Early Literacy

Passive programming and early literacy: designing creative spaces for young learners

example of toys

Here at our branch library in Denver, Colorado, we’re always looking for ways to support the new families with very young children who move into the neighborhood. We offer four literacy-based storytimes each week, as well as plenty of programs for children of all ages during  the summer months. Although we offer a nice range of activities for children and their caregivers, we felt that something was missing…and that we could do something more to round out our early literacy efforts. A nearby branch offered a drop-in playtime for children, and we thought this was a great way to make use of our space and to complement our storytimes.

The catch? We wanted to try something that would involve a bit less formal oversight, since we juggle many other tasks throughout the day, such as staffing a busy circulation desk, overseeing volunteers, and staying current on Reader’s Advisory trends.

Passive programming to the rescue!

But what does passive programming look like for very early learners? As we began to formulate our plans to create a rich early literacy space, there were several factors to consider. Here’s an overview of how we created and managed our interactive, literacy-focused, drop-in play space for children ages six months to five years:

example of toys
More toys!

If we build it, will they come? Is this something our community actually wants?

Having  informal chats with parents and caregivers before and after storytime gave us insights into whether or not our community would take advantage of our new idea. They were enthusiastic about our plans, and contributed ideas about what kinds of toys and activities they’d like to have. We also discovered that families loved the idea of having a place to play indoors, while also being able to leave the house.

What days and times are going to work for families and their children? Given the busy schedules of caregivers and little ones, how can we offer something of value at a convenient time for as many families as possible?

Based on conversations with the families in our neighborhood, we discovered that afternoon hours between 3 and 6 pm was an optimal time. Children were finished with their naps and lunch, and were eager to find something to do later in the day, especially with older siblings who would be home from school in the afternoon.

How should we promote the program? And, more importantly, how do we measure the program’s success?

We promote the program through the three neighborhood associations in our service area, and we announce the drop-in play time at all of our storytimes. Word-of-mouth has actually been the most effective way to make families aware of what we offer. Caregivers express that they love having a place to come to play indoors, especially during the colder months.

What age range should we focus on? How many toys should we purchase, and for what developmental age range?

We wanted to be as inclusive as possible, so that caregivers felt comfortable bringing their babies and toddlers as well as older siblings. This was a challenge in the beginning, especially in terms of knowing what kinds of toys to buy. We decided to buy a few different toy sets for different ages, and see who showed up. That helped us make future toy purchases, and we ultimately began advertising the program for children ages 6 months to 5 years. Seeing toys in person, as opposed to ordering them online, was the best way to ensure the toys didn’t contain dangerously small parts that could harm babies.

Since we are not able to monitor our meeting room at all times (because it’s downstairs and out of staff view), how will we manage the safety of the space?

This was a huge concern in the beginning. We decided it was best to let caregivers know that they needed to stay in the room with their children at all times. We check in on the room from time to time, and make sure to introduce ourselves to new caregivers and children who might be new to our branch! It’s a great opportunity to get to know the new families and children in our neighborhood.

Beginning work on Imagination Station
Early stages of Imagination Station

Our Imagination Station is still a work in progress. We’re now looking to expand our drop-in play time to include more early literacy-focused activities that are a bit more structured and focused. Our ideas for the future include:

  • Integrating more passive art-based activities, like a watercolor painting station or craft kits that can be easily assembled and taken home
  • Repurposing some of our board books to be used specifically during the Imagination Station
  • Creating a more sustainable storage solution for our growing collection of toys, as well as a consistent toy cleaning schedule

It’s definitely a work in progress, but we’re excited to explore innovative options for early literacy passive programming. If you have any questions, please feel free to comment here, or email me directly at nbraham@denverlibrary.org


(all pictures courtesy of guest blogger)


Today’s guest blogger is Natalie Braham. Natalie is a librarian at the Decker Branch of the Denver Public Library. She coordinates programming for children, teens, and adults, as well as outreach efforts for the branch. She also serves as a steering committee member for the Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy (CLEL.) She holds an MLIS from the University of Denver (2011) and a B.A. degree in Spanish from the University of Colorado at Denver (2008.)

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.


  1. Elizabeth Dulemba

    Such a great thing! But you need paint on those walls! Please feel free to blow up my coloring page images for murals and such – perhaps removable ones if necesary. I’ve got an entire section of reading-related images: http://dulemba.com/index_ColoringPages.html . 🙂 e

    1. Natalie

      OOH, I wish we could paint all over the walls, girl! 🙂 Art is my thing, too. Thanks for the link! My branch library is a historic site, so there are some limits on what we can do in terms of permanent decor. Thanks for your comment and enthusiasm. Have a great day! -Natalie

  2. Diane Deedy

    Great article: we are looking into a similar early literacy offering. Thanks!

    1. Natalie

      Diane, let me know if you have any further questions. I am happy to share! Have a great day. -Natalie

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