No Cost Learning Environments for Young Children in Libraries

The Queens Library Case Study

Photo: Sarah Hennig, Queens Library; Sketch: Tommaso Lana, Embodied Learning

Queens Library is moving nimbly to become the most advanced – and completely free to the public – service and family center in town. In accordance with the spirit of Embodied Learning, Library President and CEO Dennis M. Walcott paces across the reading room at the Central Library in Jamaica, NY every day to share time, warmth, and openness with every patron. Mr. Walcott is there to capture the patrons’ needs and, along with his staff, to create services and products fitting to them.

Patrons’ needs were also at the core of the courageous, experimental collaboration Queens Library started with Embodied Learning. The work to do was perfecting ways to serve the youngest children, their families, and caregivers through prepared learning environments in libraries’ Children’s Rooms.

The Perfect Plan

Gillian E. Miller, Coordinator of Early Learning Services at Queens Library, developed the perfect plan to enable rapid, successful change within a huge library system.

First, we introduced the Embodied Learning method and techniques to the Library president, vice presidents, administrators, and directors.
In a one hour meeting, Library administrators and managers were able to work smoothly in a new, unexpected fashion with Embodied Learning sensory constructions; they actively collaborated to grasp the impact of my work on inclusive learning environments, young patrons’ healthy development, and joyful family relationships.

Needs and Materials:
Outside of the Box and Back Inside the Box

With the blessing of the Library administration, we started a project that involved managers, assistant managers, senior and junior children’s librarians, and early childhood educators of the ten branches that were selected from across the entire borough. Our goal was to support library workers in setting up each branch’s Children’s Room independently and on a zero-budget for children ages 0 to 8.

“Play means learning through discovery.”

At this point in the collaboration, we wanted librarians and branch managers to take a virtual step outside of their workplaces and reflect on the core needs of young patrons. Through hands-on work with unusual sensory constructions, we experienced how infants, toddlers, and children learn autonomously through play because play means learning through discovery.

Photo: Gillian E. Miller, Queens Library

These activities led all participants to better understand that movement, imagination, self-awareness, physical confidence, sensory agency, pre-literacy, relationship with adults – including the librarians – and social-emotional skills are the core of healthy development in early childhood also in libraries.

“Every child is the protagonist in their own learning.”

We used these topics to start a conversation about the meaning of learning in a library because these are the elements of the extraordinary self-guided learning process children go through in the first months and years of life. In doing so, we made sure that every child is the protagonist in their own learning. With this in mind, we carried our reflections into a second professional development session which focused on how to foster early learning once back in the branch.

For this transition, we used materials which are generally easy to find in every library: newspapers; packing tape; cardboard and cardboard boxes; wooden laundry pins; and strings.
To translate the work done in the PD workshop into everyday practice successfully, we scheduled the implementation in every library branch.

Photo: Gillian E. Miller, Queens Library

Dynamic Branch Visits

Many library system administrators I’m in conversation with find the librarians’ consultancy phase at their branch too much of a time and resource commitment. However, this is the best way to provide solution-oriented support effectively, self-management skills, and motivation.
Remarkably, Queens Library made sure that I could spend at least two hours with each children’s librarian in their element.

Librarians are great storytellers even in their technical reports. By asking them about patrons behavior, they have told me dramatic stories of people who lost almost everything in Hurricane Sandy, patrons who are only eight years old who come to the branch on their own, children who only have the Children’s Room at the library as a safe space to grow and thrive. Along with the stories about patrons’ needs, librarians had the chance to present their challenges and questions related to the setting of each Children’s Room, the selection of materials, and the branch rituals directly in their workspace.

Photo: Gillian E. Miller, Queens Library

The consultancy at the branch is usually very active. My goal is to experiment with solutions and enable change during that very first visit.
It is an extremely delicate phase of the collaboration since a third party visitor suddenly acts inside the space library workers have a special relationship with. In some cases, it was possible to create a brand new setting just by moving some small pieces of furniture and reorganizing the materials to give the librarian a new perspective on how to prepare and use the room.

In other branches, we worked more on observation training to better respond to visitor needs and providing visual documentation that inspires the librarians and also enables a more effective dialogue with patrons.

The New, Raw, Customizable Prepared Learning Environment

After six hours of an intensive training program and over twenty hours in branches, we had an effective, implementable blueprint for a setting that covers all the current needs of young children and enhances the active, responsible, and dedicated role of parents and caregivers. This blueprint was possible thanks to dozens of inspiring stories and reports about the use of space and materials that children’s librarians patiently shared with me and my interactions with librarians and patrons in each Children’s Room.

Photo & Sketch: Tommaso Lana, Embodied Learning

Early learning at Queens Library will happen in three full inclusive prepared spaces within the Children’s Room: the “sensory play” area; the “imaginative and role play” area; and the “motor play” area.
Each prepared learning space offers the opportunity to foster curiosity, literacy, social-emotional learning, creativity, and relationships.

“Children’s librarians are the curators of the space.”

Children’s librarians are the curators of the space. Through observation and interaction with patrons, they are now able to customize the early learning environment to serve each library branch community best.

We completed this first collaboration in a final workshop session focused on the selection of materials based on the level of stimulation children in each branch are able to engage in while having a positive learning experience. Since, during the branch visits, we often spoke about overstimulation, we worked on reducing adult noise and the number of toys, objects, and materials as well. We focused on replacing quantity with quality by fostering creative solutions through imaginative play and the use of simple common objects. In fact, in at least ten Children’s Rooms at Queens Library branches, young patrons and their families can now be inspired by dedicated librarians, prepared environments, zero-budget materials, and also visual documentation on how to continue their learning through play and discovery experiences at their homes.

Motivating and engaging library workers is part of my job. To underline the importance of play as a learning experience, I suggested renaming the Children’s Room “Early Learning Center.” The idea behind it is to stimulate children’s librarians and adult patrons in actively preserving the strongly formative identity and message of the Children’s Room and, at the same time, making sure that this precious space does not turn into a mere sitting and entertainment area for young children, while their caregivers are using the library.

After the branch visit at Peninsula Community Library in Rockaway Park, NY, children’s librarian Sarah Hennig sent me these words:

“Hi Tommaso,
We are very grateful for your guidance! You have helped us immensely. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback with the new setup. So far from what I’ve observed, parents are interacting more with their children in the Early Learning Center. We’ve put half of the toys in storage as well-so much easier to sort at the end of the day.
The name of the area, “Early Learning Center,” is great by the way!”