Jul 9, 2015

Early Learning at the Public Library

Wendy Martin is the Associate Director and Director of Program Development of the Vermont Center for the Book (VCB), an affiliate of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. VCB offers Mother Goose Programs professional development trainings for child care providers, librarians and educators and also works nationally with public libraries, state libraries, child-care organizations, health and human services agencies, elementary schools, Head Start and science museums, among other organizations. For more information, contact Wendy at wendy@mothergooseprograms.org or visit www.mothergooseprograms.org.

Research on early literacy and brain development has shown that it is never too early to prepare children for school success and lifelong learning. While parents and child care providers play a critical role as children's first teachers, public librarians are also in a unique, “front-line” position as educators who interact daily with many children of diverse ages and backgrounds.

If you have visited one of the 75 Vermont libraries participating in the Vermont Early Literacy Initiative (VELI), you’ve probably noticed that it’s stocked with colorful, quality picture books, hands-on learning materials and an enthusiastic librarian who is eager to share reading, conversation, new vocabulary, standards-based learning activities and many other resources with young children, their parents and caregivers.

VELI was developed in 2010 by the Vermont Center for the Book and the Vermont Department of Libraries. The overarching goal of VELI is to provide training, materials and resources to Vermont public librarians so that they have the confidence and competence to work with children, families and community child care providers to make sure that all children enter school prepared. In all VELI trainings, librarians are given the information and tools to help transform story hours and traditional programming into meaningful, interactive learning experiences, and to provide family programs and trainings for child care providers.

A typical library story hour may include children from ages birth to five, with the younger children accompanied by a parent or caregiver. During a story hour the librarian presents to and interacts with children, and at the same time models conversation and behavior to parents and caregivers. For example, while reading a book aloud to the whole group, the librarian will demonstrate holding a child on her lap, placing the book in front of the child, and pointing to words and pictures as she reads.

Librarians conduct regular programming for children and families and, as part of their mission as public librarians, provide outreach into the community. For example, a library might hold a family night based around math, for which they invite moms and dads to come and engage in hands-on math activities with their children—such as playing with nesting cups to help the children learn counting, sorting and arranging by size.

Librarians find opportunities to educate parents about early development during “asides”—organic, one-on-one conversations that arise in the midst of other activities and conversations. Librarians are good at this because they have relationships with their patrons and are used to talking to them informally. For instance, while engaged in a learning activity with a parent and child, the librarian might say, “It’s fine to use big words when you talk to your baby. Even if he doesn’t understand them, hearing those words helps him build new brain connections.”

The VELI trainings also have the beneficial effect of empowering and inspiring librarians to share the information they’ve learned with parents and caregivers. That enthusiasm can be infectious—especially in smaller communities that don’t have as much access to outside resources.

As one VELI librarian said, “I have a deeper understanding of my role in promoting early literacy and I am more comfortable talking to parents about early literacy and sharing advice. I can confidently present myself to the public as someone with expert skills to share and promote.” Another said, “The library is more than books and computer banks. It’s a community center that inspires and educates community members face to face. It is a place where individuals and whole families gather to explore, interact and imagine. VELI has given us the opportunity to collaborate and share these tools with parents and early educators in preschool and child care settings throughout my town. It’s benefited the whole community. Libraries are getting more attention in the area of early childhood education and this is good news.”

For our youngest children, learning starts day one—and libraries are an important community resource for fostering that learning. To see a list of the libraries participating in VELI, click here.

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