Guest Blogger

Everybody Plays! Welcoming All Abilities to the Library

It’s Everybody Plays day at Simsbury Public Library in Connecticut, and I stop for a moment to look around our large program room. Children and adults are trying out the balance path, playing at the train table, digging their hands into the rice bin, and rolling a ball through the tunnel into the play tent. One little one in particular has his curly head bent over the sensory table, which holds lots of different kinds of beans today. It’s just him and his mom this time, though sometimes his birth to three service provider accompanies him to playgroup. There’s another friend also playing with the beans and a disagreement has arisen: one little one wants to meticulously fill each compartment of the ice cube tray with beans, while the other wants to scoop and dump. Their grown-ups are helping in the negotiations and, though it’s getting a little vocal, they know it’s okay. Everybody Plays is a judgement-free zone.

We all hope our libraries are welcoming for all sorts of children and families, but the truth is that the average public library children’s space can be very challenging for children with special needs and their caregivers. I’m speaking here not only as a library professional, but also as the parent of a child with ASD (autism spectrum disorder). Bright lights and busy spaces threaten sensory overload; programs aren’t always well-suited to youngsters with developmental differences or physical challenges; other patrons and even staff members aren’t always understanding of unusual behaviors.

Everybody Plays at a Sensory TableHoping to make SPL more accessible to children with special needs and motivated by the announcement of the Autism Welcome Here Grant sponsored by Libraries and Autism, I created the Everybody Plays program, an inclusive playgroup that features sensory play, social skills practice, fine and gross motor skill development and community building. It’s intentionally well-suited for children with special needs, but it’s open to all children birth to five, because we want to build understanding and appreciation for differences and because there’s a lot that kids with special needs and typical peers can learn from each other.

Everybody Plays has been running for a year now, welcoming an average of forty children and caregivers to the library twice a month for an hour of fun. Here are the most important things I’ve learned in that year:

  • Community connections are key. Start by asking stakeholders (families of children with special needs, service providers, educators) how the library can best serve them. Then, build your program based on that feedback. Seek out collaborators: our local birth to three autism service provider and special needs PTO have been vital partners in Everybody Plays, and even the town police department sent an officer to a session of the playgroup in order to allow children to overcome any fears they might have of police officers.
  • Get your staff on board. A program for special needs families is great, but it’s not going to lead to greater general library use if the people families encounter at the library are not well-informed and understanding of their needs. Training the whole staff of your library will make your colleagues feel more confident in serving patrons with special needs and will create a more positive experience for both staff and patrons. Local organizations that serve and advocate for special needs populations are often able to offer training.
  • Keep it predictable. Children with special needs thrive on routine. Changes and transitions can be very challenging. Keep the structure of your program simple and predictable and repeat most elements at every session. It’s also helpful to be mindful of your physical space — adjustable lighting, doors that can close for noise-control in both directions, and a quiet corner for recovering from meltdowns are all helpful.
  • It doesn’t have to cost a lot. The funding I received from the Autism Welcome Here Grant allowed me to purchase some really cool toys and equipment for Everybody Plays (and I do love my cool toys!), but I like to tell folks that all I would really need is two rice bins. Seriously — an underbed box full of rice and a few buttons and measuring cups can keep a bunch of preschoolers focused and happy for a really long time. What’s really important is a welcoming attitude and a willingness to learn.

What’s the payoff of a program like Everybody Plays?

Well, remember our curly-haired friend playing in the beans? At the first meeting of the playgroup, he refused to enter the room for about half the session and then spent the next half interacting only with one caregiver and one toy. Eight months later, he was coming in as if he owned the place, circulating among all the stations, and interacting willingly with both peers and adults. Once, as he was leaving, he even gave me a hug — the very best payoff of all.

(Photos by Stephanie Prato)

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Head shot of April Jones, author of Everybody Plays
Photo credit: Mary Fletcher

Today’s guest blogger is April Jones (apriljones@libraryconnection.info). April is a children’s librarian at Simsbury Public Library in Simsbury, CT and the parent of a teen on the autism spectrum. She was a recipient of an Autism Welcome Here grant in 2016. More information on the grant is available at http://librariesandautism.org/grant/ and http://www.alsc.ala.org/blog/2015/09/announcing-new-grant-autism-welcome-here-library-programs-services-and-more/.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.

4 comments

  1. Barbara Klipper

    April, I’m so proud of Everybody Plays and the work you did to make it a reality!
    I hope every librarian who reads this wonderful post follows April’s example. It’s not hard to do, and there are videos and other materials on the Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected website: http://librariesandautism.org/grant/2016GrantWinners.htm.
    By the way, the grant April received, Autism Welcome Here is accepting applications until December 1. For more information: http://www.librariesandautism.org/index.htm

    1. April Jones

      Thank you, Barbara! And thanks for the work you and your colleagues continue to do to make libraries more accessible to everyone!

  2. Kelly Doolittle

    Lovely post! How often do you hold your Everybody Plays Days? We held our Sensory Storytime once a month and finally after over a year got discouraged at the lack of target audience. We do have some community connections, and the folks who come definitely have enjoyed the program.

    We have wondered if the once a month timing was the problem. Staff time has been an issue for not having it more often, but from the looks of your post it seems like with Play Days there are a lot of different stations, more like a play group, as opposed to more of a storytime atmosphere? Am I reading that right? Does that make it easier time-wise/staffing-wise, do you think?

    This summer we had a community group that supports children on the spectrum and their families that did their own Play and Talk, which also happened once a month . (They got our large programming room and all our supplies for free and handle the sessions on their own.) That seemed to work well. They had all their own families as built in attendees 🙂 and we feel good about offering our space and tools for this program. But I’m wondering if we should try again with our own sessions with a slightly different premise that might be easier on the staff time-wise.

    Thank you for the post and for any extra information!

    1. April Jones

      Hi Kelly!

      Thanks for reading and for your great questions. It sounds like your library is definitely on the right track!

      We hold Everybody Plays twice a month right now — once on a weekday morning and once on a weekend morning. We would love to be able to add a weekday afternoon session sometime in the future in order to be able to serve families whose children are in a morning pre-school program.

      Your characterization of the difference between Everybody Plays and a sensory storytime is right on: it’s much more of a playgroup setting with several different stations or centers than a traditional storytime format. We do a brief opening circle with a story and song and a brief closing circle with a couple of songs, but otherwise the hour is devoted to play. I’m guessing it’s probably quite similar to the Play and Talk program that your local community group organized — perhaps they would like to partner with you on continuing to offer a group through the library!

      In terms of staffing time, I would say that the staff time required for my program specifically is probably similar to what would be required to prepare for and present a sensory storytime. The program largely runs itself once it gets going, but it is a bit intensive in terms of set-up and clean-up. I plan on two hours start to finish for each session. You could certainly pare down the number of stations and decrease the necessary staff time.

      Alternatively, we also run a program called Sensory Sunday, which features drop-in sensory play with four or five activities each session and no structured circle time. We usually run it for two hours, which gives folks flexibility in terms of when to arrive and depart, and we hold it in our storytime space within the Children’s Department so that staff can be keeping an eye on the fun and also helping patrons or working on other projects at the same time. Here’s a little feature on that program: http://www.courant.com/community/simsbury/hc-va-simsbury-sensory-library-20170209-photogallery.html

      Please feel free to contact me if you’d like to follow up on any of this. My e-mail is at the end of the original post.

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