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  • Writer's pictureBenay Hicks

When Laundry and Literacy Converge

While at the LaundryCares Literacy Summit, Rachel participated on a panel titled,”Leveraging Informal Spaces to Promote Early Learning.”

By Program Director Rachel Stine

In 2018, the LaundryCares Foundation, Too Small to Fail, and Libraries without Borders teamed up to create the Laundry & Literacy Coalition – a collaborative effort to make early literacy resources available to underserved communities through local laundromats in communities nationwide. In mid-March, Book Harvest’s Executive Director Ginger Young and I attended the 2nd Annual LaundryCares Literacy Summit held in Chicago. (See here the front page of a special Laundry and Literacy publication specially produced for the Summit, featuring Wash & Learn Durham!)

I was so excited to attend this summit because of what we have learned over the past several months about the power of informal learning spaces to boost children’s literacy, from our technical assistance phone calls with Libraries Without Borders, our launching of Wash & Learn Durham in two local laundromats, and the amazing experience we had partnering with the Wash House to hold the free laundry day at the end of February. (Thank you to all of the volunteers who came out to help with our free laundry day. It was super rainy and dreary outside, but the laundromat was full of smiles, reading, and good cheer.)

The LaundryCares Summit completely exceeded my expectations! The energy and momentum was palpable. I would never have thought that I would find such enthusiastic early childhood advocates among laundromat owners. Really, these men and women are first laundromat owners and second amazing champions for early childhood literacy. They understand the importance of meeting families where they are and providing learning opportunities for all children.

Dr. Susan Neuman started the Summit by presenting research from the past year. Dr. Neuman and her team evaluated the effects of installing Laundry & Literacy Kits in three laundromats in New York City. The team observed the behavior of parents and children in the laundromat before and after the kits were installed. Their findings demonstrated that children were observed engaging in 30 times more literacy activities in laundromats that included the kits compared to laundromats that did not have the learning spaces. You can read the full report here.

We also had the privilege of hearing Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, talk about the barriers to third grade reading proficiency for children from low-income families. To overcome these challenges, we need an approach that is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year – schools are not this! It is up to the community to meet families where they are during these times when children are not in school.

As he talked, I had the realization that this is exactly what Book Harvest is doing. We are not waiting until children get to school to see if they are on track for reading; instead, we are starting at birth with our Book Babies program. When school is out for summer, we ensure that children have plenty of high-interest books to read to keep their brains learning. We go where families are 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – we now offer story times at Lincoln Community Health Center, at one laundromat, and in April we are launching another story time at a second laundromat. We have bookshelves in spaces where families spend time together – mental health clinics, Department of Social Services offices, and barber shops.

There is not just one program or intervention that changes a community to ensure that more of our children read proficiently. It is going to take many different efforts and multiple champions. As I left the summit, I kept thinking…..if laundromat owners could be early childhood literacy champions, who else could be? And, if laundromats are a good place for early learning, what other spaces could be?

Let’s keep working together to bring books and literacy resources to families where they are!

Click here to view a segment on PBS NewsHour featuring the Laundry Literacy movement. Click here to learn about Chelsea Clinton’s storytime that I attended at a Chicago laundromat.


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