Children's Librarians are Experts

Children’s Librarians are Experts of Play

The rear view of a decorated trailer.
The colorful trailer that totes all of the play materials during the summer.

Carissa Christner is a Youth Services Librarian at Madison Public Library in Madison, Wisconsin. For the past three years, Carissa has championed play as an important part of early childhood. This past summer, I had the pleasure of working at her Wild Rumpus program which is the result of an ongoing partnership between Madison Public Library, Madison Parks Division, and Anji Play, an internationally-recognized approach to early learning. Three days a week a trailer full of blocks, ladders, climbing cubes, and other carefully selected open-ended play materials were unloaded at one of the three selected city parks and the Wild Rumpus would begin. With the help of other Library staff, graduate students and volunteers, Youth Services Librarians would spend three hours engaging with caregivers around the value of True Play. Caregivers were given opportunities to learn about giving their children room to explore and take risks, and how to talk together afterwards about their play. Participants came from many different cultures and backgrounds, building a sense of community around the commonality of enjoying play. These programs regularly served over one hundred people.

Over the three years that Carissa has grown the program, she has relied on advocating for the importance of child-directed play and her critical role as a librarian in parent education to community organizations, families, and even her own administration. I chose to write about the development of Wild Rumpus because it offers a specific example of how children’s librarians can go beyond advocating for the libraries in general, to advocating for their own expertise in order to bring much needed programming to their communities.

Young children build a structure in a field.
Young children work together to build an interactive structure. Not pictured are the parents and volunteers closely observing the play on the perimeters of the structure.

What gave you the idea for Wild Rumpus?

In early 2016, I attended a presentation by Dr. Chelsea Bailey and Ms. Cheng Xueqin, herself — the founder of Anji Play. They spoke of this approach developed by Ms. Cheng for the schools in Anji County, China that centers on child-led play. When I heard about Anji Play, it reminded me of what my own play was like as a child and I had this huge “aha moment,” that my most vivid childhood memories of play were the things I did when no adults were telling me what to do. Realizing that kids today often don’t have many opportunities for that type of play made me feel a sense of urgency. I want kids to have the chance not only to solve their own problems, but to figure out what problems they want to solve in the first place.

What are some of the challenges you have faced for this program?

When I first began this program, I wondered if people would struggle with seeing a play program in the park as a “library program.”  I keep coming back to Every Child Ready to Read and play being one of the five practices. Before I did this program I thought I was already incorporating play into my library programs, but after learning about Anji Play, I realized that there is a stark difference between playful activities and play itself. I also appreciate that Anji Play incorporates the ECRR practices of writing and talking through the reflective practices that are an integral part of the approach. From the Anji Play website: “Self-determination in play, ownership of discovery and learning in play and the time and freedom to express complex intentions in play means that Anji Play is True Play.”

The ALSC Everyday Advocacy toolkit defines advocacy as “at its most basic….about relationships.” How have you utilized relationships to develop the program?

Before your email, I’m not even sure I thought of it as advocacy. I just wanted to convince everyone that this was the right thing to do! I’ve built relationships by communicating a shared purpose to my administration and to the Madison Parks Division. Parks was eager to support this program because it supports their goal of bringing people to the parks. My library’s administration prioritizes reaching families who don’t come into the physical library buildings, so this event meets that library goal. Possibly most important is my relationship with Anji Play. I have visited the schools in Anji County, China a couple of times, and they have been instrumental in helping me to better understand the deep complexity of this approach. We are working closely together to figure out the most authentic and effective way for Anji Play to be implemented outside of the classroom. I also am very grateful for the support of the Madison Public Library Foundation who have supported the program with grants and the support of Dr. Rebekah Willett at the UW Madison who has been a tireless advocate for this program as well.

A girl jumps from one play structure to another.
Trusting children enough to let them set up their own challenges and take risks is one way parents can show love and support. Children would often draw pictures of accomplishments like this in their play journals, which Carissa also documented and shared with library staff.

The ALSC Everyday Advocacy toolkit also acknowledges the importance of using stories to advocate for library programs and services. How do you tell the story of Wild Rumpus?

The first year, I collected data mostly for myself, to improve the program itself. The second year, I focused on advocating to parents and caregivers about the importance of self-determined play (it is really difficult for many parents to find that balance between stepping back and still paying close attention!). This summer, one of my colleagues created weekly “Rumpus Reports” with photos, participant quotes, and attendance statistics, along with the Anji Play “tip of the week.” We sent them to our administration and colleagues as a snapshot of the program. During the annual Staff Day, my director specifically mentioned in his speech that those reports put a smile on his face and reminded him why he works so hard to advocate for the work the library does. That was really validating!

What’s next for Wild Rumpus?

My hope is that other libraries will begin to see the value in bringing True Play to their communities. I am working on gathering data and creating tools that will make it simpler for librarians to advocate for these programs in their communities. This program has been an amazing way to build a coalition of Library staff, other City Departments, parents and caregivers, and other community members and afford them a better understanding the value of True Play. It’s great to see them getting really excited about supporting children in our community.

Advocacy is an ongoing process; it truly is!

This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: III. Programming Skills and V. Outreach and Advocacy.


Erica Ruscio is a member of the ALSC Advocacy and Legislation Committee. She currently resides in Madison, WI where she supports programs for the Madison Public Library and the Madison Metropolitan School District. 

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