Laundromat Libraries Aim To Boost Literacy In Milwaukee

Oct 10, 2019

Over the next few months, Milwaukee residents washing clothes at laundromats will start to see something different: mini libraries.

A new city office focused on early childhood education is installing reading nooks in places where children tend to have downtime. The goal is to meet families where they are to encourage early literacy.

The first laundromat to participate in the initiative is Riverworks Coin Laundry, on Holton Street in Riverwest.

On a recent Sunday afternoon at Riverworks, Clarice McGowan was washing clothes. Her 8-year-old daughter Gigi and Gigi's 11-year-old cousin Nikiya tagged along. McGowan made sure Gigi brought a backpack of Barbie dolls so the girls would have something to play with. But here, there was another option for them. 

The two girls were hanging out in a children's space next to a laundry-folding table. It has a small couch, a magnetic letter board, and most importantly, a shelf stocked with books. McGowan says she was happy to see the new space.

The books in the Read, Play & Learn spaces are provided by Scholastic Books for the first year.
Credit Emily Files

" 'Cause people come to the laundromat and generally spend at least an hour or more. So during that time to keep the kids occupied with something positive, I think that's a great asset to this laundromat," McGowan says.

When asked why she thinks there are children's books at the laundromat, Gigi says, "So [kids] can study while they're in the laundry. And they can learn new words if they parents come over here and help them spell words."

Gigi is right.

Dea Wright, director of the Milwaukee Office of Early Childhood Initiatives, says, "The purpose for starting with laundromats is we want to expose parents and children to more literacy, more opportunities to engage in print and books and reading. Because in these spaces, they might be idle."

The laundromat 'Read, Play & Learn' spaces are some of the first concrete actions from the new office, which was created last year. Its main charge is to boost outcomes for Milwaukee children, starting at the youngest ages.

Posters around the learning space prompt families to engage with their children in ways that encourage literacy.
Credit Emily Files

Wright cites research that shows children from low-income backgrounds enter school knowing fewer words than their more affluent peers. (Though there is disagreement about exactly how large that disparity is.) That leaves children less prepared to read, contributing to achievement gaps. Wright says the laundromat initiative is focused on Milwaukee's most economically depressed ZIP codes, trying to reach the children who will benefit the most from more reading opportunities.

The Early Childhood Office partnered with the Clinton Foundation's "Too Small to Fail" initiative and the LaundryCares Foundation. The two organizations have done this work in other cities, including Chicago and New York.

Dan Naumann, with LaundryCares, says they have installed more than 50 laundromat libraries across the country.

"Part of our program includes taking a book home. So we're hoping to introduce reading into what we call 'book deserts,' " Naumann says. "And our research in Chicago shows that out of 300 families in our demographic where we’re testing, one household had a book."

"We're hoping to introduce reading into what we call 'book deserts.'" - Dan Naumann, LaundryCares Foundation

In addition to encouraging families to take books home, Wright says they also plan to bring librarians into the laundromats. The librarians would read with kids and show parents how to engage with their children in ways that boost their literacy skills.

Naumann, who has roots in the Wisconsin laundry industry, says he hopes to "blanket" Milwaukee with laundromat reading centers. Of course, it depends on whether business owners agree to carve out space for the bookshelves. Dea Wright says she hopes to open at least six more. And she wants to expand this idea beyond laundromats.

"I'm thinking grocery stores, bus stops," Wright says. "I'd love to talk with someone at the DMV."

Back at Riverworks Coin Laundry, at a reporter's request, Gigi picks out a book and starts reading out loud. The book is called Is Your Mama a Llama?

When she's done, Gigi says the book was strange. She thinks it's silly that the baby llama was asking bats and kangaroos if their mamas were llamas.

"I like chapter books," Gigi says. "Like Junie B. Jones."

Maybe she'll find a book she likes better on the next laundry day.

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