May 2012: Making Learning to Read Child’s Play

Children build vocabulary while planting and harvesting vegetables at Hopkins Library.

Minnesota Children's Museum

2009 National Leadership Grant for Libaries

Children build vocabulary while planting and harvesting vegetables at Hopkins Library. Photo by David Kern.

Kirstin Nielsen
Exhibit Development Manager

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An IMLS National Leadership Grant for Libraries gave the Minnesota Children's Museum an opportunity to put a different spin on early literacy in libraries throughout the Twin Cities area.

The St. Paul-based museum – which has provided a range of imaginative, educational, and safe exhibits for children to explore since 1981 – submitted its grant application along with the Dakota County Library System, Hennepin County Library System, and Saint Paul Public Library System. Partnering with the libraries came naturally. "We had a long-standing relationship with them and had collaborated on a lot of programs," says Kirstin Nielsen, Exhibit Development Manager at the museum. "We also have shared goals in early literacy."

Furthermore, love of reading is one of the museum's five content areas. "We have a long history of early literacy projects," adds Nielsen.

Nielsen and her colleagues were looking for a way to do something new and innovative that would draw on the strengths and expertise of the various partners. An idea to bring a taste of the museum’s mission – "sparking children’s learning through play" – to the library environment took shape.

The IMLS grant helped make the concept a reality. A series of three early learning environments – interactive, themed areas that promote literacy skills by encouraging dramatic play with props, manipulatives, and educational displays – were installed in libraries in the Twin Cities area. A diverse trio of libraries – reflecting an urban, a suburban and a rural locale – were chosen to receive the roughly 400-square-foot sites, which were designed for children from birth to age 8.

"We wanted each of these environments to reflect the unique neighborhood around the library," explains Nielsen. "We also wanted to strike a balance between replicating successful elements in each library but also tailoring the design to each location."

The installations are built around the principles of Every Child Ready to Read, an initiative developed by The Public Library Association and Association for Library Service to Children. This effort – widely adopted by libraries nationwide – seeks to teach parents and other caregivers how to support the pre-reading skills and early literacy development of their children.

"The first version of the Every Child Ready to Read initiative centered around six skills that children develop from birth that prepare them to read – print motivation, print awareness, vocabulary, letter knowledge, phonological awareness, and narrative skills," explains Nielsen. "In each environment, we include messages for parents that highlight each of these six areas. It helps get the adults involved."

The first installation was completed at Sun Ray Library, part of the St. Paul Public Library System, in spring 2010. Saint Paul’s easternmost library, built in 1970, serves a diverse, multicultural population. "The theme behind this installation was a global bazaar," says Nielsen. "Children could interact with a Village Vending Cart and learn about letters in the process."

Hopkins Library, part of the Hennepin County Library System, received the second early learning environment. "Hopkins has a small town feel, so the theme for this installation was Main Street," says Nielsen. "We put in a farmers’ market stand, a garden, a picnic table, a little tree the children can climb into, and a bulldozer that invites children to get behind the wheel."

During the summer of 2010, Wescott Library in Dakota County received the third installation. "Delta Airlines is headquartered nearby, and there are lots of shipping and trucking companies in the area. Here, the theme was transportation – by air, water, and land," explains Nielsen. "There was a wall that separated the children’s space from the rest of the library, and we turned it into an airplane." This early literacy environment also features a boat and a bait shop, and a delivery truck with a conveyer belt and loading dock."

The planning grant encompassed other activities in addition to the installations, including a literature review to develop best practices. "We conducted online and print literature research to find out what other library and museum partnerships we could learn from," says Nielsen.

Cross-training was also conducted – meaning that museum staff trained library staff and vice versa. "We talked about 'play training' – how to engage children and adults. A lot of the librarians said this was very helpful," says Nielsen. "The library staff did a basic explanation of early literacy and how children's literacy develops – for some it wasn't new information, but it was a good refresher."

In addition, a book nook at the Minnesota Children's Museum was renovated as part of the grant. "We chose one of the galleries that had the least appealing, least enticing book nook," says Nielsen. "We ended up renovating the entire space, creating a very comfortable literacy environment. We replicated some of the interactives that were successful in the libraries and put a science theme on them."

But the showpiece of the planning grant is the early literacy environments. They have become the main attraction at their libraries, engaging young visitors and drawing them to the children's book area. "Librarians have overheard children come in and say, ‘it looks like the children's museum!’" says Nielsen.

"We all consider these early literacy environments a huge success," she continues. "The libraries have become a destination. We’re seeing more grandparents and fathers using the libraries. We’re also seeing adults connecting in the spaces – they are a community-building tool."

Four more early literacy environments are in design in the Twin Cities area and greater Minnesota since the three made possible by the planning grant. Nielsen and her colleagues are now looking to the future, equipped with knowledge gained over the past two years.

"We've learned a lot," says Nielsen. "For example, we’ve discovered that the more the libraries can make sure they are communicating with as many people as possible, the better. These installations affect everyone – patrons, librarians, staff, and more."

Maintenance has also been an issue. "Our goal was to buy as many items off the shelf as possible," says Nielsen. "If anything custom made wears out, it’s tough to replace. We're also trying to use less painted surfaces because paint chips."

In addition, Nielsen and her colleagues are trying to develop simple ways to keep the installations fresh and new. "We're working on creating some structures that are generic," she says. "For example, a restaurant can easily become a post office if you just switch out the props."

The Minnesota Children's Museum's early learning gallery is undergoing a facelift that incorporates ideas that were used in the installations, and an additional 11 early literacy environments are in the works. "All of this new work," says Nielsen, "is because the planning grant was so successful."