Early Learning through Play
Library Programming for Diverse Communities
by Kristin Grabarek and Mary R. Lanni
March 2019, 168pp, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
1 volume, Libraries Unlimited

Paperback: 978-1-4408-6582-4
$50, £39, 44€, A69
eBook Available: 978-1-4408-6583-1
Please contact your preferred eBook vendor for pricing.

Discover how far early learning programming can go on budgets of any size.

This creative guidebook teaches librarians in diverse communities how to develop and implement early learning programming beyond traditional storytimes.

While traditional library storytimes are excellent tools for families, equally important is play. Children learn through play in many ways; it stimulates exploration and curiosity and builds gross and fine motor skills that are critical to reading and writing success. Perhaps most importantly, play has the power to cross barriers of culture and language, allowing families from differing backgrounds to learn together.

In this book, Kristin Grabarek and Mary R. Lanni—the pioneers of Little University, an early learning program that focuses on play-based learning—share their experiences and provide guidance for implementing similar programs at libraries of various sizes and budgets. They teach readers how to create programs for a diverse group of families, work with outside providers, choose supplies, estimate costs, market your programming, and overcome the challenges of both big and small budgets and many or few patrons. These practical plans will enhance storytimes and even help build a brand-new early learning program.


  • Connects library programs to parents' desire for children to begin formal learning at an early age
  • Offers a blueprint for making play a sustainable early-learning program series for budgets big and small
  • Includes ideas for making early learning activities relevant to the six early literacy skills in a public library setting
  • Emphasizes how library programming can support early childhood development and prepare children for success in kindergarten and beyond
  • Shares tips for marketing the program to parents and caregivers
Kristin Grabarek has worked for more than 10 years developing relevant library services and programs for birth through early adult learners at the Denver Public Library and at the Auraria Library on the University of Colorado-Denver campus. She implemented Little University, an early learning program beyond traditional storytime, at her branch of the Denver Public Library system and is now assisting in its expansion to multiple branches throughout the system. Her professional interest is in maintaining public libraries' relevancy to families by offering play-based, innovative programming that directly promotes individualized learning. In 2020, Kristin Grabarek was named a “Mover & Shaker” by Library Journal magazine.

Mary R. Lanni is a library professional in Denver, Colorado, providing library and programming services for all ages for more than five years. She has worked in a variety of capacities over the last 17 years, from teaching Irish stepdancing to being a children's museum educator to leading storytime. These experiences have formed her understanding of the myriad ways through which children learn, and she implements this knowledge in her library programming for children and their families. She has served on the steering committee for the Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy for the past three years, serving as the chair of the communications committee and adding six languages to the Storyblocks training videos, a project executed in collaboration with the Colorado State Library and Rocky Mountain PBS. She is passionate about spreading the message of the importance of learning for young children to their families and the communities in which they live.


"This book is a terrific new resource for play-based programming. Since children learn best through play, and play is an Every Child Ready to Read best practice, this comprehensive book is invaluable for children’s librarians. Play-based rather than reading-based, these inventive and entertaining programs are recommended as an addition to traditional storytimes rather than as a replacement. They are designed to appeal to all audiences including wiggly children, immigrant and refugee families, grandparents, children with special needs, dads, affluent parents, working parents, engaged parents, and families living in poverty. This wonderful resource fills a need for children’s librarians who seek to continue the democratic mission of the public library."—Betsy Diamant-Cohen, DCD, Creator of the award-winning Mother Goose on the Loose early literacy program

"Are you looking to launch a play-based early learning program at your library or simply add a few extension activities to storytime? This book offers many inexpensive and innovative ideas with step-by-step instructions. Whether you are an experienced program librarian or new to youth services, you can easily bring thoughtful and intentional playtime to your community’s young families."—Laura Olson, Youth Services Department Head, Lone Tree Library, Douglas County Libraries, Colorado

"To play is serious business, and the cognitive implications that come along with it are far-reaching and key elements to a successful transition into the formal realm of education in the classroom. Not only have Kristin Grabarek and Mary R. Lanni created a tool that will impress upon librarians the science behind and the need for play-based learning, but they have gone so far as to create a detailed list of potential programs to implement in the library setting and beyond. This book is nothing short of a revolutionary tool that will educate, inspire and equip librarians to level-up their programming and make an even bigger difference in the communities in which they serve."—Brittany R. Jacobs, Author of Transforming Your Library into a Learning Playground

"Joyfulness, insight, compassion, and dedication are the terms that come to mind after reading Early Learning through Play. As a guide for librarians, this book is more than just a recipe or handbook; it is an inspiring and pragmatic approach to the public librarian’s role of nurturing the love of reading and play in all communities and with a respect for cultural differences."—Mary Stansbury, Associate Professor, LIS, University of Denver
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