The average US family spends more than two hours a week at their neighborhood laundromat, and many families bring their children along. For a literacy coalition focused on launching community reading spaces, kicking off in laundromats made the most sense.
The Clinton Foundation’s early childhood initiative Too Small to Fail, Libraries Without Borders, and the LaundryCares Foundation are funding test runs of “Family Read & Play Spaces” in three New York City and 10 Chicago laundromats. The coalition aims to encourage literacy by installing the spaces for kids under the age of six, and their parents, in 600 laundromats across the US by 2020, according to Quartz.
For low-income children to reach their full potential, learning to read early on is crucial, and it doesn't have to happen at home or school.
“Learning can happen anytime, anywhere,” Jane Park Woo, director of Too Small To Fail, said in a statement issued to Global Citizen.
The Family Read & Play Spaces are designed to develop the five essential skills of literacy — reading, writing, singing, playing, and listening. The spaces give children the opportunity to learn on their own, with other children, or with their parents. Instead of staring at an endless spin cycle, children can lounge in cozy makeshift libraries that are filled with furniture, toys, and multilingual learning resources. It costs the coalition between $1,500 and $2,500 a year to operate each location.
“When parents take time to read a story with their children, respond to their babies’ coo, sing songs, engage in back-and-forth conversations, they are preparing their children for school and for life,” Woo explained. “That’s why we’re working to surround parents and families with materials that encourage language-rich interactions with their children — in laundromats, parks, pediatricians’ offices, bus stops, convenience stores, Early Head Start centers, family health clinics, and more.”
In New York City and Chicago where families have tested the spaces, there’s a real need for more reading resources — 60% of parents reported that they had fewer than 20 children’s books at home. If children don’t learn to read in the first years of elementary school, they might never get the chance to catch up.
“Research and experience tell us that children who are reading at grade level by third grade will do better in school and be more apt graduate from high school,” Judie Jerald, early childhood expert education expert at the organization Save the Children, told Global Citizen via email.
“These are also the students who will have more earning power, and be less likely to be involved in criminal activity,” Jerald explained. “Learning to read gives impoverished children the opportunity to be successful in life.”
How can we build intergenerational spaces in our community? This video from @2SmallToFail and @ChelseaClinton is an example of a smart idea: turning laundromats into places where kids and play and read! https://t.co/LRk9zOOTix#Gen2Gen#laundromatliteracy (h/t: @phyllis_segal)— Encore.org (@EncoreOrg) April 12, 2019
Since studying the effects of Family Read & Play Spaces, Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University, has found that children engaged in 30 times more literacy-rich activities, including talking, reading, singing, writing, and playing, compared to typical laundromats. Parents also liked and reported that they were more likely to return to laundromats with play spaces.
When the resources are available, children take advantage. Children at the Family Read & Play Spaces engaged in 30 times more literacy-rich activities, including talking, reading, singing, writing, and playing, in laundromats with literacy spaces, compared to typical laundromats, according to Too Small To Fail. When the spaces were paired with librarians, children engaged in substantial and sustained literacy activities (the average stay per child was 47 minutes).
But using laundromats as learning spaces comes with its own set of challenges. Quartz pointed out that small business owners might not be able to afford to sacrifice lucrative washer-dryer space for learning areas. Laundromat owners have to worry about maintaining the spaces and keeping them clean as well. Too Small to Fail is working on developing a subscription package that would cost owners about $50 a month and might help solve the problem.
Encouraging parents to use the learning resources with their children is also key to getting children excited about reading. In the next round of studies, Neuman's team plans to teach parents to utilize the laundromat spaces.
Once people understand the value of investing in child literacy, the benefits are endless — it boosts participation in the labor market, improves health and nutrition, reduces poverty, and expands life opportunities. But globally, 250 million children are failing to acquire basic literacy skills, and in many US states, more than 40% of students read below grade level.
The literacy coalition may still be figuring out the laundromats project’s kinks, but interest is strong. There are 250 laundromats across the US who have committed to implementing Reading & Play Spaces.
“Small moments matter and every interaction like talking, reading, and singing can make a big difference in a child’s ability to start school ready to learn,” Woo said.