CPL enhances early literacy programs with sensory-friendly upgrades

“We hope that having softer sound and lightning makes all our story times and other children’s programs more welcoming and accessible to children with sensory issues.”

The Cranston Public Library provides essential early literacy programming for children ages 0-5, inviting parents and caregivers to accompany their children in listening to stories, singing songs, using hand motions to act out rhymes, playing with toys and creating art projects for little hands. 

In 2019, Youth Services Coordinator Emily Brown applied for a Sherlock Center Access for All Mini Grant to improve the library’s programming space to meet the needs of children with sensory sensitivities. With the grant award, the library replaced ceiling tiles with acoustic tiles that greatly reduce echo and added light-filtering shades for its fluorescent lights. 

“Before we installed acoustical tiles in the Children’s Program Room, sounds bounced around and the librarian reading a story would have to raise their voice to compete with the echoes of ambient kid noise. Now there’s less competition between sounds and it’s much easier to read at a normal volume and be heard,” she said.

Brown said a consultant from Access Speech Therapy who provided a staff training on neurodiversity made these recommendations after touring the children’s space, and a colleague emailed her about the Sherlock Center grant opportunity.

“We hope that having softer sound and lightning makes all our story times and other children’s programs more welcoming and accessible to children with sensory issues,” she said. 

The library finished installing the acoustical panels and light filters in February 2020, shortly before it ceased offering in-person programs for over a year because of the pandemic. The staff noticed the difference right away. “One of my staff made a before-and-after video of herself reading aloud in the program room to show off the difference,” Brown said. “When we started offering in-person programs again, everyone just accepted the new and improved room as the new normal.” 

Brown said the staff is always working to incorporate accessibility and includes it in all planning. “For example, at large programs like our end-of-summer party, we try to create a space or station that is quieter, has low lighting, and has a craft or other low-key activity without any pressure to finish in a certain amount of time or competition for materials. That way, kids can take a break from the high-energy parts of the program – or just stay at the quieter station for the duration,” she said.

Brown advises libraries or organizations seeking to create more welcoming and accessible spaces to brainstorm as many ways as possible to use their space, keeping in mind specific sensory issues. In CPL’s case, that also meant thinking like a child. 

“Children use doors and chairs and floors differently from adults. They tend to be very creative and seek out spaces that are comfortable or that stretch their abilities. If you imagine the many ways a child might want to use your space, you are more likely to come up with a universal design that is accessible to a wide range of people,” she said.