By Deanne W. Swan, PhD
Senior Statistician, IMLS
As an analyst, I don’t often get to go into the field to see first-hand the wonderful work that our nation’s libraries and museums are doing. With summer winding down, I see excited young children preparing their backpacks for the first day of school. I wonder if they are ready for the challenges they will face? For most low-income children, the answer is no.
Museums and libraries reach millions of children each year with educational programs designed to provide the experiences that stimulate their young minds. Are there differences between children who visit these valuable institutions and children who do not? Recently, I have begun to analyze data collected by the U.S. Department of Education – the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten cohort (ECLS-K). The ECLS-K was designed to examine child development, school readiness, and early school experiences. Our analysis is a first step to provide insight into the differences between children who are able to visit libraries and museums and children who don’t get the chance, including school readiness and later academic achievement.
When asked whether their children had visited a library in the past month, about half of all parents surveyed said they had. Forty percent of children had visited a zoo or aquarium, and almost one-third of the children had visited an art gallery, museum, or historic site. When looking at the numbers overall, most children had visited at least one of these community anchor institutions, with almost 12 percent having visited all three! But 27 percent of children had not visited any of these places.
When I dug a little deeper, I found that the story gets more troubling. The most powerful predictor of visitation for all of these – libraries, museums, and zoos/aquariums – was socioeconomic status. Children living in the most affluent households were three times more likely to visit a library or a museum than children living in the most impoverished households. This difference also held for visitation to zoos and aquariums, although the distinction was not as pronounced.
As we know from the recent IMLS report Growing Young Minds, museums and libraries provide interesting and engaging programs designed to provide young children with the kinds of experiences they need to get them ready to learn. The report, developed in partnership with the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, describes what we understand about early development and how programs at libraries and museums fulfill the needs of young learners.
We know that children who are living in poverty are at the highest risk for starting school unprepared to learn, which often leads to future academic challenges and, in the worst cases, dropping out of school. These are the children who need the resources offered at libraries and museums most, and yet, based on these preliminary findings, they are the ones least likely to use them.
Although the situation might seem dire, I know that libraries and museums across the U.S. continue to reach out to young children, especially those children who need their services the most. As part of its mission, IMLS supports their work. In cooperation with the Administration for Children and Families, IMLS encourages collaboration between public libraries and early childhood programs, such as Head Start. Last year, IMLS awarded $7.4 million in to 38 museums and libraries to support early learning programs. There may be work to do, but museums and libraries are ready to meet the challenge.