Saturday, April 3, 2010

PLA highlights part 1 - Active Learning Environments for Children

My first-ever Public Library Association conference started off on Tuesday with an all-day preconference called Active Learning Environments for Children, which presented successful models of all sorts, from very small and portable "spots" to amazingly sophisticated and expensive drool-worthy installations.

We have 10 branches with dedicated early literacy areas (the photo is of our Wilmington Branch) - but I would like to see at least a small early literacy area in every one of our 72 branches, plus Central Library.

Here are the highlights of the day - bits and pieces of inspiration and great ideas that I might be able to implement at the Los Angeles Public Library:
  • When planning early literacy areas, be purposeful and intentional. What is supposed to happen? What should the children and parents be learning? What will success look like?
  • Adult/child interaction is key. Early literacy centers in libraries shouldn't just be about keeping a toddler busy with toys while the parent reads a magazine (although nothing wrong with that once in a while!) - rather, adults should be given opportunities and ideas to interact with their children, which they can use at home and anywhere.
  • Evaluation of early learning centers can be difficult. There is much that can't be measured (for example, whether using these centers will result in higher reading levels when the child enters school). What we can measure - use patterns, attendance, circulation, satisfaction, parental participation, levels of community collaboration.
  • Hennepin County Library - They wanted to put early learning areas in existing small branches and didn't have much money, so they put Early Literacy Spots wherever they could find room - shelf ends, elevators, bathrooms, the sides of service desks - these would have small early learning activities for kids, with tips for parents on how to do them with their child. For example - photos of kids showing various emotions, with tips for parents on how to make this a fun learning experience.
  • More easy ideas from Hennepin County - put big A B C stickers on the floor, on stair risers, or all over the library. Parents can just sing the Abc song with their kids, or they can look around for things that start with those letters. Even tabletops can be used for tips and activities - just laminate the top.
  • Put large ruler against shelf ends, let kids measure themselves and various objects
  • Baltimore County Public Library - they put Early Literacy Activity Centers in all their branches. These had to easy, cheap, and self-service - because they have NO children's librarians! (horrified gasps from the packed room of children's librarians) They put some very basic equipment in each branch - a small table-top puppet theater, shelves with bins of toys and activities, signage indicating how parents can use materials - and rotated different materials from branch to branch so that every month or two, kids could play with new stuff. They had high praise for furniture from Community Playthings and also toys from Lakeshore Learning (we at LAPL use lots of Lakeshore materials in our ELF branches).
  • Great tips - label bins with pictures so it's easy to tell where to put stuff back; put up a sign saying kids can get a sticker at the info desk if they clean up!
  • Baltimore County does have two very elaborate installations (sort of a "village" within a library) called Storyville. Check out the website for info and a virtual tour. I would have LOVED this when I was the parent of small children.
Good ideas in a nutshell
  • Check out school readiness kits to preschool teachers and caregivers - filled with themed books, puppets, flannel stories, realis
  • Use self-service activity bins, labeled with photos, whenever possible. Fill with puzzles, realistic animals, color sorting activities, blocks, stacking toys, and much more
  • Small puppet theaters, with a small selection of puppets (eg some pig, bear, and girl puppets) and the books to go with them (3 little pigs; 3 bears)
  • Small space? Use end panels of shelving for magnetic board, posters, etc; maybe just fit in a bright activity rug, bin unit, small table, and mini puppet theater. Swap usages - ie baby/toddler/preschooler stuff during the day, then remove and stick in closet after school, and replace with games and other big kid stuff.
  • Dealing with mess - well-labeled bins with pix; good organization; kid or teen volunteers to help clean; make sure schedule and procedures for cleaning up are part of staff training
  • Okay to set limits on behavior - both parent and kids need to know the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Make the rules clear - kids over 3 may not scream or hit, for example.
Next up - highlights from Everyone Serves Youth, a way to make sure that ALL the staff at the library understands how and why to give kids, teens, and families excellent customer service.


  1. I remember when the libraries around here started building "Child" learning areas. I was so envious because I was maybe 7/8 too old for what they had there. I always wanted to play in it. I was a library dork :)

  2. If you really wanna see a quality learning environment, visit The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. They set the standard by which all others follow. Especially the planetarium!

  3. Long live library dorks!
    Museums are doing amazing things, and there have been some awe-inspiring museum/library collaborations. Examples - Charlotte Mecklenburg County Library's ImaginOn; St. Paul Early Learning and Literacy (Spell). At LAPL, these kinds of projects are way too daunting for us right now - but they do provide inspiration!