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.
Hoping 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)
Today’s guest blogger is April Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org). 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 https://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.
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