Several years ago, before the COVID-19 outbreak, Invest in Children, a community wide public/private partnership administered by the Cuyahoga County Office of Early Childhood, and the United Way of Greater Cleveland came to the two largest library systems in Northeast Ohio (Cleveland Public Library (CPL) and Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL)—the largest suburban system for which I work) with an idea. Although delayed thanks to the pandemic, the first FamilySpace location opened in September 2022 at CCPL’s Garfield Heights Branch, and three other locations (two in each system total) followed. The response has been positive, to say the least.
What is FamilySpace? The program focuses on three family-centered pillars.
First—each library has a family-centered space. The chosen branches have youth spaces designed to meet the needs of families with young children, primarily infants and toddlers. These spaces have books, toys, and other materials designed for families, as well as information regarding community organizations that can meet the needs of young families.
These locations also hold designated playtimes based a program a local nonprofit partner named Family Connections has run for years in smaller local library systems. The playtimes are led by family-centered staff…the second FamilySpace pillar.
With the guidance and training of Family Connections, I—as the Family Engagement Specialist for the system—and a contractor who is a school psychologist engage families through open play on the floor of the library during these dedicated hours, building relationships, trust, and connecting these families to resources they can use. To make this replicable and able to expand, we are also in the process of hiring Family Advocates—community members who know local resources and will eventually run the play times with my support.
Honestly, this has been the most challenging part of FamilySpace thus far. It has been difficult to find Advocates, necessitating more and longer work from myself and our school psychologist. We are finally onboarding our Advocates!
The third pillar features the most innovative part of the FamilySpace program: family-centered partnerships. Each FamilySpace location has created a Family Advisory Committee—a diverse group of moms, dads, grandparents, and nannies who come together to express community and programming needs to library staff. Each CCPL branch has a group between 9-12 people strong. We are working towards turning leadership of these groups to the families themselves and have been trying to implement programming ideas brought up in Committee meetings. I’m happy to say that our families “buy in” to the process and have been very upfront and collaborative in their ideas.
What has been the community response? Aside from being able to form the Advisory Committees, it has been clear that open play time with an emphasis on community and relationship building has struck a chord in our families. A few weeks ago, over 100 children and their caregivers attended the weekly play session at CCPL’s South Euclid-Lyndhurst Branch, which is featured in this blog’s photos. That branch averages 55 people per play session, and we have reached 165 families since launching in October 2022. Garfield Heights—our first location—averages approximately 30 people, but that includes a second, evening play time with lower numbers that skews the average. We have reached 123 families at Garfield Heights since September 2022.
We’ve seen friendship form among children (several parents have told me their children now have friends they can name for the first time) and among adults. Families have traveled to attend play times at both branches. We’ve brought in experts in child development, speech, nursing, and more to talk to families during the play times, which we hope to expand now that we have hired more staff. And we hope to have our families involved in evaluating the program.
Although such a comprehensive program might not be possible, any library can hold open play times, invite child development experts, and see the benefits of building community and trust with their families.
To learn more about FamilySpace at Cleveland Public Library, as I work for Cuyahoga County Public Library, please click here.
Thanks to school psychologist Emily Stupica for her wonderful photographs!
(All pictures used with permission.)
This post addresses the core competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group, III. Programming Skills, and V. Outreach and Advocacy.