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Bringing play to historic Philly

We talked to the director of the Betsy Ross house about how historic Philly sites combine “play” with education.

When Lisa Acker Moulder first came to work at the historic Betsy Ross House in Old City nearly 20 years ago, everything was covered in glass.

Teapots, wood chairs, fireplaces and more, were all in rooms separated from visitors by the see through barrier.

“The tour was about ten minutes, in and out,” Moulder, the director of the house, said.

She knew something had to change.

That began the long process of reorganizing, moving, and readapting the museum; adding aspects of interactive play into a space that had always been a sort of walk-through lecture hall.

“When I take my children to historic museums and there’s a velvet rope tour....I’m bored and I’m a history buff, so my children must be bored,” Moulder said.

Now the place looks vastly different. Gone are the plexiglass windows (and with them, tours that last only 10 minutes). Many of the historic items have been moved safely to storage and replaced with replicas that children can interact with and touch.

There’s a fair amount of play in the museum, too. Actors dressed up as Betsy Ross sew in front of visitors, who are allowed to watch, touch the tools and the piece, and even help her put in a stitch. Downstairs, in the “kids kitchen,” children help cook up colonial-style meals (a favorite is the turkey pot pie). For some of the older kids—or just brave young visitors—there’s a pantry with various smells, which you have to guess. The options range from nice—tea—to less appealing—pickling spices and salted cod.

“It makes the experience more memorable,” Moulder said, of bringing interactive play to a historic site. She said that the proof is in the children, who linger at the upholstery shop, even as their parents want to leave, or the kids who refuse to stop cooking in the kitchen.

Bringing play into historic spaces is something she hopes more museums will start to do, especially as heritage museum attendance has been declining in recent years.

“People want more, they don’t want the stuffy tour,” Moulder said. “People like experiences.”

Note: In honor of the final day of Curbed’s Play Week, we compiled a sampling of some of the best ways to combine play with historic sites in Philly’s Old City. If there’s anything that fits under the umbrella of “play” that we left off this list, let us know in the comments.

The Betsy Ross House

As Moulder discussed, there’s plenty of interactivity at the Betsy Ross house, like sewing a flag with the Betsy Ross impersonator, making an 18th century meal in the kid’s kitchen, or participating in a chocolate-making demonstration.

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Around Old City

Hop on one of the “Once Upon a Nation” storytelling benches around Old City and get a very Philly experience—a story about our country’s history told by experts (sometimes in costume).

Signers’ Garden

For a historic experience that really gets to the meaning of the word “play,” head to the garden on 5th and Chestnut. There, with Military Muster, kids are “recruited” to the continental army, where they learn how to march and learn musket etiquette.

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Franklin Square Park

What would a list about playing in Old City be without a nod to Franklin Square Park—one of the places that most seamlessly melds history and play into a great experience. It has mini golf that features historic sights like the Ben Franklin bridge and the Liberty Bell. It has a carousel (more play than history on that one, but still fun), and it has a fountain built in the 1800s.

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Franklin Square

200 North 6th Street, , PA 19106 (215) 629-4026 Visit Website

Old City

, , PA

Ben Franklin Bridge

6 Linden Street, , NJ 08102 Visit Website

Betsy Ross House

239 Arch Street, , PA 19106 Visit Website