When an initiative known as Family Place introduced a new children’s programming model that encourages libraries to go beyond summer reading programs and story hours to reach their full potential as community hubs, the California State Library took notice.
As a collaboration that began in 1996 between New York’s Middle Country Public Library and the now-defunct nonprofit Libraries for the Future, the Family Place model promotes spaces within libraries that focus on the learning and literacy of children ages 0–3, while also supporting the needs of the entire family. Family Place principles have now been refined and translated into a replicable framework that gives all libraries the chance to look at their children’s services in a fresh way. More than 300 sites in 23 states are currently part of the expanding Family Place Libraries network.
Stacey Aldrich, state librarian for the California State Library, was impressed by Family Place when she was introduced to the concept through Libraries for the Future.
"Family Place is amazing," says Aldrich. "They really make libraries think about the environments they’re creating for families. Family Place library spaces are designed for the family to fully engage and interact—parents and caregivers, as well as children.
"The Family Place model is built around the idea that literacy begins at birth and that libraries can foster community growth by nourishing families," continues Aldrich. Spaces are designed for parent/caregiver-child interaction, "but also for community interaction. Experts in the community are brought into the space to give presentations and serve as resources for parents."
Family Place libraries do far more than provide children’s books: they serve as community gathering places that promote emergent literacy, support healthy child and family development, and encourage lifelong learning. They contain a specially designed area that welcomes families with young children with a wide assortment of books, toys, music, and multimedia materials. They also offer developmentally appropriate programs for very young children.
The most unique component of a Family Place library is its five-week Parent/Child Workshops, which involve toddlers and their parents/caregivers. During these sessions, local professionals are brought in to discuss strategies for healthy child development and early literacy. The role of parents as the first teachers of their children is emphasized.
Another key component of the Family Place model is library staff trained in family support, child development, parent education, and best practices. "We had been sponsoring librarians to attend Family Place training in New York," says Aldrich. When cost and time constraints became a factor, "We started to talk to them about bringing them to California."
With the help of an IMLS grant, Aldrich and her team sponsored the development of a Family Place training center at the Los Angeles County Public Library. "We helped create the space and ensure they had the materials they needed," says Aldrich.
During trainings at the center, librarians are able to experience an actual Family Place space at the library and observe how families use it. "Librarians then decide how they can replicate or adapt aspects of the Family Place model in their own branches," says Aldrich.
Library representatives also can apply for sub-grants to fund Family Place projects in their own libraries. "We have Family Place spaces all over the state now," says Aldrich. "Some 25 libraries have participated."
Goleta Library is one such institution. Situated just west of Santa Barbara, Goleta is home to approximately 85,000 people of diverse social, economic, and educational backgrounds. "Many of these populations are unfamiliar with what the public library can offer their families," explains Allison Gray, Goleta Library’s branch manager. "We wanted to create an inviting place where families can congregate, learn, play, read, and enhance their lives."
Family Place training helped the branch create an Infant and Toddler Town—full of attractive, age-appropriate toys, puzzles, games, and puppets—within the library’s children's area.
"The number of ‘thank yous’ we have received from the public regarding the new children's space has, frankly, been astonishing," says Gray. "Parents—especially fathers—are engaging with their children in the library like never before. Rather than spending their time checking e-mails, they play with their children."
This increased interaction, especially via play, "can only benefit each family," adds Gray.
Moving forward, Goleta Library plans to offer four annual Play With Me, Learn With Me Parent/Child Workshops, continue to enhance its circulating collection of parenting and children’s materials, and model the Family Place program to other branches in the Santa Barbara Library System. "The success of the Family Place grant project is the bedrock on which we’ll build an even more comprehensive educational and recreational learning environment for children of all ages," says Gray.
Sarah Dentan, Neighborhood and Children’s Services manager at Berkeley Public Library, attended the Los Angeles–based Family Place training for her branch.
"You get incredibly practical information from the training, which is all underpinned by brain development science," she says. "You really develop an understanding of what’s happening in a child’s brain from birth to age 3."
A unique piece of the training, according to Dentan, is its focus on the family dynamic. "You learn how new parents can feel lonely, isolated, and intimidated when it comes to early literacy," she says. "Especially those who are in underserved situations."
Family Place training and a sub-grant allowed Berkeley Public Library to double the size of its existing early childhood area. This is now a fully equipped early literacy center for children and contains toys, puzzles, blocks, a play telephone, board books, puppets, a dynamic play kitchen area with play food and dishes, and an Early Exploration Panel for toddlers and infants.
"The training expanded our notion of what sort of play is appropriate in the library," says Dentan. "We’ve been able to incorporate more child-directed play."
The space—which, with its full collection of books, magazines, DVDs, brochures, and flyers on parenting issues, is also a resource hub for parents—is incredibly popular, "to the extent that we have a serious stroller parking problem!" says Dentan. "The impact really spreads. People come and see how it works, how the library serves younger children, how it’s okay to have toys in the library."
"We rolled out the Family Place area in March, and young patrons and their families took to it right away," echoes Erica Glenn, senior librarian in the Children’s Department at Berkeley Public Library. "Families use it throughout the day, every day."
Helen Fisher, library director at Ontario Library in Ontario, California, was already familiar with the Family Place model from hearing about the concept over the years and seeing it in action at other libraries. "We applied for the funds, and we attended the training," she explains. "We were really inspired by it.
"In our community, 30 percent of children entering kindergarten are considered homeless or transient, and literacy rates are low," Fisher says. "There aren’t a lot of things for families to do with very young children. One piece of our goal is to engage the community about 0-5 literacy. We’re really interested in helping children with school readiness."
Fisher and her team carved out a space within the children’s area, gave it a fresh coat of yellow paint, and stocked it with toddler furniture, toys, and manipulatives according to the Family Place model.
"It’s really transformed the whole room." The library’s first parent-child workshop also was "a fantastic success," says Fisher. "We had a huge group."
For Stacey Aldrich, watching the Family Place model flourish in California has been immensely satisfying. "Whenever I visit a Family Place space, I always come away with a tingly feeling," she says. "To see a grown man sitting in a kids’ chair, playing with his child, or a grandparent doing a puppet show—it’s special. It’s gratifying to provide this kind of space, where people can meet, talk to other parents, and learn and grow with their kids."
The future of the Family Place project is still taking shape. "Right now, we’re trying to identify how many other libraries are interested in going through Family Place training," says Aldrich. "Our goal for sustainability was for L.A. County to work with Family Place to pull together any future trainings and for the state library to pull out of the process. We’re evaluating where we are."
For Aldrich, the goal is to bring the Family Place model to as many libraries as possible. "I have not seen one Family Place center that didn’t have people in it, participating in some way," she says. "They are magical places."
"This is a wonderful program," agrees Dentan. "I’d love to see it continue to gain traction in libraries because it really has transformative power."