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Harnessing the Power of Play

“Play is the work of childhood.”  – Mr. Rogers

Chicago Public Library Foundation Power of Play
Chicago Public Library Foundation Early Learning

A vast array of book collections aside, a library is perhaps best known for its distinct quiet. The soft flipping of pages, the hushed murmurs, the light tiptoed steps – to make a sound in a library is almost scandalous. That’s not the case in Chicago Public Library Early Learning Centers. Here, children are encouraged to laugh, talk, read, sing, and play as loud as they can. “We call it the sounds of learning,” Elizabeth “Liz” McChesney, Director of Children’s Services & Family Engagement, explains with a good-natured laugh. It can be disorienting. Taking in the toys, games, the running around – one would think the library’s Early Learning Centers are indoor playgrounds. I would soon find out this is precisely the point.
It’s More Than Just Play
Chicago Public Library has been undergoing a gradual transformation, one that revolves around the power of play. “With the help of generous funding from the Cindy Pritzker Fund at the Chicago Public Library Foundation, we first tested the idea in the Albany Park branch. We started putting toys in the children’s section and observed how kids interacted with them. The results were incredible! More families started coming in, and they’re also staying longer. More importantly, children are learning in ways we have never seen before,” Liz recalls. Seven years later, there are now more than 40 full-fledged Early Learning Centers thoughtfully designed for our younger learners thanks to funding support from Exelon and PNC Bank through the Chicago Public Library Foundation.
“Why play?”, I ask, still wrapping my head around the idea of libraries as play labs. “Because there is overwhelming research that proves play is central to learning. Children’s brains are on overdrive. As they are exposed to different immersive experiences, neuropathways form and create habits of mind that will help them succeed in and out of school,” Liz explains excitedly.  To illustrate, Liz ushers me out of her cozy office and into the play space. She points out a young girl building a tower out of blocks. “She’s not just playing. She’s also learning to solve problems, figuring out which pieces go together.” We head over to a little boy carefully arranging toy dinosaurs by height. “That’s classification. He’s learning to organize objects.” Finally, we observe a group of kids putting on their fairy and chef costumes. “Imaginative play stimulates creativity.”
At CPL’s Early Learning Centers, children are not just children. They’re young engineers. They’re future scientists. They’re artists. They’re curious minds hungry to learn.
Play is Serious Business
Play is as much of a science as it is an art. Fully committed to optimizing play as a vehicle of learning, librarians get to work. “Thanks to funders thought partners like Exelon, The Brinson Foundation, and partners such as the Museum of Science and Industry, we are re able to train our library staff as play experts,” Liz shares proudly.
Careful planning also brought to life guided play and early literacy programs like Storytime, Tummy Time, and Terrific 2’s and 3’s. Keeping in mind the diverse communities libraries serve, select branches offer books, activities, and toys that are multilingual and multicultural. “Our Early Learning Centers are open to every child and every family in the city,” Liz affirms.
Teaching Caregivers to Play
Another unique feature of Chicago Public Library’s Early Learning Center is guiding caregivers to loosen up a little. “A child’s instinct is to play and maybe an adult’s instinct NOT to play in the library. We’re trying to change that by designing spaces and activities that welcome both adults and children playful moments,” Liz explains. She tells me that one of the Early Learning program’s achievements is that moms, dads, grandparents, and babysitters are putting their phones down and playing with their children more. “There is interaction between caregivers and children. Such a connection is priceless. Playing with your child helps with socio-emotional skills, language development and school-readiness,” Liz explains. Seeing grownups and kids laugh heartily and genuinely having fun drives home the library’s lesson: play is good for everyone.
“So, what’s the future of play?”, I ask. As if anticipating my question, Liz stands and picks up what looks like a… toy puppy? “Meet, AI-bo,” she introduces me to, what turns out to be, the cutest A.I. robodog. (He barks, runs, and begs to be pet like a real pup too!) As Liz explains, “We are very thoughtful when it comes to introducing technology in our Early Learning spaces. While we understand how tech devices can supplement learning in innovative ways, we also want to make sure we integrate them in a manner consistent with our five pillars of early literacy: talk, sing, read, write, and play.” With AI-bo, children are still active participants – playing with him, running after him, and talking to their parents about him.  “It took us a while, but we’re finally able to figure out a healthy balance,” says Liz. Striking that healthy balance between high tech and analog learning is something many of us parents can identify with.
It is clear that the holistic development of children is at the heart of CPL’s Early Learning Centers and with this focused direction, the future for our children is bright indeed!
Early Learning is a free and accessible resource that supports Chicago Public Library’s youngest learners during the most formative years of their lives – preparing them for reading, speaking, school, and life success. Early Learning is made possible thanks to Exelon, The Barker Welfare Foundation, PNC Bank, The Brinson Foundation, TriBraining and generous individual donors to the Chicago Public Library Foundation. If you are interested in supporting Chicago’s children, you too can make a gift that goes a long way. 

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