ImagineIF children’s librarian Becca Johnson and the power of play
Becca Johnson, the children's librarian at Imagine IF Library in Kalispell on Tuesday, Sept. 19. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)
Daily Inter Lake | September 25, 2023 12:00 AM
When Becca Johnson started at ImagineIF Libraries nearly 20 years ago, the children’s section at the Kalispell branch was dominated by a circulation desk nicknamed “Fort Circ,” so big that many kids couldn’t see over it.
Back then things were more traditional, Johnsons said. Patrons came to get books and didn't otherwise tarry. There was a budding idea that libraries could be more than just a “warehouse for books,” especially for kids, Johnson said. So ImagineIF staff started offering storytime and with a craft activity to follow.
“My background in early childhood really made me passionate about play — how kids learn through play and how they learn by doing and participating and getting messy,” Johnson said. “So, I feel like one of my biggest goals when I first started was that I wanted to bring a little bit of that mess into the library.”
Nowadays, the children’s sections in all ImagineIF branches offer a chance to play. At the Kalispell branch, Johnson said there are multiple activities for kids to choose from, much like the way a preschool classroom is set up.
She recalled a bit of hesitancy to permanently include these elements of play in the library’s programming and children’s sections: would it prove loud and disruptive? Would staff spend all day cleaning up messes? And would kids still be interested in books if they have all this other stuff to play with?
But kids and families still leave with armfulls of books, Johnson said. The only difference now is that there are more families visiting the library and taking part in its programming. She said the shift is that the library can offer something to everyone no matter what age. While some parents assume library staff don’t appreciate having energetic toddlers getting into things, it's just the opposite.
“Inviting parents to come and experience a library in a different way leads them to think ‘Oh, OK, my toddlers are welcome in this library. It's OK if they're noisy, it's OK if they run,’ — OK, we discourage running,” Johnson said. “But even if there's a couple of minutes of a toddler picking up a board book, or just being around books in general, that’s print motivation.”
Print motivation is one of the five literacy skills librarians and staff at ImagineIF try to impart to their youngest patrons. Print awareness, narrative skills, print motivation, vocabulary and phonological awareness are condensed into something a little easier to remember: read, write, talk, sing and play. Johnson said most parents know that it’s important to read to their children early and often, but there are other ways to start preparing kids to learn how to read.
“Starting as early as bringing your baby home from the hospital, you can start building phonological awareness by singing to them,” Johnson said. “When you are ready to read, you have to break down a word, you have to hear the syllables and hear the sounds that make up a word. And when you sing, it slows down on language, so it makes it easier to hear those sounds that make up a word.”
She said talking often and weaving in a narrative through your day can also be beneficial toward early literacy development, as it helps kids with vocabulary. But reading remains one of the most important ways to introduce new words to children.
Storytime at ImagineIF happens multiple times a week at both Kalispell and Columbia Falls, and once a week at the Bigfork branch. It’s one of ImagineIF’s most popular programs and employees put a lot of thought into what books they read.
Johnson said they are looking for books that will bring phonological awareness, like rhyming books, or books that will bring letter awareness with different kinds of fonts. They also work to keep kids engaged during storytime by singing songs and playing games. All of these things are modeled for parents and caregivers, who borrow from these approaches when reading to their child at home.
Storytime also serves as a way for families and kids to connect with each other. Johnson said she remembers two girls who became fast friends when they met at storytime when they were toddlers. She’s watched them grow up together and stay friends through high school.
One of her favorite parts of her job is watching children who grew up loving the library continue to visit and appreciate it. Affectionately dubbed “library kids,” Johnson said she enjoys seeing them out and about, remembering that she watched some of them learn how to talk and read.
“A common factor between all of the kids that hold a special place in my heart is that they all have a really deep love for the library,” Johnson said. “It's like their happy place, and it started when they were really young.”
There are times where she gets to watch kids grow into themselves, too, Johnson said.
“A toddler used to come in with his grandparents, mostly his grandpa. He was super shy. He was kind of one of those kids that would just watch and observe everything … And I was able to see that transformation of him gaining confidence, being able to interact with other adults and with other kids,” Johnson said.
Public services librarian Tony Edmundson has worked with Johnson for the majority of her time at ImagineIF, where she worked as a youth services library advisor with an emphasis on programming until becoming youth services librarian in 2021.
Edmundson said she has a natural ability to connect with children and families in a way that builds relationships, trust and community. He recalled a moment after she wrapped up a baby storytime in Columbia Falls a year or so ago.
“I remember I saw Becca sitting cross-legged on the floor across from a mom, each of them with one of the mom's babies in their laps. They were talking about the challenges of parenting and the joys of nurturing, and I thought, ‘What a resource this is!’ She brings people together, not just to share books, but to share stories. And for young parents and caregivers to gain knowledge and experience from our staff and each other,” Edmundson said.
He said Johnson has assembled a team that brings literacy skills and smiles to every person that passes through their department.
“I can assure you that no matter where the children of today go in the careers and passions of their lives, experiencing the library that Becca made for them will stay with them into the future,” Edmundson said.
The work doesn’t stop for Johnson, who said she was excited to start offering programming for kids and families unable to drop by the library during the work week. Sensory Play Saturdays are now happening one weekend out of the month to reach that demographic.
ImagineIF also has Lego Club where kids can play with Legos and STEAM day, which focuses on a project related to science, art, technology, engineering or math. They have board game days and will soon be offering Nintendo Switch days, per patron request.
“A couple of younger boys actually filled out a comment card,” Johnson said. “Of course I hear things just talking to kids, but it was great that they took the initiative to write that comment down.”
She said overall program participation hasn’t reached pre-Covid numbers, where they would sometimes have 70 kids come to storytime. But staff are meeting newcomers all the time who come to visit their local library.
“I meet people every day that have just moved here and come to see what the library has to offer. So, that's awesome,” Johnson said. “I feel pretty confident that things will get back to that eventually, especially with a new building in Bigfork.”
To find out more about ImagineIF storytime, as well as other upcoming programs for children, go to imagineiflibraries.org/education/kids.
Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached at 406-758-4433 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.