Commitment to Client Group

Play on a Shoestring in the Public Library

Free play is child-directed, voluntary, internally motivated, and fun.  It strengthens physical, emotional, social, cognitive, creative skills and fosters communication skills as well. Children talk and listen while they play, and they also read, write, draw, and sing!  According to Dr. Karyn Purvis, it takes 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain- unless it’s done with active play. In that case it takes only 10-20 repetitions. Play is truly the work of a child and also a pleasant vehicle for interaction between kids and their grownups.

If play is so beneficial, how can we incorporate more active play into the public library? Our branch piqued community interest with pop-up emergent literacy play areas over the past year- enough so that I will be attending a Children’s Museum conference next month to learn more about creating museum-quality, hands-on learning environments that are both enjoyable and enriching for children and their caregivers.  Want to crank up your play potential? Get started with materials, time, and space.

MATERIALS:  Quality key pieces represent many separate play environments over time.  A play kitchen and a dedicated child’s height table are a great place to start if you find a pocket of funding.  Our kitchen has been a holiday bakery, and then a child-run pie company. It will feature in a Vet Center, and who knows what else!  A few generic items can be easily transformed into more specific play areas. Our puppet theater has become a drive-thru window, expired car seats without straps represent seats in a space center.

Environmental print makes a play area both more exciting and more realistic.  Save butter boxes, flour sacks, and cinnamon shakers and replace often. Dollar stores offer a treasure trove of items that mimic a home experience and let children experiment for themselves.  Measuring cups and spoons add numeracy to the experience, and dollar store price tags take some of the sting out of replacement costs.

Kitchen Play Space for childre

Disguise reading and writing in related activities:  menus, recipes, order forms, receipts, health questionnaires, ballots. One day we found a handmade sign attached to our puppet theater aka “drive thru window” that read, “Donate $1 to Riley’s Hospital.”  When kids link their play to their own experience it is that much deeper and richer a learning experience.

TIME:  Preparing for self-guided play in a public setting requires a chunk of time.  Planning, purchasing, setting up, sanitizing, refurbishing, storage… It’s a lot to take on, and definitely requires the approval and support of the entire team.  When early learning centers are popular, they spread throughout the building. Expect to find voting ballots in the stacks, measuring spoons in the restroom, and more pencil marks on numerous inconvenient surfaces.

SPACE:  Even a small space can become an emergent literacy center.  We used a small area in front of a bulletin board to host a Dog vs Cat election.  The voting station was made out of an appliance box, and had exterior surface area for campaign posters.  If possible save room for a library display– play areas make it simple to extend the learning with related library materials.

Voting Booth made out of an appliance box for kids to vote

Facilitating library play encourages subsequent visits, which in turn fosters interest in library materials.  Enjoy playing at your library!

(All photos courtesy of guest blogger)

This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: Programming Skills and Commitment to Client Group.

Head shot of guest blogger, Jen McKinneyOur guest blogger today is Jennifer McKinney. Jen is the Assistant Manager and Children’s Librarian of the Tecumseh Branch of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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

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