Several months ago, the Concord Free Public Library (CFPL) in Concord, Massachusetts, started thinking of fun community projects for children to welcome spring. Appreciating the first daffodils of the season in front of the library, we thought of how the children who planted them in the fall had done something everyone could now enjoy.
The librarians were inspired to dream up the Secret Garden, miniature gardens in terra cotta pots filled not only with plants and other natural materials, but also with fairies, wizards, dinosaurs, superheroes, and more, all lining the pathway to the library. This magical garden was one of the many activities funded by a Full STEAM Ahead grant, awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.
The library recruited a variety of youth groups to help create the small Secret Garden near a shady side entrance. Groups were provided large pots filled with soil to be used to create mini container gardens based on a variety of themes. Many containers highlighted community interests: the historical Concord Minutemen bridge, local farm life, and the upcoming Duck Race preschool fundraiser. STEAM skills included engineering fairy houses and bridges, exploring nature with rock and shell art, and growing plants from seeds and cuttings. Schools and recreation groups contributed to the project, with the participation of over 100 children, ages 5 & up.
The gardens can be made anywhere, with or without dirt, with moss or plants or even dried flowers and grasses. They are small and light enough to be portable and can be placed anywhere, brought inside for periods of time and placed outside with minimal nurturing required. Each pot has a distinct sense of place and personality, and can be changed according to the season or mood of the creator. Materials can be found everywhere, from basements, yards, storage cupboards, or recycling bins. Gardeners of all ages are weclome — older hands can guide and help, eager hands can pour endless energy and reinvention into the project, little hands can hide treasures and water.
Staff created book displays highlighting gardening and nature books for all ages. The BookMarkers, a grades 4/5 monthly book group at CFPL, read the children's classic, The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and created the first Secret Garden based on the book, making clothespin dolls for which one girl made outfits on the spot from some leftover fabric, while the other children made trees, grottos, and animals inspired by the tale.
A kindergarten class at the Thoreau School molded animals out of clay for their Rainforest and Woodlands mini gardens, assisted by their fifth-grade buddies. A fourth-grade class at Nashoba Brooks School made a fairy garden for display with solar panels as part of their science curriculum. A local art teacher created a series of gardens with several of her pupils. Using shells, sea glass, minerals, and other natural materials inspired the young artists. A fifth grader commented about making the gardens: "I like organizing the different pieces and seeing what works best." Her third grade companion was equally enthusiastic: "It was fun to do outside with good company!" Their teacher commented, "I like seeing how the imagination of my students gets used to create."
The Secret Garden project is a wonderful way to involve local groups and families in an outdoor project that promotes:
· Creativity, curiosity, and imagination
· Physical activity
· Nature exploration
· Development of problem solving skills with STEM activities (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)
Most of all, making the gardens makes people happy. We all long for a place hidden away, full of colorful plantings and green glades, only to be discovered by a lucky few. What a delight it is to see the surprise on the little ones' faces when strollers turn up the pathway or toddlers race down the ramp when they visit The Concord Free Public Library.--Fayth Chamberland & Fiona Stevenson, Concord (Mass.) Free Public Library
Editor's Note: Brooklyn Public Library was named one of 20 Top Innovators by Urban Libraries Council for TeleStory, which received an Honorable Mention in the category of “Race and Social Equity.”
If you’ve ever visited someone on Rikers Island in New York City (NYC), or pretty much any other city, county, state, or federal correctional facility, you’ll know that it can be a long, uncomfortable, and, quite often, traumatic experience. This is particularly so for children visiting their incarcerated parents or siblings. Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) now offers an alternative to in-person visits with our TeleStory program. At 12 of our 60 branches, we have dedicated televisiting units – basically large flat-screen TVs with adjustable cameras and on-table microphones – that can connect to almost any facility in the NYC Department of Corrections system.
Using this technology, we can host hour-long family visits with incarcerated loved ones in the trusted, safe, and friendly environment of a public library. We use private and semi-private, or windowed, programming spaces and, if a televisit involves children, we will set up the room with age-appropriate books, drawing materials, and toys. In some cases, we are also able to supply books to the correctional facility, so that parents can share the experience of reading the same book with their child. Library staff will check in on families during visits, and will step in to help if needed or requested. We also have social work interns from The Osborne Association, a prison and reentry agency, on hand to help with the visits and to connect families with needed resources.
To aid the program, we have also developed a Welcome Packet for families that includes an introduction to the program, a run-down of services offered by BPL, a brief “How Can We Help?” questionnaire designed to assess family needs, as well as feedback forms, including a drawing sheet that asks young children to draw a picture of how the visit made them feel. We also include library card applications, since many TeleStory participants are first-time library patrons. With these tools, we are able to refer patrons both to library services and to social service programs offered by partner organizations. Incarceration and a criminal record can create barriers to employment, housing, education, and full citizenship, and we see televisits as providing not only a critical family connection, but also an opportunity for the library to support people as they return to their communities from incarceration and face these barriers.
Ms. S is a good example of a patron who currently uses TeleStory. She has visited her husband on Rikers Island a number of times since his arrest in 2016 and has taken the couple’s six-year-old daughter along with her. The family found the process of going through the visitor’s center and the security checks at the jail stressful and scary. Now, while Ms. S still makes in-person visits, and sometimes takes along her daughter, she regularly brings the girl to our New Lots branch to televisit with her dad. This way, they are able to maintain family connections in a supportive environment.
For other patrons, televisiting is a necessity, rather than a complement to in-person visits. Ms. J’s son was incarcerated in December 2016. She is undocumented and has no state identification, so cannot visit him on Rikers Island. She comes to a BPL branch each Wednesday evening after work to spend an hour with him. He has been battling an opioid addiction and we have been able to get some recovery books to him through our jail services and had an immigration specialist contact Ms. J to assess her situation. Without TeleStory, there would be no connection between mother and child outside letter writing and the occasional, and expensive, phone call.
BPL has been providing televisiting since 2014. In 2016, with support from the New York City Council, we were joined by our colleagues in the Queens Library and New York Public Library systems, so that TeleStory is now available in all parts of the city. We aim to expand TeleStory not only to more of our branches, but also into the juvenile justice system and into the New York State prison system, where it is estimated that more than 7,000 Brooklyn residents are incarcerated, around 60% of whom are parents of minor children.
Televisiting has been growing in popularity nationwide, with both public and private for-profit models in different states. In some states and counties there has been a push to replace in-person visits with televists. In NYC we understand the importance of in-person visits and have been careful to emphasize that nothing can replace the physical presence of family. Our partners at NYC DOC have been very supportive of this approach and, with their help, we have been able to build a program that is free, easily accessible and that operates in harmony with in-person visitation. TeleStory is a unique program and can be a national model for how to do televisiting well. It is also a good example of how public libraries can connect and support vulnerable families.--Michael Carey is Televisit Services Coordinator at Brooklyn Public Library