Friday, December 21, 2012

Play and Learn

Over the past year, the children's room in the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library in Eau Claire has undergone a glorious transformation.  Their recent long range planning process recommitted them to promoting and supporting emerging literacy, and one great way they are doing this is their fabulous Play and Learn area.  I chatted with Shelly Collins Fuerbringer, Youth Services Manager, about the way this is working for them.
Play and Learn
Play and Learn area

Using a combination of large pieces (a wooden kitchen set, a store front), smaller toys, and home-made, interactive displays, the youth services staff make sure that there is always something interesting to do.  They are using broad themes, and changing things out every three months or so to keep it fresh.  This time, the theme is community.  Along with a cafe,  farmer's market, school,  and community-helpers dress-up, they made a post office, post cards to deliver, and mail boxes for storybook characters (using high-tech cereal and cracker boxes):
Storybook Apartment Mailboxes

Response has been wonderful.  Families stay longer, and interactions between adults and children are much more high quality—instead of parents “talking at” their children, they are having fun, playing, listening, and communicating in a much more meaningful way. 
A grandmother and child enjoy being mail carriers, and having a conversation about what those red flags are for

As the project is new, it is quite time-consuming.  Staff is learning what works best--they are watching for what kids are responding to and figuring out ways to repeat those, while keeping the area fresh.  Shelly says sometimes she'll put something out that she thinks won't last very long before it gets broken, but then it withstands heavy use.  Unfortunately, the converse is also true:  sometimes they'll purchase something that looks extra-sturdy and it breaks right away.  These learning curves, plus developing broad, easy-to-repeat themes, are taking extra time for the next few years.

 There aren’t many instructions in the Play and Learn area—the children’s staff strongly feels that families need to feel free to do what they want to, and shouldn’t be constrained by lists of things to do or instructions.  Attractive, literacy-rich displays and signs and interactive items make this library feel very welcoming!  Families are staying longer, and I can certainly see why.

A map of Eau Claire, with photos of important community locations

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