Providing programs and resources to help families reach early literacy goals

It takes a village to raise a child. Part of that helpful village within the greater Grand Rapids region is the Kent District Library (KDL) offering many resources to families and their young ones. Early literacy is part of KDL’s strategic pillar of engagement and service. Programming for adolescents helps push forward countywide goals such as First Steps Kent, an early literacy nonprofit ensuring children have exposure to books at a young age. 

First Steps Kent works on policies and provides programs and support for children and their families, to ensure young ones are on track when they start kindergarten. The independent nonprofit focuses on equity and inclusion, offers early investments and provides supportive policies and programs to remove barriers so all young children can reach their full potential. 

The Ready by Five Childhood Millage is one of those investments, which provides funding for health, well-being and school readiness programs for children younger than five years old. Approved by Kent County voters in November 2018, this millage makes the county the first in the state to have tax dollars designated specifically for early childhood programming. This will provide $6.5 million a year from 2019 to 2014, totaling $39 million.

Dawn Heerspink, branch librarian at the Byron Township Branch works in a youth-focused role, offering  programming for birth to upper elementary-age children. Heerspink serves on an early literacy programming group and oversees babytime for caregivers and children 0-18 months old, storytimes for young children, and helps plan school visits focused on supporting literacy and encouraging the love of reading. She also provides recommendations for young readers' material, maintains the youth collection and helps young people see the Library as a place where they can learn, grow and thrive. 

“One of the greatest assets KDL offers to support early literacy and positive first experiences with books is our interactive storytimes,” Heerspink says. “Storytime programming fills a need to offer a free opportunity for caregivers and young children to bond, meet other families in the community and start to develop the pre-reading and emotional and social skills they need to navigate the world.”

Heerspink says youth librarians are great resources for families in their children’s literacy journeys. 

“Youth librarians learn how to choose developmentally appropriate books, songs and rhymes, how to create a welcoming environment for caregivers and for children and receive information on applying the Kent County Success Basics, a countywide initiative focused on five fun and effective ways to set children up for lifelong literacy and learning,” she says.”In recent years, youth librarians have also received training to be intentional in book selection so that our read-alouds reflect all members of our communities.”

KDL also offers 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten, a reading program for caregivers to explore books with young children before starting school.

“Caregivers and children receive fun animal tracking sheets and stickers to help them reach their goal of looking at and listening to 1,000 books,” Heerspink says. “As a celebration of the accomplishment, KDL awards each child who completes it with a book bag of their own and a certificate of achievement.”

This program is being redesigned for a relaunch in fall 2023. Starting in June, young readers can participate in Summer Wonder, KDL’s annual summer reading and learning program. 

“We know that it is vitally important that children have books in their homes, so Summer Wonder offers a book prize to child completers,” she says. 

Aside from books and audiobooks, research also shows the importance of play. Symbolic play such as using a block to represent a pancake in a play kitchen area in the WonderKnook spaces can spark imagination and even more learning, says Heerspink.

“Storytelling through play can encourage a love of connecting to books and books can inspire children’s play as they learn about characters and the world,” she says. “There are large benefits to play that support many domains of early learning, including the opportunity to develop vocabulary, acquire counting and comparison skills and cooperation with others.”

Heerspink says that early child literacy is such an important topic because it’s much more than a student being able to read in school. 

“A child’s learning starts with feeling safe, loved and supported,” she says. “Looking at and reading books with a child is one of the best ways to slow down, spend time together and relax. Allowing an infant to look at a board book and just flip pages back and forth demonstrates that
the adult in their life acknowledges their ability to explore the world around them. I like telling caregivers that it’s OK to not read every word on a page (or no words at all!) if they are looking at books with their child, following their lead and facilitating the experience by pointing out items in illustrations, asking questions and responding to their child’s level of interest.”

Made possible by millages, private and community donations and book sales, KDL offers a wide variety of programming for free in a welcoming environment. 

“Our children’s spaces are friendly, inviting and full of a wealth of materials that your local youth librarian will be happy to help you with,” Heerspink says. “There are a dozen more ways KDL supports early literacy — from books for babies to customized book bundles for caregivers to digital and physical books, your public library offers a free, safe place to encourage the child in your life to grow.”

Photos courtesy of Tyler Herbstreith.

Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library. 

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.