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Babies in the Library: Creating a Truly Baby-Friendly Early Literacy Play Space

by Debra Knoll on May 19, 2014

Of course babies are welcome in the public library! Or are they? The benefits of a literacy-rich environment for babies and toddlers are well documented, and the library is a go-to place for families with young children.1 But the actual presence of babies and toddlers in the library creates unique challenges for everyone. We often see babies kept in restraining seats due to a lack of alternatives and, after a reasonable amount of time, they voice their complaints loudly. Often, new mothers find the idea of entering a library a bit daunting. After all, babies can be unpredictable, disruptive, and just plain noisy. Staff members are all too familiar with managing unsupervised toddlers while adult caregivers are preoccupied with computer-related tasks, and with fielding complaints from less tolerant adult patrons. The little ones themselves don’t really have a place of their own to just be themselves while in the library. These are just a few of the problems we’ve identified when considering how to truly accept and welcome babies and their caregivers in the library.

As librarians, we actively strive to accommodate everyone as much as is reasonable. As children’s librarians, my colleague Kristy Spreng and I are well aware of the need to expose children as early as possible to literacy-rich environments. There seems to be an unending creation of task forces, initiatives, and committees formed to find ways to assist families in educating their children. We wanted to take action, so we resolved to make a radical change in how we provide service to babies and their caregivers by rethinking the layout of a small section of our children’s area. We wanted to be able to point to a specific place for parents to visit, for professionals working with families to refer, and for babies to play and learn. We also wanted to take better advantage of babies’ rapidly developing social, intellectual, physical, and emotional skills, placing special emphasis on pre- and early literacy. After visiting several notable libraries whose children’s departments are award-winning and certainly on track with providing excellent service, we still didn’t find any such area.

Babies’ brains are developing more rapidly in the first two years of life than at any other time.2 Most child learning initiatives, however, do not formally provide guided learning for children until about the age of three. What are we waiting for? We consulted with Dr. Kim Kiehl, designer of the “Little Kids Space” at the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio; other child development specialists and researchers; local school personnel; and families with babies and toddlers. We then set up a prototype play area and observed its overall use and function. At our request, the Loudonville Public Library’s (LPL) Friends group purchased an enclosed play mat large enough to hold an adult. We observed how the parents did (and did not) interact within this structure. We also noted that, although functional, it was unattractive and felt like an afterthought. The colors were too vibrant, and the interior was simply meant to enclose, not inform or enrich. As we recognized these limitations, we greatly expanded on our idea of a simple place for babies. It should be respectful of infants, neutral in color, soft and inviting, include pre- and early literacy elements, and provide a level of comfort for adults. We wanted the area to look intentional, permanent, and aesthetically pleasing.

Backed by LPL’s board of trustees, administration, and staff,we called out to the community to help us fund our project. With strong financial support from several organizations, foundations, and the community at large, we hired a variety of consultants and construction specialists to help us turn our vision into reality.

For the Babies and Toddlers

Realistically, the needs of babies, toddlers, and caregivers within the library setting are quite simple. We envisioned a clean and comfortable area for both the baby and the caregiver. The area should allow the baby to move about and be free from constraints. We would need to be careful to avoid overstimulation, yet offer a space that is interesting and gently educational. And, optimally, there should be a computer for adult use and relevant parenting materials available. If these basic needs are overlooked, or haphazardly met as an afterthought, optimal library service is difficult to accomplish. As long as we were rethinking all of this, and in keeping with such initiatives as Every Child Ready to Read @ your library, the PLA/ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children) parent education initiative, we focused on fostering the development of pre- and early literacy skills. Every element in the area was carefully chosen to address these needs and goals.

We removed a few pieces of furniture and turned a corner of the children’s department into an enclosed permanent play area. A padded, curved bench seat was installed to form an enclosed yet airy corner in which the baby could play. The bench allows an adult to be seated while interacting with the child, especially when the caregiver is unable to sit on the floor. A soft, padded mat covers floor and windowsill. Installed discreetly within the mat, only accessible from beneath, are three large “discovery” pockets filled with seeds, marbles, and corn. The babies encounter these tactile pockets while crawling around. This interior space is large enough to include adults as well as several babies at one time, thus supporting multiple social interactions. The padded surfaces are covered in durable hospital grade vinyl and very easy to maintain. The overall use of neutral colors is soothing and calming.

And, of course, we want books! We regularly observe infants turning pages and otherwise manipulating books as objects of exploration as early as six months of age. By around eleven months, we witness babies paying attention to the printed page. They actively follow an adult’s pointing finger and are lifting flaps, touching pages with intention, absorbing vocabulary words, and anticipating the next page. So, through grant funding, we purchased and housed a large selection of non-circulating interactive board books that are readily available to little hands as well as big ones.

The bench also contains carefully detailed custom designed alphabet blocks mounted on compelling vertical spinners. Inviting touch, the consonant blocks are deeply engraved on two sides with upper and lower case letters, and the remaining two sides contain a picture and corresponding word. The vowel blocks are shaped like the letter itself. The artwork was chosen to reflect our geographical area. For example, we used the letter “Q” as in quail, “M” as in mosquito, and “Z” as in zucchini. Since we know that children learn words as much by shape as by letter, we boldly used lengthy words.3 The blocks promote letter awareness, visual perception, fine motor skills, eye–hand coordination, and cause and effect.

We included a large mirror in the play area. Not only does the mirror introduce more light, it reflects faces, intrinsically interesting to babies. It fosters the development of self-identity.4 The inclusion of a pull-up rail supports balance and gross motor activity, and is especially helpful for children with certain forms of developmental delay. The placement of the mirror also reflects the color and excitement of the board books without overwhelming the area.

Along the wall adjacent to the mirror, we installed three mildly interactive units. The first unit contains a simple, interchangeable, Velcro-friendly panel currently covered with a piece of white-tailed deer hide. The panel invites touch, curiosity, and conversation. It also allows us the opportunity to add a bit of diversity to the area by switching up the tactile element. The second unit is a custom-built set of colored rollers. The rollers are deeply engraved with the corresponding color word. The smooth rollers respond to touch and also help the child self-soothe.
Built by local artist Colleen Sandusky, the third interactive panel is a simple device designed to engage the toddler in many ways. By pressing any of the four small panels on the board, a corresponding colored shape lights up. The four panels are defined by the color coordinated outline of left and right hands and feet, and labeled “left” and “right.” So, in the process of play, this device is teaching eye–hand coordination, cause and effect, body awareness, color, shape, handedness, peripheral exercise, and print awareness. It also subtly invites the adult to help teach these concepts.

For the Caregivers

A frequent issue arises for parents who need to accomplish computer-related tasks at one end of the building where the “unattended” or problematic toddler doesn’t belong. We found a solution by installing a workstation. The seating is positioned so that the caregiver can face into the play area. This allows the adult to monitor play activity while conducting necessary computer tasks.

The general area also includes a “mommy nursing corner” with glider rockers that are designed for the comfort of nursing mothers and safety of little children. The chairs are located in such a way that a parent can observe toddler play while nursing a new arrival. We strategically relocated the parenting magazines and books to this area of the library, making them easier to browse and access, and installed magazine racks with toddler materials within toddler reach. We found that relocating our collection of nursery rhyme books within this area caused an immediate increase in circulation. For further parent-led play, toys, puzzles, and games are also available upon request.

We Built It and They Are Coming

A common frustration among librarians is how to reach those who do not currently use the library and are mostly unaware of all that we offer. These are often the people in our community who need our services the most. So, perhaps most importantly, the construction of this area sends a solid message to the generally underserved public that babies and their caregivers are respected and are deserving of public library services unique to their needs. This message of acceptance and welcome, as we are already seeing, is enticing former non-users to discover the library. And they are spreading the word!

The effort to reach non-users is furthered by the work of the LPL children’s staff in collaboration with county agencies. We actively serve on the Family and Children First Council of Ashland County. Our presence on this council aligns the library with children’s service entities such as Help Me Grow, Job and Family Services, the Ashland County Health Department, and other county service agencies. These agencies are encouraging their clients to visit the library and discover the play space.

Historically, children have not always been welcome in libraries. Thankfully, this type of thinking has radically shifted over the last several decades. As technology has advanced it has provided us with a deeper understanding of how babies and toddlers learn. We now know that in infancy the child is rapidly acquiring language skills, including the syntax of the written word. So, the earlier a child is exposed to healthy, literacy-enriching environments, the better.5 Although the idea that “children should be seen and not heard” in the library is an outdated stereotype, the reputation of “hush” in the library persists, perhaps more intensively for the traditional non-user. Parents with babies and toddlers are keenly sensitive to how unpredictable children can be in their behaviors, and to how others may react to unexpected outbursts. Creating a dedicated space for their children speaks to our acknowledgement of this normal, not-necessarily-quiet scenario and even invites it. For the staff, creating such a space helps to contain the noise, paraphernalia, and general fluster of activity, thus offering real solutions to known issues. For us, the end result has been better rapport among staff, families, and the general public.

Children, babies in particular, are just developing the skills they will need in order to be readers. We should not expect them to visit the library in the same way as active readers. Instead, we should be inviting them as “do-ers” in the library. They should be presented with opportunities to engage socially, emotionally, physically, and intellectually. We also know that play is the avenue in which this happens. We envision a truly baby friendly place for every library.

For the Librarians

A common lament among professional children’s librarians is that our position is not seriously valued. Perhaps it is because children’s librarians are not expected to be educated in child development or because we have not been sufficiently advocating for ourselves. We have already seen changes in library service to babies in recent years such as providing lap-sit story times, board books, and play areas, but much more can be done. The construction of a research-based, intentional play space such as we have detailed herein can potentially move children’s libraries and librarianship significantly forward.

As librarians utilizing this space, we are moving out from behind the desk and interacting more with parents. We are actively playing, modeling board book exchanges, and relating with babies. Programming is changing to allow for spontaneous group activity and expanding to include such topics as making baby food, cloth diapering, and how to foster math skills in the kitchen. We are also offering more educational programming in collaboration with area agencies such as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio State University Extension Office, and the Ashland County Health Department.

You Are Invited

As previously cited, researchers have long reported that most learning is accomplished within the first two years of life. Creating an aesthetically, permanent, and developmentally appropriate place for the most vulnerable and avid of learners in a public library setting is long overdue. We strongly believe that the creation and implementation of the Early Literacy Play Space brings awareness of the library as a valuable entity and welcoming place for patrons at the very beginnings of life. It puts librarians squarely in tandem with other children’s services professionals. And it meets the needs of babies and their families. Since its construction, we have been very gratified to see that the many problems we identified and the rather lofty goals we hoped to meet are beginning to be realized. We encourage you to consider crafting a similar space in your library.


  1. Grover J. Whitehurst and Christopher J. Lonigan, “Child Development and Emergent Literacy,” Child Development 69, no. 3 (1998): 848-72.
  2. Charles A. Nelson, Michelle de Haan, and Kathleen M. Thomas, Neuroscience of Cognitive Development: The Role of Experience and the Developing Brain (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2006).
  3. Bernard Lete and Joel Pynet, “Word-Shape and Word-Lexical-Frequency Effects in Lexical-Decision and Naming Tasks,” Visual Cognition 10, no. 8 (2003): 913-49.
  4. Maria Legerstee, Diane Anderson, and Alliza Shaffer, “Five- and Eight-Month-Old Infants Recognize Their Faces and Voices as Familiar and Social Stimuli,” Child Development 69, no. 1 (1998): 37-50.
  5. Kimberly Kopko, “Research Sheds Light on How Babies Learn and Develop Language,” Cornell University, College of Human Ecology, Department of Human Development Outreach & Extension, accessed Nov. 8, 2013, .

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