Early Literacy

BIG Play = BIG Fun!

A firefighter, a chef, a magician, and two elephants are creating an elaborate, imaginary world in the dress-up tent. Engineers are building cardboard forts and testing the strength of their structures. An acrobat is crawling and peeking through a small tunnel. Three printmakers are working on a collaborative piece of rubber stamp art. And a pair of tiny zoo keepers are inspecting, touching, squeezing, (and maybe even chewing on) a variety of soft, stuffed animals. Where are all these little ones doing all these things all in one place? They are at their library’s Big Play Date, and they are loving it!

Inspired by Brooklyn Public Library’s innovative idea, libraries all over the country are hosting Big Play Dates and growing community, providing big fun, supporting parental learning, and strengthening the brains of our youngest patrons in the process.

Here at San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), we host what we call “The Big San Francisco Play Date” at each of our 28 locations plus the bookmobile at least once per year. We will be hosting our 6th year of Big Play Dates in 2019. Many of our libraries host Big Play Dates during April, the month of the young child, but each branch chooses what works best for them.



Here’s how SFPL describes our Big Play Dates:

Big San Francisco Play Date allows families with young children the opportunity to engage in accessible activities that promote growth and exploration in a safe and welcoming environment. Geared for children aged 0-5, we welcome caregivers and older siblings to play along with them. Big Play encourages side-by-side play, choice, turn-taking, and making new friends while providing the grown-ups an opportunity to learn about the importance of play. During Big Play our library locations offer a varied menu of activities. Libraries are encouraged to offer self-made or easy to replicate activities that are accessible and budget conscious.

SFPL Big Play Date Basics

For ages 0-5. Big play dates are most decidedly early childhood programs. As we know, little ones learn so much through play, so we’re just creating an environment where they can have a great time with their families and peers while stimulating cognitive development.

LOTS of activities. We choose activities that support growing brains in many areas. You can create stations, zones, activity tables, or all of the above.

Large Building and Movement. Large building toys and movement activities support gross motor skill development and interactive play. Ideas: Large Cardboard Bricks, Giant Octoplay, Big Bilder, Peek-A-Boo Tunnel

Small Building and Manipulatives. Small building toys, play dough with tools, and manipulatives support fine motor skill development and can be a great place for families to play together and practice communication skills. Ideas: Magnatiles, Design and Build Engineering

Make Believe. Growing imagination and skills at playing with others, this can be a tent with dress up clothes/costumes in it, a kitchen with play food and pots and pans, a vets’ office, or even a library with plenty of board books and a cardboard book drop.

Little boy blowing bubbles.Creativity. Artistic and collaborative play are inspired by rubber stamps, finger paint, bubble blowing, and a sticky table (tape contact paper to the table, sticky side up, and provide bowls of all kinds of things to stick to the table: pompoms, feathers, craft sticks, yarn, paper shapes, etc.).

Two babies in a blow up baby pool filled with soft baby toys.

Baby Zone. Babies learn with their senses, by touching, looking, and chewing, so we put soft baby toys as well as lots of stuffed animals into a blow-up baby pool, to keep the babies a bit away from the fray, but still a part of the fun. There are many ways to create a little safe zone for babies with soft baby-appropriate objects.

So Much Learning. In conjunction with cognitive development in multiple areas, each of the playdate activities provide opportunities for social/emotional development; sensory experiences; and communication, language, and vocabulary skill building.

Supporting Parents. An essential part of our Big Play Dates is showing parents the importance of play, modeling activities that they can replicate at home, and sharing specific ideas about how to engage in the play with their children. At the various stations, we post signs (see sample below) that give parents ideas for interactions that they can use at the Big Play, and these ideas will resonate with them at home and thus support play and their children’s brain development wherever they are.

Logistics. Since we do multiple playdates on different days, we have kits (with manipulatives, building blocks, bubble supplies, etc.) that our Youth Services Department routes to locations depending on requests made by each individual branch. We also make homemade activities like creating bowling games out of disposable plastic water bottles, using food boxes to make building blocks, and putting beans in a bin to create counting and sorting opportunities (see “Additional Resources” for more ideas).


Alphabet blocks that spell play.

Big Play on the Road

Library systems across the country do their own version of a big play date, which demonstrates how versatile and flexible the programs are (this is your friendly reminder to take this information and adapt it however works best for your library and community).

Akron-Summit County Public Library. The Main branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Ohio will be hosting a Play Date Pandemonium for the Week of the Young Child in April 2019. They’ll be celebrating local iconic institutions through their play activities. Some ideas include: creating a tire roll mural for Goodyear Tires, having a restaurant dramatic play area for a popular pizza parlor, and setting out matchbox cars and ramps for the Soap Box Derby.

New York Public Library. Inspired by a visit to Brooklyn Public Library’s Big Brooklyn PlaydateNew York Public Library (NYPL) is hosting its first Big Playdate May 2019, with the intention of making it an annual event. The Big Playdate will be one large, system-wide program, and they are piloting smaller, themed playdates, called “traveling playdates” in five branches.

Activities will be divided into four zones: baby, active, blocks, and activity tables, each zone will have about 4-5 different activities. An example of each includes sensory crawl in the baby zone, a sticky wall in the active zone, cardboard boxes in the block zone, and pipe cleaner/colander sculptures on the activity tables.

Salt Lake County Library. Inspired by Brooklyn and San Francisco’s Big Play Dates, Salt Lake County’s version is called Get Curious! They hold one big play date on a Saturday morning and invite all their families with little ones to join in the fun. They have several fun stations for families to move through including building, animal habitats, a sensory area with all sorts of gooey stuff, a light center with light tables and manipulatives, a shadow center with puppet play, and a weather center which includes a wind tunnel!

Brooklyn Public Library (the originator of Big Play Dates). The Big Brooklyn Playdate takes place at their Central Library, with mere than 100 babies and toddlers plus caregivers in attendance. One large room (usually used for gallery exhibits) turns into an early learning play space. Their “play stations” include large boxes collected from the mail room with cuts-out for window and doors for playing in and peeking out of; sensory bins filled with rice, beans, or cooked spaghetti; as well as the messy and HUGELY popular “Un-Sand Box” a shredded paper-filled blow up pool.

So, go for it – host your own big play date – it’s a lot of work AND so much fun. But, be forewarned: you will most certainly hear from parents and caregivers, “Can we do this every week?”

Thanks to Kimberly Alberts, Akron-Summit County Public Library; Eva Shapiro, New York Public Library; Susan Spicer, Salt Lake County Library; and Rachel Payne, Brooklyn Public Library for sharing their Big Play programs. And, thanks to SFPL’s Maricela Leon-Barrera and Christy Estrovitz for the information they provided.

Brooklyn Public Library Resources

The Big Brooklyn Playdate
Read Play Grow Curriculum
Read & Play: Branch Playdates by Liz Blake
Read & Play: The Big Brooklyn Playdate by Jenn Wagner

Additional Resources

Child Development
The Children’s Therapy & Family Resource Centre
I Can Teach My Child: Developmental Domains of Early Childhood
Nova Natural: The 7 Domains of Early-Childhood Development

Homemade Big Play Activities
53 Educational Activities and Games using Pompoms
Alphabet Activity – Pretend Play with Letters
Bubble Wrap Fun
Bubble Wrap Runway
Indoor Hopscotch
Kitchen Puzzle
Paper Plate Ring Toss Game
Toddler Car Wash
Woven Paper Placemats

Additional Resources provided by Maricela Leon-Barrera, Early Learning Coordinator, San Francisco Public Library

Please comment below and share what Big Play programming YOUR library does or would like to do, any great resources you have, and of course any questions you want to ask.

Meredith Steiner is a Children’s Librarian in the San Francisco Public Library system and a member of the ALSC Early Childhood Programs and Services Committee.


  1. Tami Morehart

    The Wagnalls Memorial library has opened a Creative Play space for all ages to enjoy. We have a home space with a kitchen and dolls. Then there is the grocery store, pet center, doll house, balance beams, magnatiles, Keva planks, LEGOs, farm set, puzzles….. and so much more! We have a core of play materials that are always out, then rotate other items weekly. It is a lot of upfront work, but well work the effort! We have had the center for a little over a year now, and have lots of families visiting each day. It is located in a large room just off the children’s library. The room was funded with grant money and donations.

    1. Meredith Steiner

      Tami: That sounds like such a wonderful place for learning, socializing, and parent-child bonding. And they can go every day. That’s like a Big Play Date all year round. Awesome!

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