2022 Summer Blog Series – Making Space for Play

Summer Blog Series
Play and Design #1

Making Space for Play

In 2015, my family was transferred to London. We packed up ourselves, our one-year-old, our two cats, and embarked on an adventure in a new city for six months. Knowing no one, and with little guidance on how to transition from full-time career to full-time caretaker, I started researching my options.

Luckily for us, London is a city designed for families. There are black cabs with seats that fold up so you can push a stroller straight inside, plentiful buses and trains with priority seating, rooms in all public buildings for changing and feeding, well-designed and maintained playgrounds within walking distance of most residents, and my favorite of all, children’s centers in every neighborhood.

At that time, the British government believed strongly in supporting not only children, but also their caregivers. The environment of the city reflected that belief and investment. Things were zoned for us, designed for us, and considered for us. Most playgrounds had cafes, for caffeine and snacks, and restrooms with baby changes in all gendered restrooms. The children’s centers had structured play times for all ages, and adult support groups with tea and information on children’s development. A key part of that development is play, but the key to great play is happy caregivers that allow it to happen.

Making space for play is not just about creating a place for play to happen. It is about making space within ourselves, giving time and energy, showing children love and support, and engaging with them in a way that allows play to flow freely. But that engagement cannot happen if that caregiver is not filled up themselves. You cannot pour from an empty cup. And far too many caregivers are down to their last drop.

Shortly after returning from London, I started a non-profit, Studio Ludo, with the mission of building better play through research, advocacy, and design. Our studies of play behavior span over 100 play environments in the US and UK and include data on the play habits of over 60,000 people. Our biggest finding is that more than half of people in playgrounds are not children…but teens, adults, and seniors. This resonates with us in a big way. How do we support and bring joy to this undesigned for half? How do we replicate the types of environments and experiences that I had as a caregiver, helping them to fill their cups and give them space to play?

We believe that everyone deserves a great place to play. And everyone means not just kids, but caregivers too. We design playgrounds with whole families in mind, with restrooms, and benches in the shade, and cafes, along with open-ended scaled-up swings and climbing structures that invite adults in on the fun.

We also know that play can happen anywhere, which is why we recently opened our loose parts play library, the Playbrary, overflowing with art supplies, toys, recyclables, cardboard, games, and other loose materials (think baskets of pez dispensers and rows of typewriters). Interspersed in the fun are comfy chairs, free coffee, and staff trained in play and development, happy to provide some adult conversation or play with your child while you rest.

While this may seem like a little slice of play utopia for the young people in your life, we believe it is essential for the grownups too. Caregivers deserve care. They are in the trenches, raising a generation on very little sleep and reheated coffee. Let’s make space for them. They are deserving of all the praise…and maybe a little play too.


About the Author: Meghan Talarowski is the Founder and Executive Director of Studio Ludo. Meghan believes that play environments in the United States can, and should, be better. She has degrees in architecture and landscape architecture, almost 20 years of experience in the design field, is a licensed landscape architect, and a certified playground safety inspector. Her research focuses on how the design of play environments impacts physical health and social behavior of children and caregivers. She has presented at TEDx Philadelphia, ASLA, AIA, IPA, the US Play Coalition, and Child in the City. She was a winner in the 2016 international Play Space design competition, a winner in the 2016 Kaboom Play Everywhere Challenge, and a finalist for two projects in the 2015 Knight Cities Challenge. She is a member of the steering committee for the US Play Coalition and a member of the board for Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse.

About the Summer PLAY Blog Series: This summer we are featuring some great PLAY resources with our 2022 Summer PLAY Blog Series, starring two invited play partners as our content experts; Liz McChesney and Meghan Talarowski. Our experts will be sharing blog posts with you throughout the months of July and August.

2022 Summer Blog Series – True Play and Literacy Connect at the Library

Summer Blog Series
Libraries & PLAY #1

True Play and Literacy Connect at the Library

Public Libraries across the country are pursuing play as a critical pathway to learning. Connecting play to the mission of the public library is just one of the many ways public libraries are moving beyond the bricks and mortar repository of books and into an active laboratory of experiential learning. This approach emphasizes risk-taking, problem-solving, and the four critical 21st Century Skills: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. True Play is one of the most compelling forms of play in public libraries.

The idea of True Play—embracing the child’s deep and uninterrupted engagement in the activities of their choice— was developed by educator Ms. Chen Queqin in the public early childhood programs of Anji County, China. Anji Play, Ms. Cheng’s approach to early childhood education centers around five fundamental principles: love, risk, joy, engagement, and reflection. This philosophy asserts the right to True Play is essential to every child and profoundly respects the capacity of the individual child to play and work with others. Programs that embrace this approach provide children with large and open-ended materials like ladders, tires, and planks to play with as they wish. Educators, including librarians, follow this philosophy and seek to create “spaces of love” where materials, the environment, and adult decision-making all respond to children’s needs and abilities, particularly their need to play without adult guidance, direction, or interruption. For that reason, educators who put this philosophy into practice observe children playing with the adults “hands down, mouth shut, and ears, eyes and heart open to discover the true child.” This approach allows children to take authentic risks, including physical, emotional, social, and intellectual challenges, to experience joy and maintain meaningful and authentic engagement.

The Madison Public Library has pioneered this critical form of play in community-based settings at its “Wild Rumpus” events. True Play events come from years of research, visits to Anji County in China, and the creativity of librarian Carissa Christner and the Madison Public Library team who has worked to bring these events to life at her library.

Says Carissa, “learning happens when you can explore something interesting to you at your own pace and time. For us, this was a meaningful connection to the five practices of Early Literacy: Talk, Sing, Read, Write, and Play.” At Madison Public Library, finding meaningful intersections in how people learn while respecting individual diversity is critical. Carissa says: “Play is the most universal and accessible early literacy practice for a diverse community of learners. True Play is critical to our equity efforts.” Holly Storck-Post at Madison PL is thinking about how to develop elements of True Play inside the library that will be meaningful for babies and toddlers. She is helping to establish Play Labs which combine aspects of Anji Play into spaces for the youngest library users. “Creating open-ended experiences inside the library for our youngest children helps us make our spaces accessible to the entire community.”

True play is offered in libraries across the country, including Washington State where Kitsap Regional Library Director Jason Driver says, “approaching play from a place of true respect for the child and the child’s learning is at the heart of this approach and critical for its success.” In Kitsap, True Play Jamborees are planned to “develop early problem-solving, risk-assessment, and collaboration skills, all while having a blast.” Says “Emmon Rogers, Youth Services Librarian: “during COVID, kids have had limited social and learning connections. We wanted to tap into play to develop kids’ ability to form social bonds and take physical and social risks, all necessary for healthy human development and learning. Anji Play allows us to build all these skills and helps develop critical social networks that have gone missing these past two years.” Also critical to COVID recovery is helping parents and caregivers relearn how to stay flexible and allow chi

ldren to learn alternate paths to problem-solving. “COVID meant that only one pathway or tap root to social stability and learning was formed for kids,” says Emmon. “That was the family. At the height of COVID, our library’s greatest response was meeting basic needs like food. Now our greatest mission is fostering basic human social needs like connection, autonomy, agency, and social bonds.” Another aspect critical to the process of Anji Play is reflection. Reflection allows a child to close the learning cycle through digesting and understanding the play and its effects. Play stories are integral to the play process and can include dictation, writing or drawing the child’s stories, and photography or videography. Key to literacy development, the Play Stories develop numeracy, sequencing, vocabulary, inventive spelling, and narrative description. Professor Rebekah Willett, University of Wisconsin-Madison iSchool, and an observer of Madison Public Library’s True Play “The reflective component of Anji Play helps solidify some of the cognitive work that happens during play – both for the children and the parents. By pausing to observe and record play, participants can make explicit some of the implicit learning that happens during Anji Play.”

Bryan Wunar, CEO of Discovery World Science Museum in Milwaukee, WI, and noted STEM educator agrees: “Reflection allows learners to make meaning, analyze their actions and codify their learning. The type of reflection in True Play is also the habit of good STEM learners.” Reflection closes the learning cycle, and this process of Anji Play mirrors the Habits of Mind of a successful 21st Century learner. While True Play has many benefits for a growing learner, it is also a source of joy. Joy comes from risk-taking, problem-solving, working together, and being “in the flow.” Joy is intrinsic to learning and growing up to be a happy and well-adjusted person. Greg Mickells, CEO of Madison Public Library, may say it best: “True Play contains many elements fundamental to learning, including critical thinking, risk, and curiosity; but what I have witnessed with Anji Play is how important joy is to literacy. Having an opportunity that brings joy to learning should be an experience for all children.”


About the Author: Liz McChesney served as the Chicago Public Library Director of Children’s Services and Family Engagement, where she earned numerous national awards, including the American Library Service to Children Distinguished Services Recipient. She now serves as the Community Partnerships Consultant to the Laundry Cares Foundation, where she helps build early learning in everyday spaces such as laundromats, WIC Centers, and family courts. She additionally serves as a Senior Advisor to the Urban Libraries Council and is a Senior Fellow at the National Summer Learning Association. In all these roles, play is at the center of her work. She has two books with the American Library Association, Summer Matters: Making All Learning Count (2017) and Pairing STEAM with Stories (2019). Her first picture book, Keke’s Super Strong Double Hugs, was published in 2020 and her forthcoming book, The Path Forward: Serving Children Equitably is forthcoming.

About the Summer PLAY Blog Series: This summer we are featuring some great PLAY resources with our 2022 Summer PLAY Blog Series, starring two invited play partners as our content experts; Liz McChesney and Meghan Talarowski. Our experts will be sharing blog posts with you throughout the months of July and August.

Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out at the Library: Play for Teens and Emerging Adults

Summer Blog Series – Libraries & PLAY #2

“Play for Teens and Emerging Adults”

In 2016, the American Library Association published the book Adults Just Wanna Have Fun: Programs for Emerging Adults, which “shows how to draw emerging adults to the library using a mixture of play and engagement and then keep them coming back for more.”

Public libraries exist to serve all ages, and yet there is a stereotype that people “age out” of libraries before returning later in life when they have young children.

Given this reality, public librarians increasingly embrace play as a cornerstone of services for tweens, teens, and young, childless adults.

This trend is a bit more wooly and disorganized than the trend covered last week on Learning and Playing at the Library during Early Childhood. When it comes to supporting play among teens and emerging adults, public librarians do not have formal curricula like Every Child Ready To Read and Stories, Songs & Stretches. Instead, the landscape is populated by myriad local experiments.

In Dubuque, Iowa, on April 7, 2018, the public library celebrated “Five years of Nerf capture the flag,” a monthly after-hours program in which adults literally play capture the flag in the stacks of the public library.

Caption: A participant in the monthly Nerf Capture the Flag for adults program offered at the Carnegie-Stout Public Library in Dubuque, Iowa. Image courtesy The Telegraph Herald.


As public libraries re-open in Summer 2021, this program has started to return. In nearby Indianola, Iowa, the local radio station reports that “The Indianola Public Library Nerf Attack events are returning to the library on July 16, 2021. Nerf Attack is one of the most popular events, with kids in grades 6-12 having the run of the library.”

Three important facts help us make sense of something as seemingly bizarre as Nerf wars in the library:

1) These programs fit within the increasing identity of the public library as a community hub, offering, as a recent American Library Association reports puts it, offering free “activities and

entertainment you can’t find anywhere else in the community,” while also functioning as “a place for people in the community to gather and socialize.”

2) Public libraries are fundamentally local institutions, with nearly 90% of their funding coming from local sources. I sometimes tell my students, “If you know one public library, you know one public library.” One of the least appreciated facts about public librarianship is, as Eric Klinenberg recently pointed out in his book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life “library staff ha[ve] more autonomy to develop new programming than I’d expected from an established public institution. Managers, it seems, assume the best of their librarians” (p. 52).

3) Given the long-standing idea that public libraries are not cool spaces for teens and emerging adults, radical thinking is needed to over-turn that stereotype. Milwaukee Public Library launched Library Loud Days focused on “changing the public libraries into lively, vibrant gathering places …. So come see what the new definition of a library is all about. And leave your inside voice at home.”

Caption: Adult Recess at the Public Library in Arlington, Virginia. Image courtesy Arlington VA Public Library.


As I present these facts, I often hear complaints from people who worry that the beloved libraries of their childhoods are going to be swept away by Nerf wars, rap battles, karaoke singers, and games of Twister and Quidditch.

That concern is misplaced. In all the libraries I have looked at, these types of loud play programs are typically offered sporadically, not continuously. They represent the type of playfulness that is quickly becoming the norm in public librarianship: Public librarians play with the identity of the public library, pushing on its boundaries and encouraging community members to join them in that experiment.

How can you get involved?

Want to increase access to play for tweens, teens, and emerging adults in your community? Start with the library! The best starting point is to look for individuals with titles like Teen Librarian. The national association representing Teen Librarians is the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) whose “mission is to support library staff in alleviating the challenges teens face, and in putting all teens ‒ especially those with the greatest needs ‒ on the path to successful and fulfilling lives.

Teen librarians have also pioneered library services for emerging adults. Typically, library services for adults in their 20s and 30s represents an extension of library services for tweens and teens.

YALSA’s website features a cornucopia of innovative resources around play and public libraries. For instance, check out this presentation on LARP at Your Library: Teaching Life Skills Through Play, presented by Shelbie Marks of Oklahoma’s Metropolitan Library System at a recent YALSA Symposium.

Spending some time perusing the YALSA website is a great way to inform yourself about how public librarians frame play as intrinsic to library services for this demographic.

You can then use that knowledge to reach out to your Teen Librarian, set up a time to talk, and see where the conversation takes you. Check out my guide on “Rules of the road: Partnering with public libraries for collective impact” to get started.


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

About the Summer PLAY Blog Series: This summer we are featuring some great PLAY resources with our 2021 Summer PLAY Blog Series, starring two invited play partners as our content experts.  PLAY is important no matter what season it is…so NO SUMMER LEARNING LOSS here!  In July, Noah Lenstra, Director of Let’s Move in Libraries, will highlight public library play initiatives for several key demographics.  In August, Daniel Hatcher, Director of Community Partnerships for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, will blog on “PLAY for Healthier Communities.”

Learning and Playing at the Library during Early Childhood

Summer Blog Series – Libraries & PLAY #1

“Learning and Playing at the Library during Early Childhood”

Since 2000, public librarians across the United States have dramatically increased the number of programs they offer in support of early childhood. The Public Library Association states this new focus on Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR) transforms a pre-conception people may have about library programming: This new approach started not with reading, but with play: “We start with singing, talking, reading, writing and playing and then help [parents] see the connection to later reading.”

A team of researchers led by Susan B. Neuman, Professor of Early Childhood and Literacy Education at New York University, determined that public librarians trained in this ECRR curriculum “are much more likely [than those not trained] to include music and large- and small-motor movement [in their programs]—all contributing to a fun atmosphere that encourages parents and children to play together.”

As ECRR and related training programs, such as Stories, Songs, and Stretches and Mother Goose on the Loose, sweep the country, play has become central to how public librarians support early childhood.

Play spaces at libraries: Indoors and outside

This transformation effects not only public library programs, but also public library spaces. In Nashville, Tennessee, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, public libraries now have kid-sized climbing walls, with Studio Ludo working with the Free Library of Philadelphia to create what they call a “Playbrary: A new vision of the neighborhood library.

Nashville Public Library’s Crawl Wall in the context of its interactive children’s play area.
Image courtesy Nashville Public Library.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, public library spaces closed to the public, but public library support for play as a core component of early childhood did not end. In my research, I found public librarians increasingly utilizing outdoor spaces during Summer 2020 to continue supporting play. In “Reimagining public library programming during a pandemic” my colleague Christine D’Arpa and I found that about one quarter of U.S. small and rural public libraries created temporary outdoor play spaces and programs that could be experienced in a socially distant during the pandemic, including things like sidewalk obstacle courses and life-sized Candy Land games.

Based on this research, with public health colleagues from Baylor University and Johns Hopkins University, we presented at the 2020 virtual meeting of the Association for Rural & Small Libraries on how public librarians can and do support Play Streets initiatives, place-based interventions that involve temporarily closing streets to create safe places and free opportunities for physical activity.

The focus of public librarians on fostering outdoor play during the COVID-19 pandemic builds on a long tradition of public librarians as placemaking gurus, as documented and supported since 2000 by the Project for Public Spaces.

Prior to the pandemic, in 2015 Jenn Beideman of Healthi Kids teamed up with Patty Uttaro, the director of the Rochester [NY] Public Library, and the Strong National Museum of Play for a series of projects focused on infusing play into the built environment of this city. These efforts culminated in a Play Walk that connects the library and the museum. The soaring success of this and other library collaborations led Beideman to write for the Brookings Institution on June 10, 2021 that “resident-led advocacy in Rochester, N.Y. is creating a more playful city … [by] partnering with the Rochester Public Library system to pilot playful infrastructure and other play initiatives.”

How can you get involved?

As the above example suggests, public librarians do not do this work by themselves. Instead they are looking for help wherever they can find it! A study in Ontario led by a team of kinesiologists found that public librarians can be successfully trained to lead a Move 2 Learn program focused on play-based physical literacy skills among young children: “The results of this study demonstrated the feasibility of teaching staff without specialized training in physical education to implement Move 2 Learn.

More and more researchers, advocates, and policy makers are coming to the same conclusion: Namely that public librarians are the perfect partners in efforts to increase playful learning during early childhood.

What stands in the way of these partnerships? One factor is the rapid nature of this transformation. Although public librarians have supported playful learning for decades – think of the idea of getting out your wiggles after a storytime program — what is new is that now play is increasingly the central focus of library programs and spaces.

Many in the Play Community who have not been paying attention to this shift may need to start their involvement by educating themselves about the work public librarians now do to support early childhood. The easiest way to get started is to simply go to the website or social media of your local public library.

In preparing this blog post, out of curiosity I went to my local library’s website and clicked on the link for services for Children & Parents. This image was what I found:

Children’s librarian Pete Turner leads a play-based storytime at Greensboro Public Library.
Image courtesy: Greensboro Public Library.


Get started by simply seeing how your library describes its services in support of early childhood. You may find play allies you had never considered.

If you’re looking for collaborators look for librarians with titles like children’s librarian, early literacy librarian, or youth services librarian. I went to the About Us page for the Greensboro Public Library and easily found the contact information for Tanika Martin, the library’s Youth Services Coordinator. Find your community’s Tanika, set up a time to chat, and structure the conversation around the following: “Here’s what we’re trying to do. Does that sound similar to your goals? Where can we work together?”

If you’d like to learn more, check out my article on Rules of the road: Partnering with public libraries for collective impact.

In future blog posts, we’ll look at how similar transformations are taking place in public librarianship around library services for teenagers/emerging adults and for older adults. Stay tuned to learn more and to find ways to get involved!

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


This summer we are featuring some great PLAY resources with our 2021 Summer PLAY Blog Series, starring two invited play partners as our content experts.  PLAY is important no matter what season it is…so NO SUMMER LEARNING LOSS here!  In July, Noah Lenstra, Director of Let’s Move in Libraries, will highlight public library play initiatives for several key demographics.  In August, Daniel Hatcher, Director of Community Partnerships for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, will blog on “PLAY for Healthier Communities.”