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Pandemic Programming: Connect & Play

In an effort to be responsive to community feedback, our library system resumed limited in-person early literacy activities in October 2021. Storytimes and a drop-in program we call “Connect & Play” are currently underway with a variety of risk-reducing COVID considerations. Connect & Play is a program we have been doing for many years. Here’s the play-by-play I’ve found makes for a successful experience for families in our current environment.

Underpinning all the activities are the familiar early learning practices of “Talk, Play, Read, Write, Sing Together,” as well as the principles from Reimagining School Readiness, covered more in-depth in a previous ALSC blog post.

Format:

A 2-3 hour period where children 0-5 years old and their caregiver/s can drop in for as long as they like. Each week, participants engage with 4-5 stations that support different aspects of early literacy & learning.

Connect & Play room set-up with stations in different corners.

Each week, the specifics of each station category rotates:

  • Reading: A selection of books in multiple languages, sometimes tied to the other stations, and cozy seating arrangements.
    • Why/how: integrating reading as part of play, introducing families to books I think they’ll like but might not have found themselves, having a more low-key station to accommodate different energy levels. Participants can take the books upstairs to check them out if they find any they want to bring home!
  • Art: “Painting” with tissue paper; coloring with “dot” markers; texture rubbing with crayons; no-mess painting in squishable plastic bags (similar to this).
    • Why/how: I’m all about the process art — we aren’t making masterpieces in this program, but we are building creativity, motor skills, and vocabulary. Having open-ended projects means less prep for me; makes the station more repeatable because no matter how old they are, kids will build on their skills from the last time and make something new; and ensures that with no fixed outcome, everyone is successful if they try. Hey, growth mindset, I see you!
  • Imagination: Post office; flower shop; blocks, trucks, n’ dinos; science lab.
    • Why/how: In non-pandemic times, we have truly wonderful play areas with “imagination stations” and rotating themes. All those toys have been packed in their plastic tubs since March 2020. In planning for Connect & Play, I went through all the options and pulled together the most sanitizable components into the themes above. I have a basket for any toys that get put into someone’s mouth or are otherwise germy. Everything gets sanitized at the end of the program. Similar to the art station, the most successful themes have plenty of flexibility for how kids and caregivers play with them, whether it’s full-on pretend or practicing STEM skills like building, sorting, and making patterns.
  • Movement: balance beams, pop-up tunnels, yoga.
    • Why/how: Hey, it’s Minnesota — we need to get our wiggles out during these cold months! If you’re sensing a theme re: open-endedness, you’re right. On the balance beams, the youngest ones are just crawling over it, the three year olds are wobbling forwards, and the five-year-olds might need a “challenge” like seeing if they can do it backwards. I will say that with the big motion activities especially, the gap between kids’ developmental stages is a potential source of conflict. The 4 and 5 year olds have that “big kid energy” that is totally appropriate for their development and can totally bulldoze the baby just entering the other end of the tunnel. Helping kids understand the boundaries of the space and redirecting that energy has smoothed over these situations. Sometimes the parent or caregiver is looking to me to set that initial boundary (“Wow, that chair does roll! We’re not going to play scooters in this room, though, because we don’t want to bonk into anyone by accident. Can I give you a different challenge?”) and then the next time the kid tests the boundary, the caregiver steps right in and we give each other the thumbs up.
  • Music: Children’s music from our CD collection. We are particularly jamming to the Alphabet Rockers, 123 Andrés, and Elizabeth Mitchell.
    • Why/how: This is more of an environmental thing than a station, but having music playing serves several purposes: 1) Fills awkward silences when there are just a couple participants. 2) Showcases some of our great children’s musicians. 3) Builds those early great early literacy skills associated with music and singing.
  • Unexpected hits: Piano and whiteboards. The conference room we use has an upright piano and giant whiteboards. I hadn’t really factored them into the program — since they’re always in the room, I barely notice them. But of course, the kids notice everything and most of them play with both during their visit. Your program space might have some similar opportunities, and bonus: you don’t even have to notice them at first; just be ready to be flexible and supportive when kids inevitably engage creatively with a new (to them) environment.
Connect & Play Imagination Station with signage, microscopes, shells, sand timers, and magnets.

Space considerations & other observations:

  • Sanitizing wipes, spray, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and masks are ready for anyone to use. As of this posting, masks are required for patrons ages five and up in county buildings. In this program, it seems like about 80% of kids 2-5 are also wearing masks.
  • For social distancing, we haven’t had to limit attendance yet, but we do have guidance on how many people we can accommodate in the space and will ask families to wait upstairs on the main floor until someone else leaves. There is usually plenty of turnover in the program, so they don’t have to wait long. The room is set up with the stations spread out, so there isn’t a lot of bunching up. Within the program, I try to have a conversation with each new caregiver about what they can expect. That includes acknowledging that different families have different levels of space they are comfortable with, and that we are all going through this together (the majority of the kids have spent almost their whole lives in this pandemic — bonkers!). This usually leads to the caregiver talking to me about their comfort level and their hopes or expectations for the program. I ask the adults that as their child is interacting with others, to also keep an eye on the other kid’s caregiver and be responsive to their cues. So far, building the community this way has been successful in navigating social distancing.
  • I’ve found these signs from the Bay Area Discovery Museum’s School Readiness Toolkit to be helpful. They have great open-ended prompts for caregivers in multiple languages. I usually have one at each station.
  • If you don’t have it available already and you have the budget, consider getting a couple of low tables that the kids can stand at to do some of the stations. Also make it comfortable for adults of different ages and physicalities to engage with their kid at each of the stations. I have some “back patter” chairs for the floor, as well as regular meeting room chairs and stools — everything is moveable so that families can make the space work for them.
  • One great thing about this type of program is that it seems to draw in a more diverse audience than storytime. I’ve seen lots and lots of dads, sets of parents, non-parental caregivers, multi-generational caregivers, and happy families of different ethnicities.
  • What about kids older than 5? Our branch has a wonderful cohort of elementary-aged regulars who spend most afternoons at the library. Some of them have been a little jealous of Connect & Play and made various distracting bids for my attention during the program. I’ve got several tools in my belt for this situation, all of which have helped curb that behavior: sometimes they are just curious about what we’re doing/what they’re missing. Letting them take a quick peek around the room before going back upstairs is sometimes enough. I’ve talked with them afterward about why we have a separate program for little ones vs. all the “big kid” things they can do at the library. I’ve also asked some older kids for help cleaning up after the little ones are gone (and looked the other way at some play along the way). For families with a spread of ages of children, I do let older siblings “hang.” So far, that situation has been smooth — the older siblings haven’t been disruptive in this context. If we ever need to adjust their behavior, I’ll work with the caregiver to come up with solutions.
  • What’s it like for me: I usually spend 30 minutes on set-up and take-down. During the program, my role is welcoming and orienting new families, greeting and checking in with returning ones, and then just kind of keeping an eye on everything. I usually bring my laptop or small project with me so families don’t feel like they HAVE to chat with me, but I make sure to be available and try to engage with families as much as they want. Some folks are pretty quiet, others are super chatty — that goes for the little ones and the grown-ups! I think of myself as half lifeguard, half party host.

Does your library have a similar program? What changes have you made to it because of the pandemic? I’m always making tweaks, so post any suggestions!

Mary Dubbs is a member of the Early Childhood Services and Programs committee and a Youth Services Librarian for Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis.

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