Books are just the beginning

Books are just the beginning.  They are one of many tools that your library offers in service to its larger mission: providing access to information and opportunities for education. The library is your classroom waiting to happen.

Public libraries, in particular, are committed to advancing knowledge through lifelong learning. Check out your library’s mission statement. It probably includes a sentence just like that or very similar.  Books are one tool, but there are many more.  Here’s a bit of what libraries offer:

  • Dragonfly's Box is a craft program for kids at the Hennepin County Library
    Dragonfly’s Box is a craft program for kids at the Hennepin County Library

    Early Literacy – We start with the very young with early literacy opportunities from story times (which are more than just stories—they are designed to help build school readiness skills of all sorts from reinforcing concepts to social skills like following directions), pretend play spaces, and other types of programming aimed at inspiring young learners. 

  • School Support – It might be just a quiet place to study for some, but for others a library means homework help centers, reference books, and other resources they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
  • Career Skills – With the job market the way it has been, many more people have been taking advantage of library assistance for job hunting, resume building, skill building.
  • Technology – Computer and Internet access are one thing, but most libraries also offer technology classes that may range from beginners web searching to introducing new software or hosting technology “petting zoos” for those looking to get beyond the tech they know.   I might also mention that there are all sorts of online research tools available through your library web site as well.  
  • Cultural Programming – Art exhibits?  Check.  Musical performances?  Check. Larger libraries might even have their own performance/exhibit space.  Part of this is the connection with the community that I wrote about yesterday, but it’s also about opening a cultural dialogue and facilitating access to the arts.

St. Paul Public Library director Kit Hadley shares her thoughts that the library has “always been in the learning business” in this video about the library’s role in the community.  She looks forward to a future in which libraries play a vital role in a network of formal and non-formal learning.  I can’t help but cheer her on.   I guess I’m probably biased, being a librarian and all, but I think libraries are pretty great–and they have books too.

Tomorrow: What do librarians do?  Mysteries revealed!

National Library Week

For most people, libraries equal books—shelf after shelf of books and maybe a computer or two off in the corner. I would like to challenge that perception. Not because I don’t love books. I do. As much as I love books and stories of all sorts, I also strongly believe that they aren’t what libraries are about. It’s National Library Week, and I am going to be posting about what libraries are about all week long. My hope is to open the equation about libraries that you have in your head to more than books, to show you that libraries matter—perhaps in ways you haven’t considered.

Libraries are about community and education. Librarians are your guide to the world of resources out there from books, to technology, to people. We want to connect with you.

The official theme of National Library Week 2013 is Communities Matter, so I’ll start with that tomorrow.


Seeing Symmetry (Picture Book Preschool)

I cheated on this month’s Picture Book Preschool post.  For one thing it’s a week late, but the bigger thing is that Seeing Symmetry by Loreen Leedy is hardly a preschool level book.  It actually says on the copyright page that it is based on 4th grade education standards for geometry. No, I’m not trying to say that my four-year-old is doing geometry on a 4th grade level.  I just thought that she would get a kick out the the idea of symmetry.  So we read the first couple of pages, looked at the illustrations, and skipped to the activities at the end of the book.

Here is Ladybug working on her “symmetree”:

And the result:

More experiments in symmetry:

We also found some examples of symmetry around the house:

For  more fun with symmetry:

See more Picture Book Preschool posts here or follow my Kids Activities & Education Board on Pinterest for more preschool fun.

Disclosure: links are affiliate links.   A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support!  (Book Reviewed from library copy.)

Creating a Play Space for Preschoolers (Guest Post)

This is a guest post by Jennifer Zimmerman about how she set up a Montessori and Waldorf inspired space for her kids to learn and play.

When my son Owen was approaching preschool age, we moved into a new home. This motivated me to really think about his new bedroom and how I wanted him to use it. I also  thought a lot about his future schooling and which educational philosophies would be a good match for his personality and needs. I looked into both Montessori and Waldorf education. I liked different things about both philosophies. I liked how Montessori encouraged self-help skills, independence and allowed the child to choose learning materials that fit their abilities and advance at their own pace. Yet, I also felt myself attracted to how Waldorf focused on the arts, encouraged pretend play and immersed children into a magical fantasy world. I favored Montessori for Owen, but I still wanted to incorporate a few things from Waldorf. I set out to create a fun and playful environment that had many opportunities for self-directed learning and exploration.

I loved the Montessori reading nooks, and so I created one by using a short and wide bookshelf to partition off a small area of his room. I hung a reading lamp on the wall and placed cozy pillows and stuffed animals near his rocking chair inside the nook. I placed his books on the bookshelf in easy reach so he could choose which ones to pull out and read. In this photo you can see his partitioned off nook. Just behind the shelf is where his cozy reading spot was:


In another area of the room I hung a mirror close to the floor at my son’s level. The low hanging mirror is a common Montessori item, but this is also where some Waldorf influence came in. I hung some dress up clothes on hooks near the mirror, as well as some colorful play silks for pretend play. Play silks are an open ended toy which Waldorf really encourages.


Open ended toys are toys that are gender neutral and do not have a specific purpose. Their purpose is up to the child to imagine. Play silks are square or rectangular pieces of real silk that usually have been dyed different colors. A play silk can be tied on the body as a skirt, a hat, a cape, wings, or a doll sling. They can be used as water, land, or sky with small toys, as a doll blanket, or simply waved around in the air during active play. Another example of an open ended toy is a push cart. The cart can be used by babies learning to walk, by toddlers transporting toys, as a stroller for dolls or stuffed animals, as a dump truck, or many other things according to what the child wants to imagine that day. Waldorf toys are quite spendy, so if you are on a budget like me then you must get creative about obtaining them. Waldorf-like toys can be purchased at thrift stores or homemade. There are many websites that give directions on how to make Waldorf toys if you are crafty. I bought the play silks as blanks for around five dollars each and then dyed them myself. I bought a push cart at Ikea for just under twenty dollars. This multipurpose toy, which can be used for many years, was well worth the price.

Next, I placed some Montessori-inspired educational materials on low shelves. These shelves should be short enough for children to reach, and wide enough to hold quite a few materials. The materials are objects and toys that allow children to practice life skills. Things like stringing beads and shape puzzles are placed in bowls or on trays on the shelves. There are many websites that show how to create these materials yourself. This concept melded very well with Waldorf’s idea of having natural objects around to be used as open ended play things. I found many real wood bowls and plates at thrift stores, some even shaped like tree leaves, and filled them with objects from nature such as pine cones, rocks, and nuts. Owen had a small table and chair that he could bring his materials over to play with them.

One area where Waldorf and Montessori are in complete agreement is the play kitchen. A play kitchen is a place that is ripe for pretend play for any preschooler, and also teaches important life skills to satisfy the Montessori side of things. Along with Owen’s play kitchen, we also found him a small play hutch made out of real wood at a thrift store. The hutch has real glass doors and contains real ceramic dishes, real metal pots and panscookware and silverware from Ikea. Learning to handle fragile items at a young age is an important aspect of Montessori education, and Waldorf stresses using natural materials for everything that comes into contact with the child. If a dish breaks, cleaning it up also becomes a learning experience that the child can be engaged in. They can use their child sized broom and dust pan to help clean it up.  Owen not only plays with real glass and ceramic kitchen items, he also eats and drinks from them. As a result, he learned about these materials early in life and is very careful with them. In fact, I accidentally break more dishes then he does.


In Owen’s closet I placed a large shelf that holds his folded clothing. There is also a bar at his height with some of his clothes hung on it. This is another Montessori philosophy. Children are encouraged to choose their own clothing from a young age. Having the clothes out on shelves instead of stuffed into drawers makes it much easier for little hands to find what they need without making a big mess. Dressing oneself is another life skill that Montessori teaches. Waldorf encourages that clothing be made out of natural materials such as cotton or wool, and they discourage any commercial or fictional characters on clothing. This is one of those somewhat odd things about Waldorf (there are many!) but one that I personally try to live by.

ImageWhat we didn’t have room for in Owen’s room was an art station. Art, music and dancing are a very important part of a Waldorf education. We stored Owen’s art and music supplies in a tall shelf with bins. The art bin could easily be taken out and carried to the kitchen where Owen was encouraged to paint, color and draw. Owen preferred abstract paintings and I learned that if I gave him three complementary colors he would produce some pretty cool looking art work.

Owen is six years old now, and he has been joined by his little sister Isla who just turned 16 months. We just recently moved again and I now face the task of setting up a bedroom for each of them, and a small play area that they can play in together. Thanks to their  Montessori and Waldorf inspired toys, it is not hard to create a play room that a six-year old boy and 16-month old girl can play in together. They both love their play kitchen. While Owen ties play silks around his neck as capes, Isla uses them to wrap up her dolls. They both push their dolls and stuffed animals around in their cart, and Owen even gives Isla a ride in it every so often. They do art work together and Owen reads books to his little sister. Owen ended up attending a traditional school as he didn’t make it through the lottery system to gain entrance to the Montessori public school in our city. Waldorf was never an option for him, mostly because it is private and very expensive, but also because some aspects of their philosophy do not mesh with his personality or our personal beliefs. However, I think what we did take from both systems was very beneficial for him, and will also be beneficial for Isla as she grows.

Jennifer lives with her family in St. Paul, MN.  You can read more about Owen and Isla on her blog, Kinder Tales.

Kite Day (Picture Book Preschool)

“It’s easy to learn about the force and physics of wind through the Internet or a book, but it is a completely different experience to feel to force and physics of wind for yourself with a kite in hand.” – Jennifer Ward in Let’s Go Outside


We started with kite in hand before we ever talked about wind or energy or physics with Ladybug.  The photograph to the right is from a beautiful spring day this past May.  My family picked me up from work to fly kites.  That we can never pass up a kite day is one of the things I love most about my family.

Later I wanted to connect the experience to science (as usual), so I went in search of a picture book to remind Ladybug of flying a kite.  Like a Windy Day by Frank Asch was perfect.  It follows a young girl as she imagines herself doing all the things wind can do.


From there, we moved on to I Face the Wind by Vicki Cobb, which is part of the Science Play series.  The series is designed to get young children to engage with science and nature actively.  The books are full of activities and readers are encouraged to do the activities as they come upon them in the book.  Cobb says in the introduction: “This book is designed so that your child can make discoveries.”

We discovered that wind is made of air.  You can’t see it, but you can see what it does.  Considering Ladybug is only three, I think that’s a good start.

More activities for preschoolers learning about wind:

See my Parents & Educators page for more Picture Book Preschool posts.

How We Learn

For those of us who are out of school, our learning process isn’t so different from a preschoolers.  We follow our curiosity.  We ask questions, find experts, and figure things out.  We are rarely lectured.  We probably aren’t studying or giving ourselves exams either.  The closest I come to a lecture these days is watching TED Talks, and those hardly resemble the lectures I remember from my college days.

As I listened to the American RadioWorks documentary Don’t Lecture Me, I cheered the changes they documented in some college instruction that seems to focus on helping students make connections on their own rather than simply take in information.  It reminded me of what I read recently in Mind in the Making, which was about early childhood development.  Maybe all education should be like preschool.

“To promote children’s curiosity, be careful not to jump in too quickly to fix things they’re struggling with, since working with the ‘confounding’ situation is where critical thinking is promoted. Instead, where possible,  help them figure out how they can resolve it for themselves.”

The book is a great resource for parents or educators who are interested in practical ideas for promoting skills their children need but don’t necessarily learn in school, like critical thinking, focus, self control.  I found the advice about encouraging a growth mindset (which included parents modeling failure and persistence) very valuable.  Follow that up with this discussion on MPR’s Midmorning* about character education in our schools for a fascinating perspective on how important these social skills are.  They talk about many of the skills that Mind in the Making outlined as key to early childhood education, but they had different words for them.  Dedication to one’s goals despite setbacks became “grit.”  Curiosity and optimism became “zest.”

Whatever you call them, these are traits (skills?) that I want to give (teach?) my daughter.   These are our values, and I have a strong interest in the sort of education that recognizes their importance.

Here are some tips from Mind in the Making for parents and educators trying to promote these essential skills.

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.


*I have no connection to MPR or Midmorning. I just listen to it a lot, and I end up blogging about what I hear.

Disclosure: Book referenced was a library copy.  Links may be affiliate links.

Reading in the summer: Keep the momentum going

Guest Post by Melissa Harrison

If I had to venture a guess, I would say that between all of my kids (I have four, ages 6 years and under) we have about 300 children’s books in our home. Two entire bookcases are dedicated just to books in our play area. My kids are obsessed with books.

I am, too.

When I was little, not only did I grow up reading books, I grew up writing them. My best friend and I would write chapter stories and exchange manuscripts on the bus to school each morning. When we started, it was before we had computers in our homes. So, I’m talking about countless hand-written pages (I don’t think it was until we were in middle school that we started typing out our musings).

I’ve been a reader and a writer for as long as I can remember. Now, I can’t say what percentage of my reading and writing obsession has caused my kids to love books as much as I do (I’m guessing my husband had something to do with it, too) but I’m fortunate that they have learned this important value at such young ages.

As school starts to wind down for the year, here are some tips to keep everyone interested in reading (I’m talking about you, your kids, the neighbor kids, your nieces and nephews, or a friend’s kid you decide to hang on to for the day):

  • Check your local library listings for family or children’s story time and try to get to one each month.
  • Make time for yourself and set a reading goal. Maybe it’s reading one “fun” book a month in addition to one “work-related” book (oh wait, that’s my goal…but I’ll share if it works with your schedule, too).
  • Keep a list of books you want to share with your kids either through an Amazon wish list or on GoodReads and check them off as you go through them this summer.
  • Have the kids in your life choose a “letter of the day.” Then, choose books to read that start with that letter. Or, go exploring outside and look for things that begin with your daily letter. Reading and word comprehension don’t always have to be about the physical book.
  • Pretend to “jump in” to the book you’re reading. Grab hands, count to three, and “jump” into the cover. Then, as you read the story aloud, ask your kids questions about where they are or what they’re doing in the book.

And check this out: On May 24, Target announced they will be providing 42 schools across the country with new libraries as part of the 2011 Target School Library Makeover program. Three of the lucky schools are even located right here in Minnesota!

So while it’s not breaking news, reading is and always will be important. Just because school’s out for the summer, it’s not an excuse to take a break. Think of all the great adventures you’ll miss!

Now, what will you do this summer to encourage the value of reading?

Melissa Harrison is a business owner, avid reader, writer and mother of four. She lives in Albertville, MN and is always looking for great book suggestions. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter or email.

Let’s vote for kids

Kids FirstI vote for kids.  I’ve seen the bumper stickers.  I’ve even wanted to sport one (though I am car-free), but I’ve also wondered what exactly it meant.  Then an ARC of David L. Kirp’s Kids First came across my desk.  I could not resist reading it.  And, I must admit, I could not resist being caught up in its vision.  Here is the kids first agenda as laid out by Kirp (who, by the way, is a professor at UC Berkeley):

  • Give new parents strong support.
  • Provide high-quality early education.
  • Link schools and communities to improve what both offer children.
  • Provide mentors to youngsters who need a stable, caring adult in their lives.
  • Give kids a nest egg that helps pay for college or kick-start a career.

Kirp points out so many success stories from Head Start to Big Brothers Big Sisters, and I’d like to point out a a success story here in the Twin Cities.  Bright Water Montessori School is the only nationally accredited preschool in North Minneapolis, and the first on the northside to recieve a 4-star rating from ParentAware.  Bright Water is committed to North Minneapolis–to promoting peace in the, often very unpeaceful, neighborhood.  My daughter attended Bright Water’s preschool program for a year, and we were thrilled with the education she received.  I was continually impressed with the passion and commitment from the staff and the other parents.  They are doing great things there, and I am pleased that my family was able to be part of it.

Learn more about this great school, and what it is doing for North Minneapolis, in this video:

“Excellent education doesn’t just happen in the suburbs or in South Minneapolis.  It can happen anywhere.” –Ann Luce


Jump by Elisa Carbone had me on page five.  It quoted the following from The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn:

Although compulsory schooling was begun in this country mainly in hopes of educating people worthy of democracy, other goals also embedded themselves in the educational system.  One was the goal of creating obedient factory workers who did not waste time by talking to each other or daydreaming.

This book changed my life.  The passage above wasn’t the sort of thing that spoke to me.  For me, it was the inspirational parts of the book that mattered.  Taking education into your own hands.  Seeing opportunities for learning everywhere.  I read it too late to change my high school experience, but I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that it changed the way I viewed my college experience and beyond.

My two versions of The Teenage Liberation Handbook

I still own the original version, published in the 90’s, that spoke to me so long ago.  It sits on my shelf next to the revised and updated version published in 2001.  To me, the newer version seems watered down, lacking the passion that the first edition had oozing from every word.  How could this slim volume change the lives of teens today like it did mine?

It was a lovely surprise to see it crop up in a new YA novel.  I’m glad it’s still inspiring people, even if they are fictional.

On a related note, I’m very interested in reading DIY U.