Green Eggs and Ham while your laundry soaks? Goodnight Moon during the spin cycle?
Laundry and literacy may sound like odd bedfellows, but what better place to reach parents with young kids than at the laundromat?
Combining laundry time and storytime is not a new concept, but the Laundry and Literacy Coalition — a recent partnership between the LaundryCares Foundation, Libraries Without Borders and the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative — is taking it a step further, piloting a project to install literacy spaces for kids under 6 years of age in 600 laundromats by 2020. It’s a joint effort to make early literacy programs available to underserved communities via laundromats nationwide.
Laundromats provide a captive audience for the time it takes to wash, dry and fold clothes, typically at least two hours, Libraries Without Borders Executive Director Adam Echelman told American Libraries magazine. Beyond that, families typically do laundry on a weekly basis. So while parents pour detergent and fold soccer uniforms, their kids have an opportunity to work on their reading skills. Participating laundromats can provide children with services like librarian-helmed reading stations, educational computer games, puzzles and sing-alongs — all free for families. The Laundry and Literacy Coalition is also building a network of nonprofit organizations, academics, foundations, corporations and laundromat owners to help scale strategies and advance research around early literacy in laundromats.
“You have a captive audience, families return weekly, and it’s open all the time,” said Echelman. “Another thing is that most people don’t go to a laundromat outside of their neighborhood, so you’re working really locally.”
The national nonprofit Libraries Without Borders promotes literacy to low-income neighborhoods through pop-up bookshelves at places like bus stops, subway stations and public parks. But one pop-up gained a lot more traction than the rest. Why? It was next to a laundromat.
The goal of Laundry and Literacy is to close the literacy gap between low-income and higher-income students, with a focus on kindergarten readiness. In 2016, only one out of five low-income students read proficiently by fourth grade in the United States, and students who cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade very rarely catch up in later grades, according to a report by Business Roundtable. Studies show that lower rates of literacy are linked to poverty and crime.
Although the goal is the same — to get young kids reading — each laundromat’s learning space can vary. Depending on the partnering programs, amenities can vary from shelves filled with books, or full-fledged reading nooks with laptops, games and educational materials. Each space is dependent on funding from nonprofits and other organizations. The current reading nooks have been funded by the coalition, but the groups hope to convince laundromat owners to help fund future reading spaces, which cost around $1,500 to $2,500 a year to maintain.
“Our goal as a coalition is to be working in every laundromat in the country,” Echelman said.
Last year, the Chicago Public Library launched Laundromat Story Time in 14 laundromats across some of Chicago’s lower-income neighborhoods. In Chicago, more than 60 percent of the city’s low-income households don’t have children’s books and four in 10 public school students don’t meet or exceed reading standards, according to the Chicago Literacy Alliance.
“We’re always looking at new ways of reaching our intended audiences,” Brian Bannon, commissioner and CEO of the Chicago Public Library, told USNews. “The laundromat turned out to be one of them.”
Hundreds of miles away in Queens, New York, children are participating in a similar literacy program through Queens Library and Laundry and Literacy. At Lavanderia Express XI, children have access to comfy couches, toys and books in English and Spanish.
“I think the goal of this space, too, is to make sure that kids’ time in laundromats is being used to do creative things or to learn and to give families time to interact with each other,” Queens Library outreach assistant Hal Schrieve told NPR.
Beyond making a weekly chore fun, laundry literacy programs have proven to be effective. The Laundry and Literacy Coalition worked with Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University, to evaluate the effectiveness of the program. The evaluation, which was conducted in 2018 at six New York laundromats, found that children who interacted with literacy laundromats spent an average of 47 minutes per visit doing literacy-based activities and were more likely to engage in reading than those children who didn’t have a laundromat literacy program. Neuman said programs like this can be successful in “book deserts,” which are communities that lack access to books, much like so-called food deserts. Book deserts have been linked to income segregation, meaning that the poorer the child is, the less likely he or she will have access to a library or place to access reading materials.
“Small moments and interactions really help prepare children for success in school,” Jane Park Woo, deputy director of Too Small to Fail, told the Chicago Tribune. “We’re very focused on meeting families where they are and helping them make the most of their small moments … we want to help parents use all these moments to engage in language-rich interaction with their children.”