This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
At the Cecil B. Moore branch of the Free Library in North Philadelphia, kids and teenagers can do more than just read. They can play, too.
In recently added spaces, kids can use a climbing wall and make obstacle courses with large blocks. In the back of the library stands a robot bunny that the kids created from papier-mâché and aluminum tubing. With the play spaces and all the afterschool activities the library offers, kids are frequent visitors.
In December, the Cecil B. Moore branch was the first of three library branches to receive learn and play spaces funded by the William Penn and Knight Foundations. The Whitman and Wyoming Free Library branches debuted play spaces on June 18.
“One of our best climbers is 4. She’s awesome,” said Cecil B. Moore children’s librarian Kayla Hoskinson.
Elliot Weinbaum, director of the Great Learning Program at the William Penn Foundation, said they invested $400,000 in the three library branches and are now evaluating how the spaces are performing before deciding whether they will expand the program.
They want to study “what kids are learning, how kids are using these spaces,” Weinbaum said. “We’ll be looking at that evaluation data to help us and help the library know what’s working for kids and families and what’s not, and make a decision about initial investment based on that.”
This is not the first time the William Penn Foundation has invested in the Philadelphia libraries. Over the last five years, it has given millions to the Free Library Foundation.
The changes that the foundation is making to the libraries is “part of a much bigger effort going on across the city to expand learning opportunities for children everywhere,” Weinbaum said. “We’ve grown to understand that strong reading is really a survival skill for kids.”
Weinbaum said that from what they have seen so far at Cecil B. Moore, all of the kids who have used the new spaces have enjoyed them a lot.
“The Cecil B. Moore branch has been in place the longest,” Weinbaum said. “They have seen growth in just the number of kids and families coming in to that branch. The children’s librarian at that branch has anecdotally pointed to just a high level of enthusiasm and engagement when the children come in.”
Hoskinson said the branch was closed for about two months during the renovations and it took them a little while to get everyone back, but afterward, the number of visitors only increased.
“There was a very strange period, because we were closed for so long, of trying to get all of our regulars back,” Hoskinson said. “Then we got our regulars back, and all of them brought all of their friends, and it was all of sudden like, boom, super overwhelming. There are days when I count maybe 50 kids in here at one time.”
She said the play area is used not only for children to be more active than they would normally be
A reading nook at Cecil B. Moore library. Photo by Sam Haut.
in a library, but also for what you would expect a library to be used for – reading.
“I love the duality that comes with this space, too, where we have these super active moments, especially with the wall and these blocks,” Hoskinson said. “You have all that going on, and then you have these cutouts in the shelves where you’ll have a kid just sitting and chilling.”
She said the climbing wall is very popular with the children, because it helps them succeed at something while also being fun.
“We’ve watched many kids want to get to the top and not able to do it at first,” she said, leading to the staff “trying to push them past that moment of feeling frustrated and giving up, and encouraging them to keep going.”
Although the interior space for the library was completed six months ago, there are plans for an outdoor space for people to hang out in and to serve as a community garden. Studio Ludo won the contract for both the indoor and outdoor spaces.
Andrew Jacobs, a designer for Studio Ludo, said they are in the beginning phases for the outdoor space and hope to start building in the fall. They are currently taking suggestions from the public.
“It’s always nice to have a very loose idea to open up feedback and open up new ideas. It’s a public space as much as it is a play space,” he said. “A little kid wrote down in this comment ‘a garden for kids to take care of,’ so even kids are asking for it.”
Meghan Talarowski, founder and director of Studio Ludo, said the library was chosen for an outdoor space because of its proximity to a watershed, something they want to educate people about.
“The goal is to build an outdoor space that provides social gathering, teaches about the watershed, and also has learning and play woven together,” Talarowski said. “We do a lot about educating people about their local ecology, so we have coloring sheets that have local birds and local fish. It’s teaching about ecology in fun way.”