The fact that literacy is a priority for public libraries is not unique. However a new approach the Waukegan Public Library is taking to target the youngest members of its community is. The library is moving beyond the traditional library and books format to create a "Sesame Street" style museum.
"If you are not prepared for kindergarten, you are already behind," says Elizabeth Sterns, assistant director of Community Services for the Waukegan Public Library. "Sesame Street was designed to have the child interact … counting out loud, saying colors. We want to have that same kind of stimulus but in a physical form." If children, or their parents, aren’t able to read they miss out on the advantages of a traditional library, she adds.
The Waukegan Public Library Early Learning Center will be 2,200 square feet of interactive environments ranging from a pretend play theater that focuses on language and listening to a Science and Math area that targets higher level early literacy concepts such as adding and counting. There are also plans for infant areas, music, arts and crafts and nature centers. The permanent centers will be supplemented by special exhibits.
The library staff took field trips to visit other libraries and children’s museums, eventually settling on a design based on the concept at the Kohl Children’s Museum.
"When we visited (it) we said, ‘Look at the energy here. Look at how enthusiastic the children are and they’re learning.’ This is the kind of thing we want to tap into," Stearns says. A difference is that this will be a public facility, open free of charge.
A recent study by United Way showed that less than half of the children in the Waukegan area are attending preschool. Stearns believes this center, open in the evenings, weekends and in the summer, can help fill that void and provide area preschoolers with some of the skills needed to succeed in kindergarten. The library is working with Waukegan Community Unit District 60 to help provide a curriculum designed to support these goals.
The Early Learning Center is set to open by Sept. 1.