Learning Through Fun

Guest Post by Megan Emery, Teen Librarian at the Chattanooga Library

Perhaps my favorite thing about working in a library is opening kids up to the world. Getting to know the kids that “hate books” and leave with an armload of materials they “didn’t know they wrote books about”. Introducing two tweens who have the same passion for a solo hobby and build a friendship around that shared interest. Randomly searching the internet together for ways teens can turn their interests into professions someday and what steps they can start taking to make those dreams reality. I consider my self the ultimate guidance counselor, no issue is too great or small, to silly or serious, to unattainable or everyday.

Libraries have the unique opportunity to create situations of play that introduce kids, tweens and teens to this kind of self guided learning that most other educational organizations don’t have. We don’t have standardized tests dictating what we accomplish on a day to day basis. We have the freedom (or in my opinion the responsibility) to create relationships with our patrons and from those relationships to point them toward resources they can utilize.

This kind of work is something I’ve enjoyed at every library I’ve worked in but never have I been so empowered to do so as I am at the Chattanooga Public Library. A brilliant friend of mine once told me when I was struggling professionally that “If your job doesn’t exist, create it.” I’m not from library world and I don’t pretend to be. I don’t have my MLS or MLIS. I have a degree in Adventure Recreation. I came into libraries at a time when purchasing $3,000 worth of gaming equipment was met with shaking heads and dropped jaws. I bought it and played anyway. When my messy programming resulted in our cleaning lady quitting I bought more brownies, let the kids spill crumbs and left my glitter out for them to play with anyway. When I wanted to recreate America’s next Top Model with a monster twist coworkers told me I was crazy and the paper came and covered it.

I’ve been lucky enough to have always had the support of my higher ups and have only been told no when it came to having fire in or around the building. They looked at me like I was crazy, but they all said yes eventually. In Chattanooga, not only do they say yes, they say yes while their heads are nodding. They add onto my ideas and push my creativity further.

Our city is blessed with an organization who has their finger on the pulse of pop culture, educational trends and the epitome of experimenting with fun. The 2nd Floor, a 14,000 square foot space dedicated solely to ages 0-18 and their family members, is brimming with creativity and learning through play. We blend those pop culture elements with the educational trends into the most zany and fun experiences possible then let our youth loose to explore where they might take their experience next.

I can regale you with tales of how learning transpires on our floor:
How the tracing table on our art table led two sisters to hunt down a biography of Michael Jackson which in turn led them to discover not just the youth department’s books but the adult’s section on music history with wide eyes and mouths agape.
How our Tweens Ony Lego Club led one young man to focus all his building on guitars when we were playing with famous artists “because Picasso has such a strong theme of guitars running through his work”.
How a young woman came to Sew What (our weekly sewing club) with a broken dress and we 3D printed a new jump ring for it, disassembled the garment and then she reconstructed it with the new 3D printed piece and was able to wear it again instead of throwing it away.

I (along with almost every librarian in the world) get asked a lot whether I think the rise of popularity of ebooks, the mega stardom of google or now Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited will take the place of libraries. My answer is always “Of course not”. (And usually some eye rolling…) There’s a popular Neil Gaiman quote among librarians: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” In a world where more and more people want to see the quantitative value of their investments libraries are rising to meet those challenges without losing the qualitative elements that make us truly special. We prove through our programming statistics and monetary in kind donation of our volunteer program the importance of our offerings while dropping everything to answer your question, genuinely wanting to help. According to a recent Pew Research Study the most important service libraries offer their patrons are “Librarians to help people find info”. That’s right, more important than “Borrowing books” or “free access to computers and the internet”. (http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2013/01/22/part-4-what-people-want-from-their-libraries/)

We’re able to provide some of the best customer service in the world while customizing learning into a package of fun based on what our patrons tell us. And they tell us a LOT. Every comment card we receive at the Chattanooga Public Library is read by multiple people, sent up our organization’s ladder and responded to. Conversation with complaints or praise are rehashed in department meetings. We take all this information into account and use it for everything from planning new afterschool programs to placement of furniture.

I’ve had my work criticized in the past as being “just play” as if the fact that there aren’t necessarily always tangible results or visible change makes it less impactful. As if taking pleasure in learning makes it somehow less meaningful than “real” learning. Or even worse, the fact that I enjoy my work and effortlessly succeed in it does not make it real “work”.

During a recent Tweens Only Lego Club (The epitome of learning through play) one of my kids and I had the following conversation:
Tween: “I cant wait til I’m older.”
Me: “Why?”
Tween: “Because I’m going to have your job.”
Me (feigned shock): “Where am I going?!”
Tween: “By then you’ll have travelled somewhere new and I can have your job.”
Me: “True, maybe I’ll move to Bali, or New Zealand…”
Tween: “You should move to Normal Park (local elementary school) and be a teacher!”
Me: “No, I could never be a teacher… You have to see the same kids all the time…”
Tween: “But I’m here all the time…”
Me: “Yeah, but I don’t teach you anything!”
Tween: “I learn from you all the time”
Me: “But I don’t have to teach you…”
Tween: Starts rattling off fun things we’ve learned about together through Lego Club...

Everytime we play with Legos and get silly over curious looking animals then invent our own, every time we make a “feather boa” out of fabric scraps and joke about famous villains, every time we use serious technology like 3D printers, iPads, or vinyl cutters to ignite a sense of fun in kids we’re teaching them just how vast the world is. How their interests are tied to real world problems and professions. How their curiosity can and should guide them to follow their dreams.

My version of teaching is a good time and I revel in the fact that what looks like madness actually as a method to it, I just don’t need my kids to know about it or appreciate it to keep learning. That’s for me to know and them to overlook with glee.

“I’ve had my work criticized in the past as being “just play” as if the fact that there aren’t necessarily always tangible results or visible change makes it less impactful. ”