By Noah Lenstra
Within days of closing their facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the 17,452 public libraries in communities across the United States started reminding patrons how to utilize their outdoor spaces and services, and their electronic resources, to stay connected to nature. As ubiquitous community institutions full of staff well-versed on the latest and greatest technologies, public libraries have been ideally situated to continue encouraging children and families to get outside and stay active during these trying times.
In Moore, Oklahoma, librarians shifted a planned in-person program on how to get started gardening into a virtual, live-streamed event. Watch the recording on their YouTube channel.
Before shelter in place ordinances went into effect, Keene Public Library in New Hampshire offered curb-side pick-up of “garden seeds and garden tools” available through their Library of Things. Place your request online and pick up the supplies you need to start gardening from your car.
In the small town of Globe, Arizona (population 7,532) the public library transitioned its Spring Walk/Run Club into an online group. This virtual community prompted families to get outside and hit the trails!
Beyond specific programs, librarians have using social media to remind their communities to take breaks in nature. The Bloomfield Township Public Library in Michigan says “Take time to see spring coming to Bloomfield Township. What did you notice today?”
Milton Public Library in Vermont encourages families to do some nature journaling, and around the world librarians are reminding patrons of how to utilize technology to remain connected to nature, even if you have to shelter in place. In England, Kingston Libraries hosted a “nature special live-stream” on Friday, March 27, to help families identify and download library electronic resources on nature and the great outdoors. Arizona’s Flagstaff Public Library shares “20 must-read books for nature lovers” available online, and New York’s Chappaqua Library shared how to “Beat the COVID-19 Blues With These Wildlife and Nature Livecams.”
And all across the country, librarians reminded their communities that they could continue to combine literacy and nature by enjoying StoryWalk® trails they had set up in area parks and greenways. A StoryWalk® is “an innovative and delightful way for children — and adults! — to enjoy reading and the outdoors at the same time.” Pages from a children's book are separated and mounted along an outdoor path. Different libraries use different terminology to refer to this program. Look for terms like “StoryWalk,” “Story Walks,” “Story Stroll,” “Story Book Trail,” “Walking Storybook,” or other related terminology. When in doubt, the best way to find out if this service is available in your community is to call your local library! Most public libraries continue to offer phone and email services during the pandemic.
In Southhampton, Pennsylvania the public library launched what it calls a “Story Stroll” in Tamanend Park this March. An ABC affiliate in Philadelphia reported on this new library service:
“It has become particularly useful during this time of social distancing to avoid further spread of COVID-19. Families are bringing their children out to read at the park when they are otherwise stuck at home. No librarian guide is necessary, either. The outdoor atmosphere allows families to stay far away from each other and still enjoy the space.
There are plans to keep the stroll active until the library reopens, refreshing the choice of book every Friday. Southampton Free Library recommends contacting your local library to find out about story walks near you.
It's a great alternative for a time when playgrounds are closed and sports are canceled. However, please use your own discretion when leaving the house and practice social distancing to slow the spread of Coronavirus.”
Librarians are continuing to maintain their StoryWalks during the pandemic. In Fairfax County, Virginia, the public library tweeted on March 26 that “A new #StoryWalk book is up at Martha Washington Library and Mt Vernon RECenter! Find the deconstructed #childrensbook posted along the path between the upper parking lot and Fort Hunt Rd. Learn more about StoryWalks: https://bit.ly/3akOubD.” And on March 21, Henderson Libraries in Nevada shared that “It’s a beautiful day for a #StoryWalk! Best part, each page is way more than 6 feet away. Make sure you’re getting some fresh air and exercise, friends.”
In Salem, Massachusetts, librarians added a printed disclaimer at the front of their StoryWalk, stating “While it is important to observe social distancing … we hope you still enjoy time outdoors reading and laughing as a family. Do maintain at least six feet of physical space between your family and others while reading the story, and do not touch or allow your children to touch the signs themselves.”
Finally, more and more libraries have joined in the nation-wide Bear Hunt movement that started in mid-March 2020 as a way to encourage families to stay active outside during the pandemic. In Rochester, Minnesota, the public library initiated a community bear hunt, based on the children's book by Michael Rosen We're Going on a Bear Hunt. The library encourages community members to place stuffed teddy bears in the windows of their homes. Local reporters describe what comes next: “Then the scavenger hunt begins, as families and children can go outside and find as many bears as possible.” Many other public libraries have also joined in this new movement.
School libraries have also joined in! In Georgetown, Texas, the librarian for Cooper Elementary tweets on March 25 “We got outside for a nature scavenger hunt today. Here are some pics of some of our finds,” encouraging the kids and families served by the library to do the same.
Is your library doing something innovative to encourage families and children to stay connected to nature during the pandemic? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Noah Lenstra is an assistant professor of Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he researches and teaches about community engagement in libraries. In 2016, he launched Let’s Move in Libraries, an international initiative focused on fostering healthy living through public libraries.