PLAY Book Review – Simple Positive Play at the Library

Summer Blog Series 2023 – Summer, the Libraries & PLAY #4

Check out the next installment of our Summer Blog Series.  Guest blogger Noah Lenstra, PhD, shares a summary and review of a recent book that highlights the intersection of play and public librarianship.

PLAY Book Review – Simple Positive Play at the Library

Jennifer Ilardi. Simple Positive Play at the Library. Rowman and Littlefield, 2023.

If you are looking for a practical, inspiring book to get you excited about trying something new in your community, in your library, and with diverse community stakeholders, this is the book for you!

Jennifer Ilardi worked as a Youth Services Specialist/Librarian at the St. Louis County Library from 2008 to 2019. While working in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2016 Ilardi started Simple Positive Play, whose mission is “to help facilitate playful experiences for young people and their families while also promoting an engaged and informed community.” She holds a Master’s of Library and Information Science degree from Syracuse University and a post-graduate certificate in Youth Experience from the University of Maryland Library Science program.

In Simple Positive Play at the Library, Jennifer Ilardi uses her extensive hands-on experience to break down how and why to support open-ended play in libraries and in other community spaces by leveraging the power of community collaboration.

The past twenty years have seen increasing calls for librarians to support playful learning. But simply telling someone to start playing at their library can be overwhelming.

With her advice you too can turn your library, or really any public, community space, into a “playground where young people can utilize what they know to explore their interests,” as Ilardi puts it.

Her experiences developing Simple Positive Play were shaped by her visceral experience of the Ferguson Unrest, a series of protests in St. Louis County spurred by the fatal shooting of the unarmed African American Michael Brown on August 9, 2014.

In these fraught environment, Ilardi turned to play as a means of sparking positive, social change. Ilardi recalls in the book how when “I shared with someone I turned to for ideas that the space [for Simple Positive Play] would be in Ferguson … she told me not to follow through and said it was too unsafe” (p. 12).

Ilardi nonetheless persisted. She says of that time “When the protests in Ferguson delayed school starting in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, the only thing I could think of doing was more of what I had been doing all summer long. I asked my manager if I could use our meeting room space and I filled it with games and art supplies. I shared that I was at the library on Facebook as a way of letting some of the community I connected with know I was there and the space was there for them as they were trying to figure out what to do. So we played.”

Ilardi sees spaces for play as a critical social good – and she sees librarians as critical providers of that social good.

This book will be of use not only to librarians, but also to individuals seeking to do more in communities through collaboration with librarians, and to anyone seeking about how to use community spaces to create more opportunities for playful learning.

Ilardi unpacks her approach to Simple Positive Play across 12 chapters that focus on how to support open-ended play through the participatory design of public spaces, including libraries.

Chapter 7 and 9 focus on the “how” of how to do this work, with chapters on “collaboration,” “playwork,” and the “importance of stakeholders.”

The final chapter “The continuing evolution of Simple Positive Play” conveys Ilardi’s lessons learned from seven years developing this unique approach to play at the intersection of public librarianship and community development.

She closes the book with this powerful statement:

“Simple Positive Play, the concept and the organization, were inspired by libraries and those who work tirelessly to promote curiosity and innovation. As a free resource located in large and small communities all over the country, libraries provide opportunities for joyful exploration. The library is a playground where young people can utilize what they know to explore their interests and youth public library workers help facilitate that exploration by developing welcoming spaces and hosting programs to showcase ideas.”

Written in an accessible, engaging format, Simple Positive Play at the Library deserves to be widely read.

About the Author: Noah Lenstra, PhD, is Director of Let’s Move in Libraries and associate professor of Library & Information Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  Learn more about Noah at and follow him on Twitter at @NoahLenstra.

About the Summer PLAY Blog Series: This summer we are featuring some great PLAY resources with our 2023 Summer PLAY Blog Series, starring invited play partners as our content experts.  PLAY is important no matter what season it is…so NO SUMMER LEARNING LOSS here!  Noah Lenstra, Director of Let’s Move in Libraries, is reprising his Summer, the Libraries & PLAY blog series.  This summer Noah will highlight recent books on the intersection of play and librarianship.