How Laundromats Can Help Close the Literacy Gap for Young Children

600 laundromats across the US are installing literacy spaces for kids under 6.

May 17, 2019


How Laundromats Can Help Close the Literacy Gap for Young Children | 600 laundromats across the US are installing literacy spaces for kids under 6.

Laundromats are not just for washing clothing anymore. Playspaces are beginning to appear in New York City and Chicago neighborhood laundromats as part of a pilot program from the Clinton Foundation and its partners to install family-friendly literacy corners in laundromats for kids under the age of six by 2020.

The average time spent washing clothing in a laundromat is over two hours a week, and many families have no choice but to bring their children with them. That is downtime that could be put to much better use, like reading, drawing, singing, and playing. All of these are important building blocks for reading skills.

Why did laundromats get involved with literacy? Low-income children experience a literacy gap because they have less access to books and whose parents talk to them less. According to the researchers Betty Hart and Todd Riley, children of highly educated, professional parents heard many more words than children of lower income parents. This word gap is roughly 30 million words less for disadvantaged children leading to much lower reading ability, high school graduation rates, and lower income.

Lower income families are much more likely to be using laundromats, so that's why the Clinton Foundation's Too Small to Fail early childhood initiative teamed up with Libraries Without Borders, and the LaundryCares Foundation in 2018 to set up the Family read and Play Spaces.

The pilot program is part of a movement to reinvent public spaces into places (parks, ped that provide educational activities that help children thrive. Children spend less than 15 percent of their time in school, so informal learning spaces – parks, bus stops, and pediatricians’ offices –  are a way for kids to keep learning longer.

“Learning can happen anytime, anywhere,” Jane Park Woo, director of Too Small to Fail, told Quartz. The goal is to go where the families are.

These spaces have a couch, alphabet rug, a bookcase filled with children's books and educational toys like puppets, as well as art materials to spike kid's creativity according to Quartz. The team of nonprofits funds these spaces, but they hope that laundromat owners will pay for the materials and upkeep, which cost around $2,000 a year.

Seven-year-old Emma McGee in the Bronx borough in New York City used to hate to come to the laundromat with her mother. It was always boring but now her “favorite thing to do is coloring,” she told Quartz, “but my second favorite is reading.”

The first phase of the pilot program in three of the laundromats has been assessed by Susan Neuman, a professor of early childhood at New York University and has found that children engaged in 30 times more literacy-rich activities in laundromats with the play spaces and that parents were more loyal to those laundromats too.  

Phase two included inviting librarians to visit the play spaces to read and sing to the kids. Phase three is being planned to teach parents how to interact with their kids.

Other initiatives to promote literacy in young children is Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. The library mails age-appropriate books to children's home so that they get a chance to own books no matter what the family's income is. She has been doing that since 1995 and has made a big impact in so many young lives.

Of course, laundromats and books in the mail cannot fix the inequalities of society or take the place of early childhood education but programs like this can help narrow the literacy gap, and that will make a big difference in the future lives of these kids

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Bonnie has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.