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.”