2014-05-09 / Community

Library Links

Come play with us
By Rachel Davis

Thomas Memorial Library is in the process of becoming part of a national network of libraries known as Family Place Libraries. We were included in a grant procured by Family Place Libraries that provided funding for training and materials to refashion our children’s services to reflect the Family Place philosophy – mainly that the public library should be an early childhood destination point, in support of early literacy development for the youngest learners and their families. The Family Place network currently includes over 300 library sites in 22 different states; 12 of them, including Thomas Memorial Library, are in Maine.

Part of the grant funds went to support the purchase of materials for our “Family Place space,” a dedicated, developmentally appropriate, learning space within our children’s room for families with children birth to age 5. Thus far, we have relocated a comfortable sofa and chairs to this space, and added an activity table with a train set, a play kitchen set with pretend dishes and food, some new puzzles, and created a permanent interactive felt board for kids to use any time. We also have a writing desk equipped with blank paper, pencils, crayons and colored pencils. We will soon be adding blocks and other age-appropriate toys to further enrich the experience of very young children who visit the library.

Why is it important to have toys in a public library? Recent research on brain development has pointed to the importance of play for young children, not just as a way of learning about the world, but also as integral to the development of early literacy skills. Play and toys go hand in hand with books and reading. When children give voices to dolls or stuffed animals, pretend to call someone on the phone, drive a toy car around a track, make a pretend meal or open a pretend store, they are learning how to communicate, the relationship between cause and effect, and about roles and responsibilities. They are learning how to use their imaginations, to build their vocabulary, to solve problems, and to negotiate. Pretend play relies on symbols – this stands for that, this block is a telephone, that chair is my house. Learning to read, after all, is the decoding of symbols. It is encompasses all of those activities that are naturally a part of play – using one’s imagination, understanding the sequence of a story, characters and roles, anticipating outcomes, learning about the world.

Our goal in creating our “Family Place space” is provide a safe, comfortable place for families to come and explore together, place to be and hang out. On a recent weekday afternoon, I observed two grandparents with their granddaughter using the space. While the grandparents relaxed on the sofa, the little girl played happily with the trains. After a while, a mom and her young daughter arrived to pick out books. The new little girl started playing with the play kitchen. In short order, the two girls were playing with each other. I heard the mom and the grandparents getting to know each other, asking where they lived, how often they came to the library. When it was time for the mom and the little girl to leave, I heard the girls beg for “five more minutes!” – which they were granted, as the adults continued to chat. Then, when finally mom and daughter had to go, I heard the granddaughter say, “Bye, I’ll miss you!” to her new-found friend. The mom and grandparents vowed to meet again at the library soon so the girls could play.

Clearly, the experience for both of these families was not just about kids passing the time while the grown-ups chatted or got something done. Relationships were formed, negotiations were made, information was shared. Libraries are about more than books, after all, libraries are about community lifelong learning, and self-directed engagement. The earliest public libraries were thought of as “the people’s university”– a place where anyone, no matter their age, economic standing, or educational background, could pursue their own interests and self-education. Traditionally, however, in a subtle way, the youngest citizens were excluded from this most democratic of institutions – if a child can’t read, why bring them to the library?

Family Place libraries aim to extend the library to the very youngest citizens beyond story times, by creating a supportive environment specifically for families with children from birth to age 5. We are excited about the renewed welcome our entry into the Family Place network is bringing to families with young children. Next time you’re heading over the library to find books for your young child, stay a while and play with us, and let us know how we’re doing.

Rachel Davis is assistant director and children’s librarian at Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth.

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