Guest Blogger

A Screen-Free Library

We’ve got an obsession.

Tablets to check-out and take home. Touchscreens. Toys that imitate cellphones. Early literacy stations.
App collection development. TV-streaming services that bite more out of our budgets every year.

You want to teach kids coding? You need $350.00 for a Lego Mindstorm and an iPad to download a free
app. If you can’t afford that, no problem. Just buy and maintain 14 laptops.

Once upon a time, my library had 10 early literacy computers–the very first version. We were ahead of
the game. After ten years, though, they fell out of date or broke down or their warranties expired. We
have 1 left and it is relegated next to the adult computers where parents can work while their children
play.

Only… the kids don’t play on the computer.

Wooden toy train & tracks as part of a screen free library setting
Train tables are popular in other libraries, but we opted for mobile train tracks and blocks that can be stored. We often see grade-school children teaching toddlers how to design their own train stations.

When I became Head of Youth Services at my library, the first thing I did was expand the play areas. I
purchased the simplest of toys: large, soft blocks and small wooden ones. I updated our puzzle
collection and put out all the storytime toys that had been hidden in the closet. Most of the time, the
kids don’t even need these things. You know what the most popular toy has been?

Paper.

I left out some printer paper next to our coloring station one day and a boy asked me for scissors or
tape. He was old enough, so I let him have them. Not more than five minutes later, what do I hear but,
“HAHA! NOW YOU’RE FROG.”

Of all things, the group of elementary-age boys had made paper wands and were casting transformation
spells at each other.

How many places does this happen? How many places COULD this happen?

Consider this: when there are no screens, kids look at each other. They play with kids they’ve never met
before and learn to engage their imaginations. In the enclosed space of my library, with air conditioning
and play areas designated in living-room style spaces, some of my patrons have become so comfortable that they’ve taken to treating it like their own house—even to the point that some compulsively take their shoes off when they enter the room (I’ve made signs against this). So when they are here, they feel at home. Strangers feel like family. Their children feel safe. Only what is different about this place is that there is no TV. The only computers are made for adult use and are hidden by make-shift rooftops over private study carrels. There is open space, bookshelves, toys, and people–but very little technology.

So the children play. And they ask their parents to read pop-up books with them. And they imagine.

Just imagine.

How do you imagine libraries to be in the future? Do you see technology being at the center of the library’s focus or will screen-free play win out in the long-term? Let us know in the comments!

(Photos courtesy of guest blogger)


Today’s guest blogger is Hannah M. Lee, MLIS. Hannah is the Head of Youth Services at Sayreville Public Library where she leads early learning, STEM, and social skill development programs for ages 0-18. While she considers coding and STEM to be essential for well-rounded learning, her favorite program for teaching computational thinking involves rolling 20-sided dice.

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.

3 comments

  1. Kelly Doolittle

    I’d like to imagine our Youth Services as a space without screens, but I’m afraid I’d be in the vastly outnumbered minority. Your blog post is reminding me that when we complain about kids spending too much time on the computer and grownups ignoring their kids in favor of their devices we have ourselves to blame.
    However, I hear the argument that kids need their Chromebooks for school work, grownups need their computers and our computers for filing job applications, and people who can’t afford their own computers at home need them for so many things, and I understand that. But having computers for children in the library, even if they are full of creative games, does indeed take away from that precious interaction for many of our patrons – reading together. Of course, there are many caregivers who balance their library time with computer use, and reading and playing together very well. Then there are those who consistently don’t. It is very sad to witness, and hard to know how to handle. I used to try and go into our play area where caregivers were ignoring their children and bring a book to share with the kids. But the rewards were spotty – usually, what those kids really wanted was their grownups to pay attention to them, and the grownups were too immersed in their devices to notice. On the flip side, many families wouldn’t even come to this small city library if we didn’t have computers. I noticed a large increase in numbers after we got our Early Learning computers.

    I know this sounds depressing, but it feels like a no-win situation to me. Without the computers, we lose a whole set of the population. With them, we lose a lot of positive interactions between caregiver and child.

    I am very interested in how other library staff view these issues. Thank you for a very important post!

  2. ed

    What about having computers with limited screen times and having play based materials available when time runs out.

    1. Kelly Doolittle

      Yes, we do have that already 🙂 The littlest kids get a half hour on the early learning computers and the bigger kids get 65 minutes on the internet computers (although they figured out how to go to 90 minutes because of a glitch that the reservation company can’t fix! Sheesh…) and we have a beautiful play area right next to the computers.

      Regardless, I do believe it is up to the grownups to interact with their kids when they’re not on the computers, so for me, that’s fully half the technology battle. How do we get folks glued to their phones to stop ignoring their children? One thing we tried is hanging big, gorgeous photos of diverse adults interacting with their babies. We also moved the board books so they were closer to the play area. But I’m going to be blunt and just say that cell phones (and computer use) can be an addiction for many people, and like other addictions, they can take precedence over even what should be the most important things in their lives. I wish I knew a way to truly deal with that.

      That’s why I really enjoyed this post, Hannah, because my feeling is that I really like the way your children’s department sounds. Don’t get me wrong – our children’s department is big and beautiful and amazing and we have so many fun programs and do so much good for the community! But this is one issue that really touches my heart.

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