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 children 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.