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Play, Talk, Read, Write, Sing: A New Beginning for Early Literacy

by Dawn Wacek

Rice Lake, Wisconsin is both a big city -- the biggest in the county -- and a small town, all at the same time. In the summer, we have parks and the lake. In the winter, we have snowmobiling, ice fishing and skiing. Basically, the Library is the resource for family fun in our community, especially true in the winter months.

Most families don’t have a lot of extra money for travel or activities. Many of the great organizations serving our low-income families include literacy as a component of their services, but we weren’t seeing much of them or the families they served at the library.

At the RLPL, we’ve done what I’m sure many of you do to try to reach new users. We offer storytimes, family programming, a strong summer reading program with really great community support, and the occasional outreach program. We advertise in the newspaper, on our website, and on Facebook. For summer reading promotion, we visit schools and hand out flyers.

"Many of the great organizations serving our low-income families include literacy as a component of their services, but we weren’t seeing much of them or the families they served at the library."

Once in awhile, the Early Head Start group would ask us for an educational storytime.

Unfortunately, outside of those scheduled events, we didn’t see those families again. Those who did attend storytime were the children of well-educated, middle class families with parents who had grown up using the library. We really wanted to find ways to bring new users to the library.

Additionally, did I mention that our library is old? Not “charmingly” old. Just aged and worn. We had toys, and some space to play, but our tables and chairs weren’t comfortable, there was no cohesion to the decor or play activities, and the space wasn’t as attractive as we knew it could be. Families played a little after storytime, but they didn’t stay long.

Then, about a year ago I attended a Wisconsin Library Association program on Early Literacy spaces and heard great presentations on what a library could do with a little bit of money (or a lot of money). And at the end, someone mentioned a new component: Library Sciences and Technology Act (LSTA) offered a competitive grant for Early Literacy space needs.

Immediately, I thought, “Perfect!” Of course, I had never written a grant before, and the idea of “competing” for money was a little worrisome. But, we had Ashley Bieber, a new and enthusiastic Youth Services Manager and an excellent resource in Leah Langby, our Development Coordinator. The worst case scenario was that even just our work on the grant would maybe lead to improvements we could already afford.

We decided to go for it. We spent a lot of time on the LSTA grant website. I researched our community’s need by looking at poverty and literacy rates, speaking to teachers, reading specialists and the directors of local service organizations such as Head Start, The Pregnancy Help Center and the local Homeless Shelter. We verified that they would collaborate on implementation by bringing their families to the library and their staff to literacy trainings. Ashley and I worked together, and then sent it to Leah, who has won several grants for the Indianhead Library System. After Leah shredded our proposal, we started back in, only slightly disheartened, realizing how much clearer our need was -- and our plan.

Toddlers enjoy the new Rice Lake Public Library's Early Literacy Grant Project.

Toddlers enjoy the new Rice Lake Public Library's Early Literacy Grant Project

Toddlers enjoy the new Rice Lake Public Library's Early Literacy Grant Project

Crafting a Better Plan

What was the plan, you ask? In a (slightly long) nutshell:

1. Revamp the space!

  • Weed out worn toys, tables, and chairs and paint the walls.
  • Order interactive, literacy-based wall panels.
  • Furnish the space with more versatile tables and chairs, comfortable seating, and cozy reading nooks.
  • Add large, interactive play equipment to encourage the 5 components of literacy -- playing, reading, writing, talking, and singing.

2. Revamp the collection!

  • Refresh our parenting collection and move it to a more accessible location
  • Introduce “storytime kits” so parents could extend the storytime experience at home. Include picture books, music, a toy related to the materials and an activity sheet. These would also be great for child care providers, grandparents, and others working with young children.

3. Revamp our web presence!

  • Ensure that would be a resource for families, caregivers and teachers to find great information and links on early literacy.
  • Add booklists, early learning websites, and songs/fingerplays on video.

4. Team up with other services to bring in new families!

  • Offer quarterly storytime programs, staff education visits, and free ride passes for families on local City Transit.
  • Collaborate with:
    • Early Head Start
    • Pregnancy Help Center
    • Heart Island Family Resource Center
    • Benjamin House shelter
    • Migrant Head Start (to include Bilingual storytimes with the help of their staff)

Timeframe for the plan: to have this entire operation up and running within three months, four at the most. We expected some time for ordering furnishings, materials and doing the heavy lifting, and then thought we could start with scheduled storytimes, outreach visits, and circulating new materials. We planned to reach hundreds of new families by the time Summer Reading rolled around.

The Reality

As always, the reality was slightly different than the original plan.

1. We underestimated the time everything would take!

  • Putting together our new furnishings and arranging them effectively took a long time.
  • Ordering materials for the Parenting Collection was pretty quick, but the Storytime kits took longer to select and build.
  • Cataloging the storytime kits for checkout was our biggest time suck.
  • In the middle of this project, we decided to redesign our website so our plan to add booklists, early learning websites, and songs/fingerplays on video has been put on hold until the new design is completed.

2. We overestimated the number of people in our target audience we could reach!

  • Far fewer families attended our educational storytimes than we had planned.
  • Those who came often did so because our partner organization required it.
  • Even doing the educational storytime component as an outreach, we only met 25% of the number of families we hoped for.

3. It was still amazing!

  • Although our programs started later than we hoped and with smaller turnouts, through surveys, we found that we had reached entirely new users.
  • Those users kept coming back!
  • They got library cards for themselves and their kids!
  • Partner organizations now see us as literacy experts! We found creative ways to keep luring families -- free taxi rides, free book coupons, free pizza!

The Results

Despite the challenges, our program saw lasting results:

  • Both regular and new users love the space. Parents rave about it to us, and share their enthusiasm and their pictures on both their own and our Facebook pages
  • Families come to play then stay longer.
  • Parents interact more with their children.

Additionally, we reached 54 staff members at our partner agencies, 16 parents and 100 children. Toward the year’s end, we surveyed the staff who participated.

Of those responding:

  • 100% of agency staff indicated an increased awareness of what early literacy is and how to use it, in practice and education.
  • 100% indicated that they discovered new books and authors during the programs.

"We’ve effectively re-engaged with agency staff and the families they serve..."

We’ve effectively re-engaged with agency staff and the families they serve, many of whom knew about the library, but may not have visited recently. Our storytime kits circulated 4 times each in the first 2 months they were available.

Families regularly comment on how wonderful the space is, describing it as "welcoming and fun." Some of the clientele from our partner agencies are now regular users, checking out materials, coming to play, and attending other events. Even more exciting, our plan is sustainable, because once we purchased “big ticket” items, our Friends Group offered to keep the toys and activities up to date. And, now that we know the kits will circulate, they have become a part of our regular collection to maintain as we would any other collection.

Looking at the grant project as a whole, we are glad we took the time to try. As one parent said, “We can’t afford to drive to Eau Claire and visit the children’s museum, but it doesn’t matter now. My child gets just as much out of a visit to our library!”


This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of our Kids & Books newsletter. Subscribe to Kids & Books.

Dawn Wacek is the Director of the Rice Lake Public Library.  She worked as a Children and Teen Librarian for eight years before transitioning to Library Administration.  She is a member of the Burr/Worzolla Book Award Committee, is a Selector for Youth for the Wisconsin Shared Digital Collection, and has been a Board Member of the Youth Services Section of WLA.