Blogger Jaime Eastman

Library Play Spaces: A Guide to Design and Standards

A library play space with several sections of different toys and seating.

Libraries and play belong together, but maintaining library place spaces is hard work. We strive for fun, but also intentionality. We want enthusiasm, without caregiver disengagement. Finding the perfect play area remains elusive, but it’s worth the effort. Recently, we took great steps to consider just what we want our library play spaces to be. Keep reading to see what we learned.

A colorful rug with a selection of infant toys in a quiet corner of the library.
An infant play space with semi-private seating and safe floor play.

Knowing Our Why

With five locations, we strive for consistent patron experiences. However, we also recognize each building’s unique spaces and communities. This project established the intended experience in a Plano Public Library play space and then gave buildings tools to create their individual spaces within those guidelines.

Evaluating Existing Spaces

Our first step: determine the starting foundation. To create consistency, we first needed to know what was already in place. A second goal: capitalizing on those things already working well. First, we created a team, with a representative from each building. Then, I created an observation form to evaluate:

  • Design and organization, including toy groupings, navigating the space, and distinct play areas
  • Available toys and activities, including quality and variety
  • Seating, including options for children and caregivers
  • Accessibility, including labeling, quantities, and ADA considerations
  • Visibility for both staff and patrons
  • Staff interactions, including findability of staff, space maintenance, and family engagement

Next, we toured each location. During the tours, staff from that location provided an overview of the library play space with any additional context and answered questions. Finally, a brainstorming session shared our observations of both successes and challenges. This identified our key themes moving forward.

A shelf with toys in clearly labeled buckets.
Labels on shelves or on buckets help families know where to return items.

Defining Our Intention

With a better foundation, we dove into creating our new standards. First, we needed a clear intention. This not only helped staff and patrons understand the why behind our library play spaces, but also guided our decisions in creating standards. Also important: defining our ideal family experience. We identified several key thoughts:

  • Our play spaces are an extension of early learning programming and services.
  • Spaces and resources support the developmental needs of children ages zero to five, but children of all ages can and will utilize the space.
  • We emphasize connections between caregiver and child and between families and the community.
  • We welcome families to use spaces freely, engaging in conversation and exploration through open-ended play and learning.
  • Staff remain readily available to answer questions, provide support, and maintain the space.

Developing Our Standards

With our intention set, we needed a critical evaluation. We wanted standards that spoke to our intention but also had enough flexibility for buildings to adapt. We used best practices in place at each building, talking through what worked for all, and identified five key standards.

A library play space with two unique areas: one for infants and one for preschoolers.
Shelves and furniture can help create unique spaces.

Unique Play Areas

The intentional division of space for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers supports their unique needs. We do this through strategic use of furniture, rugs, and resources to create visual and physical boundaries. Further, toy options support a variety of developmental ages. Families choose what feels most appropriate.

Available Toys

Toys are durable, age appropriate, and conducive to a variety of play. While each building may have different toys (or quantities), we identified consistent labeling standards and minimum toy categories present, including:

  • Dramatic play, like play food, puppets or dolls
  • Manipulatives, like blocks, transportation toys, and stacking or interlocking toys
  • Puzzles, including shape sorters or chunky puzzles with few pieces
  • Infant toys, like blocks, stacking cups, rattles, or sensory tubes
  • Fine motor skills, like writing tablets or magnetic puzzles

Child and Caregiver Seating

Available seating includes options for both caregivers and children, including options for adults and children to sit together. In addition, we embed our seating into the play space design. Further, we consider options that offer quiet or semi-private spaces to support individual needs.

A bucket for dirty toys and cleaning supplies atop a shelf in the children's area.
Cleaning supplies on hand let families assist with cleaning.

Cleaning, Rotation, and Maintenance

We use quarterly rotations of toys with a regular inventory, routinely evaluating their condition. Also, clearly labeled spaces for “yucky” toys and signage encouraging clean up support our day-to-day maintenance.

Staff Engagement

Above all, we view our play spaces as a community service. To that end, staff are available, visible, and regularly engage with families. We also support ongoing maintenance in the space and articulate key points about it. Finally, staff initiate a play space closing procedure 15 minutes before closing to support final patron interactions.

Next Steps

With our standards in place, future project phases created supporting processes and procedures, as well as staff training. I’ll dive more into those phases in future blog posts. In the meantime, if you’re looking for more resources on play areas, check out some of these posts:

What standards would you include for libraries adding or redesigning a play space?

All images courtesy of the author. This post addresses ALSC Core Competency #1: Commitment to Client Group and #2: Reference and User Services.

The author poses with ribbon wands

Jaime Eastman is a senior Public Services Librarian and Early Learning Coordinator at the Harrington Library, one of the Plano (Texas) Public Library locations. She’s currently serving as a member of the ALSC Board of Directors. Jaime is also working on at least two ambitious cross stitch projects, dreaming of future travel plans, and reading far too many books at once. As a child, she wanted to grow up to be an author. Writing for the blog and publishing with Children and Libraries feel like a good start, and she regrets nothing about her adult decision to be a librarian doing storytimes who didn’t have to grow up too much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *