All-Ages Summer Programming, from Tie-Dye to Tech

Financial literacy, game night, and World Refugee Day programs are some family-oriented activities at libraries this summer. 

Families are busy. Many don’t have the free time to attend activities that only serve part of the family,” says Phyllis Davis, youth services manager at the Springfield-Greene County (MO) Library District’s Library Station branch. That’s just one reason to offer family activities during the summer. Another? “We know that when libraries support positive family engagement, we are supporting positive child development, school success, and overall improved outcomes for the child and for the family unit,” says Renee Grassi, youth services manager at Dakota County (MN) Library.

From family tie-dye and tech tinkering to financial literacy and recognition of World Refugee Day, here’s what some libraries are offering.

Summer programming kicks off at the Grayslake Area (IL) Public Library (GAPL) with a family-friendly launch party—as it does with many libraries across the country. “A party like this is pretty standard practice,” says Cassie Carbaugh, head of youth services. New activities give the day a fresh spin each year. This year, GAPL’s party will include a chalk-art mural contest, an escape room, large-scale lawn games, and a family concert. At a previous family launch party, participants lay stomach-down on scooters, propelling themselves around the library meeting room to catch rolling balls in a high-energy game.

Family-friendly programs at the Grayslake (IL) Public Library include a pumpkin-painting party and sidewalk chalk art.

Exploring art together

Michigan’s Clinton-Macomb Public Library’s (CMPL) will host its third annual family tie-dye event this summer. Held on the library’s lawn, participants of all ages can experiment with multicolor Sharpie markers and rubbing alcohol to create dyed designs on items brought from home. “Families attend and will often bring a picnic blanket and work with each other,” says Lisa Mulvenna, head of youth and young adult services.

Carbaugh is also planning a repeat performance of family tie-dye, which “saw about 400 patrons within the span of three hours” in 2018. “The program was so successful that I had to leave midway through to make an emergency run to the craft store for more dye!” Carbaugh is considering a Harry Potter theme for this summer’s tie-dye event, with the library offering Hogwarts house colors. “A great deal of our family programming is messy, and patrons love the fact that they don’t have to worry about cleaning up afterward or buying expensive crafting materials that they may use on only a couple of projects,” she says.

Tie-dye at Michigan’s Clinton-Macomb Public Library.

To tie in with the Collaborative Summer Library Program’s summer theme of “A Universe of Stories,” CMPL’s annual Meet the Masters program will focus on Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night. Families can create projects inspired by the artist, and Starry Night also connects with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this year.

Mulvenna counts family programming among her favorite initiatives: “Every age brings something different to the table,” she says. “I can provide the supplies, space, and a little direction, and the family interacts to learn together.” For busy families, multi-age events “give them the opportunity to schedule the time, enjoy it, and make it a priority.”


STEAM for the whole family

The Library Station will offer a family-style Maker Camp this summer, a spin-off of its school-year STEAM programming. “Although these programs target families with children in elementary and middle school, families attend with children who are younger and older. We do not turn siblings away unless the activity is too dangerous for the younger siblings to be in the room,” Davis says. Plus, “adult caregivers enjoy the making as much as the kids!”

After she saw adults take a strong interest in the kids’ STEM programming at the Bay County (MI) Library System, children’s coordinator Ann Clark is planning a family stop-motion animation workshop. “[Families make] a natural team,” says Clark, and these programs can allow youth to lead an experience, using their expertise to guide adults in a flipped learning environment. “The grown-ups relish the opportunity to not be in charge for a change,” Clark adds.

The Mount Prospect (IL) Public Library has also planned a slate of family STEAM programs for the summer. Introduction to 3-D Printing: Family Edition invites adults in to experience 3-D printing with their first to fifth grade children. “It’s good to have the parent there, so when children want to create designs at home, the parent has learned it too,” notes youth programming coordinator Erin Emerick. Family Science Clubhouse, for first and second graders and their caregivers, allows participants to experience “a lot more fun science...when you have the parent present to help them through the project,” says Emerick.

Combining STEAM concepts with financial literacy, Plano (TX) Public Library’s (PPL) Art Shop event originally developed in conjunction with the American Library Association’s 2018 Thinking Money exhibit. This summer the successful program returns. “Participants will receive a wallet with five dollars in play money to spend,” says Jaime Eastman, senior public services librarian. “Using math skills, basic budgeting, and planning, families purchase supplies from the store to create an art project of their choice.” In addition to “self-directed, spontaneous exploration,” the program also engages adults in conversations with children about money and spending power, says Eastman.

“Classic fairy tales meet modern engineering” in PPL’s Enchanted Engineering program. “We provide very basic craft supplies,” Eastman says. This lets them keep the cost of the program low while allowing families to easily re-create them at home. Participants can try their hands at building a house that the Big Bad Wolf can’t huff and puff down, or build a “just right” chair for Goldilocks.

STEM programs like this “are open to all ages and designed with multiple points of entry to foster lifelong learning and multigenerational engagement,” Eastman says. She remembers one patron who particularly appreciated the library’s offerings: “On average, her family included not only herself and her four children, ages two to 10, but also one or two family friends and cousins.” Last year’s family events at PPL averaged nearly 70 participants per program.

Materials from the Dakota County (MN) Library's American Sign Language Celebration.

Inclusive family events

To recognize World Refugee Day on June 20, the Library Station will host an all-ages event with storytelling, music, and hands-on activities. “We try to offer these family-oriented events once a quarter and co-plan with the adult services department,” says Davis. This collaborative approach helps ensure success but requires advanced planning. “We begin planning up to six months in advance to allow time for making all arrangements and to identify partners,” within the library and from the greater community.

Thanks to a Minnesota Department of Human Services Disability Services Innovations Grant, Dakota County Library will use a two-year, $100,000 award to “host a special series of family-centered programs celebrating the diverse abilities of our community,” says Grassi. An American Sign Language (ASL) Celebration, successfully piloted last year, will return this summer at four library branches as part of the initiative. Copresented with a deaf community member who is enrolled in an MLS program, the weekend program will feature “storytelling told in ASL with voice narration for the hearing,” says Grassi, along with ASL-themed crafts and book displays. Provisions for the events include assistive seating options, sensory supports such as fidget devices, and projected story images for increased visual support.

Grassi is pleased to create “a welcoming and accepting environment where the whole family can be together and have a shared experience,” she says. “Libraries are validating those diverse families and making them visible in our communities,” she adds. “[We] need to continue to work to break down barriers to access and strive to welcome all families in an equitable and inclusive manner.”


Family crafts at the Mount Prospect (IL) Public Library.

Movies, games, and drop-ins

Family Gaming Day and Family Movie Matinee are popular program series that will return to Mount Prospect this summer. Families can drop in to play board and video games and attend screenings, complete with goodie bags and props. A screening of Frozen included a “build-a-snowman” bag with marshmallows, pretzels, and fruit candies, plus paper crowns and antlers for all to wear. The Books and Bites Family Book Club also returns in 2019, including read-alouds, snacks, games, crafts, and prizes. These programs encourage reading while allowing families to socialize and learn about new books, Emerick notes.

Drop-in or pop-up programming works well with families’ schedules. “We have had tremendous success with events that are offered for several hours up to most of a day,” says Davis. “This allows families to drop in when it’s convenient for them.” The Library Station also hosted a Godzilla Day, with scheduled events like movie viewings and Japanese language instruction, as well as a scavenger hunt and thematic arts and crafts.

A series of programs called Dog Days of Summer at CMPL will offer drop-in and scheduled programs—some age-specific, such as creating pet portraits, but others open to all. Mulvenna shares that all ages will be invited to create no-bake dog treats and dog toys. “There are times when age ranges are necessary, especially with early learning programs,” she says, “but it’s good to have a healthy mix so you are able to serve all of your community. From a public perspective, you are making things easy on the parents. They know they can bring all of their children to a program and also participate themselves, rather than sitting out in the [kids’] department having to entertain their remaining children.”


Magician Eric Gilliam brings a Vegas-style show to the Phoenix Public Library.

Handling crowds

The summer heat in Phoenix is so intense that crowds flock to the Phoenix Public Library—“one of the few free, air-conditioned places people can go,” says children and teen services coordinator Wendy Resnik. With more than 350 people frequently at family events, “it really changes the dynamic.” The library spends $30,000 on summer programming across its 17 branches, with funds from the Friends of the Library and other sources.

“Everything is open to families,” says Resnik, but “we don’t encourage people to drop off their kids.” In addition to its summer reading initiative, crowd-pleasing educational and cultural programming includes science demonstrations, presentations by a reptile handler, a taiko drummer, and a didgeridoo group; storytelling; and a theater performance of The Jungle Book this year.

Advice for handling crowds includes “[thinking] through your holding pattern,” Resnik says. “We know people will start showing up an hour ahead of time. If you’re going to do tickets, you have to have a line. When we have people waiting around, we’ve trained our teen volunteers to do craft presentations or provide coloring books—the Disney approach, where you make standing in line interesting.”

Resnik strictly obeys the fire code, and performers are never left on their own with audiences. They also receive terms for standards of conduct in advance—including avoiding touching a child without express parental permission and never using stereotypical or slang terms when referring to audience members.


Tips from the pros

“Librarians need to have a clear understanding of what they hope to achieve with their family program offerings,” notes Grassi. “For example, is your library intentionally welcoming those families with diverse experiences?” Mulvenna recommends starting with a program “that you already do and open up the age range,” and heading to Pinterest or blogs for inspiration. Offerings from local park districts can spark a new idea, “and they can be excellent partners to work with,” adds Carbaugh. Collaboration across library departments can be crucial, especially when planning for the entire family. “Staff volunteer on a Friday night to host a family fort-building night with pillows and blankets, or [come in to work] on days they don’t normally work,” says Mulvenna.

Still, engaging all ages can be a challenge, notes Eastman, who says “the results might be chaotic” and require on-the-fly adaptation. “We have to balance space for both an energetic preschooler and appropriate seating for adults who may not be able to sit on the floor,” she says.

Eastman also recommends setting defined learning objectives in order to “articulate to your families and your community what you’re providing,” and reminds programmers to “be open and flexible in defining a family.Families come in all shapes and sizes.” However, libraries can expect increased engagement, says Eastman, in turn “creating library advocates and lifelong library users.”

April Witteveen is the community librarian at the Deschutes (OR) Public Library.

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