Confession: I dislike flying. But when SLJ held its second annual Think Tank event at the Nashville Public Library in April, I knew I had to go. Man, am I glad I forced myself onto that airplane. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have found out about so many terrific early-learning programs and services out there.
The afternoon of the Think Tank was much like an unconference event, with attendees choosing a table to discuss various hot topics. I was moderating the “early learning in libraries” one. Nashville children’s librarian Liz Atack and I furiously scribbled six pages of notes. Here are our takeaways.
Keep an open mind
One participant said she likes to invite her “no” people—those who still think of the library as a place where everyone, including kids, should be quiet—to her less-than-quiet children’s programs. Once they see the parents, caregivers, and young children playing and interacting, the “no” often turns into a “yes, lively young children do belong in the library.”
Another library has a “spotter” in the children’s room to alert the librarian if a large group—normally a family daycare provider—is headed to the drop-in storytime. Then, she pulls in extra crafts so there are enough for all. Putting craft supplies in Ziplocs to create “craft kits” helps with these types of emergencies.
A common theme was the high cost of materials. Many libraries are getting creative in response. A block program, for example, doesn’t require buying an expensive set of unit blocks. Libraries have recycled cereal and shoe boxes to create cardboard blocks for family building—also doable at home.
A little glitter on the floor? Good.
“It’s okay to be messy,” said a librarian from the Topeka/Shawnee (KS) County Library, which was recently designated as a Family Place Library, a network that supports literacy from birth. The staff realized that supporting early learning meant more noise, more toys and art, and yes, more mess. However, the resulting joy in these unstructured, play-based classes outweighed the drawbacks.
“Toddlers are wired for sound,” noted another attendee. While tactile, hands-on learning can look like chaos to a non-children’s staff member, the early-learning librarians agreed that it’s normal for young children playing, creating, being read to, singing, and talking to resemble “controlled chaos”—the best kind! Reaching out to other staff in your building can go a long way in promoting a comfortable atmosphere for families with young kids, particularly if you are transitioning from traditional programs for children. In Memphis, the children’s department put together Tupperware tubs with books and puppets so that young ones have something to do while sitting next to parents using the computers.
No one can do it all
The word that came up most? Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships. Libraries are creating wonderful connections with daycare centers, family daycare providers, women’s prisons, homeless shelters housing families, and even local symphony and ballet companies. Nashville offered an early literacy “Instrument Petting Zoo,” where families could see, hear, and handle a variety of musical instruments. In a similar program, the Memphis Symphony delivered a short performance at the library, followed by a musically themed story and craft project. Young patrons could “pet” the instruments to see how they work. In addition, Ballet Memphis gave a preview of “Peter Pan” at the library.
I’m still in awe of the great ideas shared at our table. It might be controlled chaos out there in libraries, but from what I can see, the most innovative children’s departments thrive with unstructured formats, drop-in early spaces, and, yes, a little glitter ground into the carpet.