New WonderKnook playscapes invite families to enjoy and explore

Libraries in today’s society are much more than books on shelves. In fact, they’re not always the most quiet place either, but rather, reflective of the changing dynamic and role libraries hold within the community. There are few places one can go to, free of charge, that offer entertainment and education. The library is one of those, and Kent District Library’s latest installations build on the idea of exploration and playing. Encouraging imagination, exploring curiosities and inviting play inside their branches is important to Kent District Library (KDL). With their latest upgrade and installation of the WonderKnook spaces, KDL continues to encourage play, an important element of learning. 

Sarah Fox, branch librarian at the Kentwood Branch says the WonderKnook spaces are the new, revamped playspaces. “We have always had play spaces in all 20 of our branches, but it was time for a refresh,” Fox says. “Each branch was really quite different in how they approached our old play spaces, so this was a system-wide, large effort that’s taken many years to come about. These have all new furniture, and they will also have all new toys, or what we call manipulatives. Each play space will have an element of loose parts play, and it will also have a custom piece that fits with the community that the branch is located in.”

Jaci Cooper, director of projects and planning at KDL says the Library used a local vendor, The Maker’s Creative, based out of Ann Arbor. Cooper says they were happy to learn of the company’s factory in Kentwood, their knowledge of the local community and careful designs. “I was really impressed by how much thought went into the design,” Cooper says. “When you’re designing for public spaces, these pieces really need to be durable. When we invest into a project like this, we want this project to last at least 10-15 years. When you factor in the volume of patrons, and kids will test every piece of furniture, we really were concerned about durability and the quality of these pieces.”
With their latest upgrade and installation of the WonderKnook spaces, KDL continues to encourage play, an important element of learning.

There’s an additional level of thought and planning required for making spaces tailored to kids, including important safety concerns. “We have some kitchens in our spaces, and we couldn’t have a kitchen with an oven door that pulls down. Kids will get hurt or break it off. We couldn’t have kitchen fridges that pinch fingers,” Cooper says “We were impressed that these things were already proactively planned. We didn’t have to communicate this to the vendor, because they had some history with other libraries and early literacy, and knew how to plan for these spaces.”

The WonderKnook spaces are based on a Montessori teaching design to encourage play for children 0-6 years old. “We want our play spaces to promote curiosity and wonder, to spark imagination and encourage a lifetime of learning through discovery and exploration,” Fox says. 

“All of them are made out of wood, and sort of pared down to really tie into the name. We really want to promote a sense of wonder and open-ended play,” Cooper adds. 

Most of the 20 branches have WonderKnook spaces installed already, but the project has been a long time in the works. “We started planning this back in 2018,” says Cooper. “During COVID, we approved to move this forward, and we wanted to pilot some of this. We switched vendors part-way through, and started with a few branches, before creating a plan for all 20.”

Cooper is glad to see the multi-year, $500,000-project come to fruition. “The timing of this investment feels almost perfect,” she says, “when we think about who the target audience is for these spaces. It’s those kids who are 0-6 who spent much of their formative years in a global pandemic where they may not have had the same level of socialization as their siblings or other kids. We’re really excited to launch these spaces at such a pivotal time when socialization, imaginative play, and learning are so important.”

Each WonderKnook space includes symbols and elements that are specific, recognizable, and reflective of their respective regions and communities the individual branches serve. “The librarians and staff came up with three ideas, researching their communities, looking at what was in the building previously, what was a huge part of shaping that community, and what people think of when they visit that community,” Cooper says. “We met with the vendor, walked through all three ideas, and they came up with renderings based on what was feasible.”

The Comstock Park Branch used to be a firehouse, and the WonderKnook space features a fire engine, food trucks at the Kentwood Branch, a barn and silo at the Alpine Township Branch, a covered bridge at the Ada Branch, a dam at the Rockford Branch, etc. Most branches have at least one new piece installed already. Some also have a learning table, with interchangeable tops with legos, train tops, and flat tops. “The spaces can be interchanged, and the spaces are exciting, different and dynamic each time the child comes in,” Cooper says. 
With their latest upgrade and installation of the WonderKnook spaces, KDL continues to encourage play, an important element of learning.
Each of the WonderKnook spaces is illustrated on a Kent County cartoon map, available in each branch. “It creates a sense of wonder and adventure for children so caretakers can bring their children to all of these places, have a cohesive experience, but have something slightly different that honors what that community is all about,” Cooper says.

After visiting five branches WonderKnook spaces, library patrons can receive a coloring book that illustrates each of the spaces. Cooper says the experience-based play activity makes for a fun ‘staycation’ of sorts during the upcoming Spring Break time. “If families don’t have plans to go anywhere, this is a great mini adventure to get out around the county and see all the new spaces.”

Response to the new spaces, typically located in the children’s area of the branches, has already been positive, says Cooper. “I get managers and staff sending pictures where we have intergenerational play around these tables,” she says. “We see so many different people engaging and playing with the spaces, and receive a lot of good feedback. Especially in the winter, when there’s less things to do with kids who have lots of energy.”
With their latest upgrade and installation of the WonderKnook spaces, KDL continues to encourage play, an important element of learning.
The new play spaces are reflective of the changing dynamic of libraries and what the role of play is within libraries. “Long gone are those days where you have the image of a woman in a tight bun and cardigan shushing everyone. We work hard to dispel that archetype. We really recognize play as an integral aspect of learning,” Cooper says. “Kids are using their imagination, problem-solving, reasoning and interacting with one another in these spaces. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than walking into a branch and hearing kids having these learning moments. There are not a lot of places you can go that are free, entertaining and really designed to help promote literacy, engagement and fun.”


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]
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