February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Where Families Play: Dynamic Early Learning Spaces


The question is not whether play is valuable—it is—or whether libraries can be a focal point for children’s learning through play­—they most certainly are. Rather, the question should be “How can we inspire parents to engage with their child in purposeful play?” These new and renovated spaces for reading, playing, and learning provide some ideas.

1507_EL-Play-MiddleCountryA mother and child engage in conversation and play as a librarian shares parenting resources in the Family Place area of the Middle Country Public Library in Centereach, NY. The Family Place Libraries design initiative transforms library areas into destinations for early learning, parent/caregiver information, family support, and also partners with agencies serving families with very young children.

1507_EL-Play-BaltimoreCounty-Essex-21507_EL-Play-BaltimoreCounty-Essex-1At Baltimore County (MD) Public Library, furniture with bins allows flexibility in the library’s Play and Learn centers. A set of discovery tables (right) at the Essex branch with changeable tops and storage below provides space for building and creating. A bin unit (left) holds materials that promote school readiness skills by supporting learning about language, dramatic play, mathematical and scientific thinking, and social studies, with the help of a word wall. (Table from 3branch; bin unit by TMC.)

The floor plan for the nautical-themed Schooner Cove play area (James Bradberry Architects) under construction at the Havre de Grace branch of the Harford County (MD) Public Library depicts a multi-faceted play-and-learn space. With reference to Havre de Grace’s maritime history, the space is anchored by a two story-high schooner with an interactive captain’s wheel, cargo nets that double as reading hammocks, a crow’s nest, and tiered seating facing a story area. A schooner hold, Ranger Station, Shipping Area, Little Lagoon, and more offer activities for a variety of ages.

1507_EL-Play-CarrollCounty-Westminster-11507_EL-Play-CarrollCounty-Westminster-2The Westminster Train Station play-and-learn area (left, by Adler Display Studios) at the Westminster branch of Carroll County (MD) Public Library transformed a gloomy shelving area (right) into a dynamic destination for families. Patron Lyndsay Edwards says, “I will treasure my weekly routine of visiting the play and learn area with my two boys….The [imaginative play setting and toys are] unlike what we could ever have at home.”


The Playscape at Norfolk (VA) Public Library’s Slover Library, a Family Place library, is a space especially designed for infants, toddlers, and their caregivers. Children roll, climb, crawl, step, tumble, slide, and build in a safe environment.

1507_EL-Play-BaltimoreCounty-11507_EL-Play-BaltimoreCounty-2The community using Baltimore County (MD) Public Library’s Roseville branch has embraced its new Storyville area (left, by James Bradberry Architects), which attracts 5,000 visitors per month. With Storyville, the library transformed its previous children’s wing (right) into a destination for reading, playing, and learning. Zones for learning include the baby garden, toddler bay, kitchen, home, construction, store, theatre, and library.

1507_EL-Play-CarrollCounty-MtAiry-11507_EL-Play-CarrollCounty-MtAiry-2A treehouse-in-a-forest concept by Adler Display Studios was central to the redesign of a proscenium arch wall and play-and-read nook (left) at the Mount Airy branch of the Carroll County (MD) Public Library. Interactive play materials include a puppet theatre, a kitchen unit, dress-up costumes, activity bins with playthings such as a butterfly puzzle, and a bug bin for babies to explore while learning spatial concepts and developing motor skills and eye-hand coordination. (Puzzle by Lakeshore Learning; bin by Kaplan Early Learning.)

Dorothy Stoltz, Marisa Conner, and James Bradberry are the authors of The Power of Play: Designing Early Learning Spaces (ALA Editions, 2015). Read SLJ’s review.

This article was published in School Library Journal's July 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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