Library Aims To Promote Literacy Through Renovated Play Alcove

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Eldredge Public Library

Cara Williams, 3, plays in the newly renovated play area at the Eldredge Public Library, while her brother Gavin, 7, pores over a book. The kids were visiting with their family from Kitchner, Ontario. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Along the wall in the newly renovated children's alcove at the Eldredge Public Library are five framed drawings that prominently display the words “Play,” “Read,” “Sing,” “Talk” and “Write.”

Those are all factors in promoting early literacy, experts say, and promoting all five is the goal of changes happening in the children and youth section of the historic Main Street library.

With grant funding and help from the Friends of the Eldredge Public Library, spaces are being created around the kids' section of the library designed to promote reading, playing, writing, talking and singing. The most visible change thus far is the conversion of the alcove into an early literacy play space that Youth Services Librarian and Assistant Library Director Tammy DePasquale said is designed to help make the link between playing and reading.

“Play is such an important part of early literacy,” she said. By all accounts it's fulfilling its purpose. “It's been enormously popular this summer. There's been a lot of playing going on.”

Early literacy is just one aspect of a wider ranging program being funded through a federal $16,847 Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, which is administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. The “Chatham Reads” grant aims to promote reading and literacy among all town residents, including linking disparate age groups through book discussions and assisting seniors with a “Memory Cafe.”

“The library's the hub for all of this,” DePasquale said.

The first project completed as part of the grant is the conversion of the alcove. When a new library addition was built in the 1990s, the small nook was meant to serve as a setting for storytime, DePasquale said. It was set up with several levels around the three walls that were supposed to serve as seats, but ended up being used as a “jungle gym,” she said. “We were constantly worried about injury.”

“It just wasn't suitable for our storytime,” she said. It wasn't large enough, for one thing, and the format for the library's storytime also began to involve more movement and music. It became wasted space.

While formulating the grant, DePasquale decided to ask a consultant from the Massachusetts Library System to look at the space with a fresh pair of eyes; “a professional, someone who knows the trends and how to use space.” The consultant agreed the space was wasted, and suggested that it be converted into a play space, citing the link between creative play and early literacy.

In order to pursue the other projects that were part of the grant – in essence to shift spaces around – the alcove renovation had to be done first. The grant funds, however, could not be used for renovations or capital projects, the conversion required a fair amount of construction work. So DePasquale turned to the Friends group.

“They're so supportive of youth services,” she said. “They said yes.”

Local carpenter (and parent) Dean McCutcheon took on the task, working Sundays when the library is closed and tracking down moulding to match the rest of the children's area. A mural that was a gift to the library was professionally photographed and then removed.

The renovated area includes play tables and a play kitchen; the furniture will change with the season, DePasquale said, with a farmer's market coming in the fall and Santa's workshop in the winter. The themes are designed to “spark imagination and play,” she said. Along the wall are totes which will be filled with books, toys, DVDs and other items following a theme which can be borrowed from the library. Those will also rotate seasonally.

“It's a great way to creatively promote literacy, but also for grandparents [to borrow] who have a houseful and don't know what to do with them,” she said.

Play equipment elsewhere in the children and youth area will be moved to the alcove area, which will create spaces for other activities. There will be an audio station for kids to listen to music or books; a quiet space for reading; and a couch where parents and kids can sit and read together. Those changes will take place in the fall, after the busy summer season, DePasquale said.

“We're not finished yet!” she said.

An intergenerational book group is being planned along with the Memory Cafe, working with local schools and organizations like the council on aging, all designed to bring the community together around reading.

“We're trying to build community through literacy of all kinds,” DePasquale said. “The library's the hub for all this.”