Three years ago, Pierce County Library executives concluded that the best way to help children develop their minds might be avoiding too much adult brain involvement.
Their search for just the right program sent them back to the basics — kids with blocks of all shapes and colors — and the result has been a success on two fronts.
“We wanted to surround these 4- and 5-year-olds with blocks, at the library and at home, and it was a great way to involve the children and their families,” said Judy Nelson, a woman with a long title.
And that second front?
The program — Block Play — was recognized as a 2015 Harvard Ash Center “Bright Idea in Government,” one of 124 programs in the country so honored.
Nelson, the custom experience manager for Pierce County Library youth services, was inspired on a 2012 trip to Montana.
“I was making a presentation, then spent time with a librarian who brought blocks to her library,” she said. “We talked about the use of blocks, and what came to mind was, ‘This was the ideal program for us to take the lead.’ ”
Nelson created a partnership among the library, Washington’s Early Childhood Education Assistance Program and Head Start. The library got the blocks, then put Susan Anderson-Newham in charge.
Anderson-Newham had a shorter title — early learning supervising librarian — and the job of getting kids and libraries involved.
“We started with six branches in 2013, and trained librarians to get the most for the children, who came to the library for block play once a month,” Anderson-Newham said. “Today, we have 22 school classrooms that visit 12 libraries.”
As the program expanded, it became more than just the chance for children to play with blocks.
Grants began to pile up — including one this year from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians — that allowed the library to give every child who participated a book.
“Kids and the parents who come listen to a short story read in the beginning, then play with blocks,” Anderson-Newham said. “There are only two rules: no throwing blocks, no knocking down someone else’s creation.”
Children learn more than how to cooperate on building with blocks.
Studies, including one at Seattle Children’s Hospital, have shown that block play in groups builds literacy skills and fosters social-emotional development.
“Our program serves low-income families and children,” Anderson-Newham said. “Blocks have no language — you speak Russian, Korean, Spanish — we can all build successfully. We’ve found this program very successful with immigrants.”
Genevieve Dettmer, a University Place librarian, said that in many cases the block play program is the first time non-English speaking families visit a Pierce County library.
“Many families don’t realize we have books in other languages, but once they find out, they come back and use the library,” she said.
“I was a little skeptical initially but have been pleasantly surprised,” Dettmer said. “You do see progression from the children. The littlest ones carry blocks around, some line the blocks up and, when parents are involved, it can get pretty creative.
“We had someone use a blue scarf to make a pool look like it had water in it,” Dettmer said.
In its third year, the program is experimenting with a block play class for toddlers ages 18 months to 2 years at the Fife branch.
Dettmer knows that will work.
“We’ve had younger siblings accompany their brother or sister to our block play groups,” Dettmer said. “They’re not our primary focus, but when they come along we let them participate. They love it.”
Kids playing with blocks at the library was only part of the project. All children in the ECEAP program were given a set of 100 small blocks to take home.
“When they get those blocks, they really light up,” Dettmer said.
To keep block play fresh, each month the library introduces something new.
“We add accessories — vehicles one month, store fronts the next, then people and animals,” Anderson-Newham said. “Animals are the last, because animals distract from blocks more than anything.
“Introduce animals and two boys will go in a corner to decide which animal is tougher, a lion or a tiger. We encourage them to build enclosures.”
Still, “suggest” is about all librarians do. They make an effort to leave their adult brains on the sideline.
“If a child is building something out of balance, your instinct is to step in,” Anderson-Newham said. “We’ve found letting the kids do it their way — failing, trying it another way — is far better for the children.”