid youth programs that engage, encourage, and create spaces for positive development. As a program leader, she has successfully raised funds and managed program budgets; hired and supervised staff; developed and sustained strong community partnerships and designed award-winning programming.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.