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Learning Through Play in Adult Programs

by Audrey Barbakoff

*This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of RA News.*

As a twenty-something librarian, I am often struck by how few of my peers walk through the library doors. Many of us are avid readers and community-builders; yet when I host a library program for adults, I rarely see people in their twenties, thirties, or even forties. Across the country, librarians have noticed the same problem and started reaching out specifically to adults ages 19-50. How can we appeal to this group while making our programs even more meaningful for our regular patrons? From my own successful programs and research into other librarians' inspiring events and ideas, I have found that the secret ingredient is play. My most popular and best-reviewed play-focused programs have fallen into three categories: getting together, getting out, and getting dirty.

Play? But Isn't Our Mission about Education?

A key barrier keeping adults from library programs is the perception that learning and fun are separate, even opposite. In our patron's minds -- and often our own -- terms like lifelong

This attendee of Radical Home Economics gets her hands dirty.

learning or adult education conjure up images of rigorous study and PowerPoint lectures. As long as this perception endures, library programs will lose out to more seemingly enjoyable activities.

This dichotomy is completely false. Learning and fun are connected. What is learning but enthusiastic immersion in a subject? And what is fun but total engagement? And like children, adults will learn better when they play: when they read, think, and discuss because they're engaged with all their senses and excited, not because they feel obligated.

In children's programs, play is widely regarded as highly effective education. My go-to story time guide, I'm a Little Teapot!: Presenting Preschool Storytime by Jane Cobb, is filled with suggestions for enhancing reading skills that go well beyond book learning. Each storytime theme is supplemented with music, hands-on crafts, rhymes, or physical movement. The benefits of this kind of experiential, playful learning should not end with childhood. If you want your adult patrons to learn, create a space for fun. Give them an environment to dream, grow, invent, jump, and try. Let them play with your existing services and materials in a new way by providing them in unexpected places. When learning and education are exciting, adult patrons of all ages will be happy to come and learn.

We must make this connection between our fun programs and our educational mission explicit. Youth librarians have already done this successfully, resulting in support for their programs. The IMLS report "Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners" is one of many calls for more funding for youth library services because they "build on how children learn best… [through] content-rich, play-based experiences." It is no wonder that in 2011, according to the Public Libraries in the United States Survey, 70% of all public library programs were for children. Drawing this same line between play and education in adult programming is crucial to obtaining necessary support from library administrators, funders, and community members. Play is not frivolous. It is not a nice extra. It is essential to education and growth, to healthy individuals and communities.

Get Dirty

Radical Home Economics participants at work

Once you are ready to create some playful programs (and your funders are persuaded), what might play in the library actually look like?

Get dirty with hands-on projects. This is a fast and satisfying way to make your programs more engaging. Creating something with your own hands is just inherently more fun than listening to someone else talk about how to do it. The messier, the more fun!

To this end, I created a series called Radical Home Economics that focuses on practical skills. Our projects have included LED holiday cards, nontoxic cleaners, bicycle maintenance, hypertufa pots, and homemade spa products.

For each project, I provide a basic set of basic instructions as well as printed materials such as books and handouts. I include another component as well: discussion time to encourage participants to become their own experts. Discussion is an avenue to draw directly on the library's collection and each other's knowledge to enrich their everyday lives.

The key to success is this: participants finish what they make. Having a finished product to take home creates a fantastic sense of accomplishment. Their excitement and satisfaction encourages people to take what they have learned beyond the library walls, to continue learning and tackle bigger projects on their own. It is also an excellent marketing opportunity for the library, as participants will show their completed project to their friends and family -- and probably encourage them to participate in future library programs.

Are you looking for more inspiration for hands-on programs? The Bubbler at Madison Public Library is one of the most exciting idea incubators for this right now. Fayetteville Free Library, the first to introduce a library Makerspace, is a great source for hands-on technology programs, as is the Detroit Public Library. The Seattle Public Library did an interesting series on urban self-reliance from which I have drawn many ideas, and Alt+Library out of Sacramento Public Library has excellent art and craft programs.

Get Together

One person, alone in a room, could get many of the benefits of learning to make something by hand. Yet it's even better to learn in a room full of other people, where they can share ideas, get inspired and motivated, and build relationships? Your social library programs can help people forge lasting connections that tie them to each other and to the library.

I have seen the impact of a social setting in Books on Tap, a monthly trivia game that meets in a café. Players organize themselves into teams and play four rounds of trivia based on a list of 50 books. Each booklist stays in play for 6 months to encourage players to read more.

When a new list comes out, teams immediately start divvying up titles, recommending them to each other and discussing their favorites. The social nature of the game forms bonds that keeps them coming back to see their friends, and it also encourages them to read more, read widely, and read closely. These relationships help keep people engaged with the library.

Most libraries have existing social programs for adults, such as book discussion or craft groups. Emphasize their fun, social, community-building nature. Oak Park Public Library's GenreX book group has garnered significant attention in the industry and its community for doing this, as has Upper Darby Township Library's gaming group. Highly popular programs like these might inspire enhancements to programs that aren't currently as social as they could be. Could lectures or presentations introduce a discussion component or a hands-on activity? Could book clubs be even more interactive like Books on Tap?

Get Out

We will never find potential library users by sitting behind a desk in a building we already know they do not visit. Instead of waiting futilely for them to come to the library, bring the library to them. Getting out is also a type of play; the surprise discovery of even a standard library service in an unexpected place encourages regular and new patrons alike to have fun and experiment with our resources. 

In my community, one of the most important gathering places is a commuter ferry. I live on an island near Seattle, and most working adults commute daily by boat. Many riders pass the time by reading, but they are not always library users. These busy professionals often leave for work before the library opens and go home after it closes, and their limited free time is already full.

To reach this group, I started Ferry Tales, a book group on board the ferry. Once a month, I ride home with the commuters and lead a book discussion. The group was an instant success, drawing in a steady group of avid readers who are also now passionate library users – despite the fact that some of them did not even have library cards when we began.

Because of the novelty of taking a conventional library service to an unexpected place, Ferry Tales has had a much wider impact than a standard book group. It was featured in the local paper, drew many authors to our discussions, encouraged local businesses to partner with us, and brought industry-wide attention to our library system. The fun of Ferry Tales caught the attention of our community and brought the library into their daily lives.

Northbrook Public Library's Books on Tap program, a book group that meets in a bar, has inspired many librarians to take their favorite programs out into their communities. Where do people in your community spend their time?

Have Fun!

For adults, just as for children, fun and play are crucial components of learning. By creating programs that center on play, and by adding elements of play into existing programs, librarians can engage adults of all ages. Clarifying the strong relationship between play and learning in adults will also help funders see the importance of these programs, allowing them to grow and prosper.

Get dirty, get together, get out, and most of all, have fun! 

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Audrey Barbakoff is the Adult Services Manager at Kitsap Regional Library, and a 2013 LJ Mover & Shaker.