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Literacy in Laundromats – A New Frontier in Learning

A trip to the laundromat can take anywhere from two to three hours, or more. Like any household chore, going to the laundromat can be time consuming, utterly boring, and frustrating—even more so for children. While there, we skillfully juggle detergent and bags of clothes. Those of us that are parents are also balancing little humans who seem to need all of our attention as soon as we cross the threshold. Child in tow or not, a successful day at the laundromat typically boils down to leaving with freshly folded clothes and our sanity. 

But there is a nationwide movement on the horizon, called the Wash & Learn Initiative, and it’s transforming how people are utilizing laundromat time and space. Wash & Learn is a program that provides the chance for children and their families to engage in learning while their clothes get clean. The program is centered on literacy, and it incorporates endless opportunities for children to learn through talking, reading, and singing. Sounds like fun right? It is! And the best part about this initiative is that you, too, can bring Wash & Learn to your community. 

Here’s how: 

Harness your ‘Why’

I work at Book Harvest, a non-profit organization that fortifies child literacy. And even if Wash & Learn Durham were not under my umbrella of community engagement, I would still be totally gung-ho about implementing this program. Deeply rooted in my ‘why’ is my own time spent in laundromats, and my understanding of how game-changing such a program can be for everyone there—not just the children. 

Kids learning from a Wash and Learn event

Also part of my ‘why’ is the knowledge that it takes a village to educate a child, and my belief that there are very few opportunities that can be as rewarding as working alongside children, and their families. Regardless of whether or not your reasons for wanting to start Wash & Learn in your area are similar to mine, make it a point to get in touch with your ‘why’. It will help you communicate your ideas clearly to others and serve as your North Star for moving the program forward.

Know the Larger ‘Why’ 

Familiarizing yourself with the research that proves the advantages of this type of programming is also essential for moving it in the right direction. For many people, the concept makes sense and the benefits are easy to grasp. For others, definitive analysis and results accumulated by literacy champions like Dr. Susan Neuman may help people to see just how revolutionary this program is. As Ginger Young, Founder and Executive Director of Book Harvest observes, “By providing children with an abundance of books, and plenty of opportunities to learn right in the laundromat, we demystify what it means to support early learning and brain development. We can model for parents that teaching their own children can be easy and fun, and remind them that they have the resources that they need to do it, no matter where they are.” 

Snag a Location

Find a laundromat that is on board with the idea of a pop up learning space. Although the notion that learning can and should take place everywhere is a fairly straightforward one, not all laundromats have adequate space or capacity to take on such a program. If you don’t frequent a laundromat already, take some time finding the right location. You can ask friends and family members if they know of a good spot to set up a mini classroom, or take a drive on your day off and explore your options. 

Make Friends

Once you have found an ideal place, get to know your laundromat community. Introduce yourself and your idea to a manager or other employees to get the conversation going. Ultimately, you will need the permission of the store’s owner to begin the program, but it’s great to build relationships with the folks who operate the facility, as you will often work with them directly. 

To get to know laundromat patrons, give your home washer and dryer a break. Take a load of clothes or bedding to the laundromat you will be working in and give your items a good washin’. While you’re there, use your free time to meet some folks. Run your ideas by them and get their input on learning activities their children might enjoy doing, or days of the week that tend to bring in the most people. Doing this informal needs assessment is important so you can become acquainted with the space, the people, and direction your program needs to go in. It will give you the chance to practice the many times you will introduce yourself and this strange yet beautiful concept of learning while doing the wash to others. It will help you to develop invaluable connections with the families there, and it won’t be long before you will start to make new friends.

Hone Your Own 

Know that you have the ability to positively impact child literacy and learning by honing in on your own talents and abilities. Although many Wash & Learn programs across the country focus on literacy, and are largely run by librarians and other education partners, don’t feel like a Masters in Education is your only ticket to doing Wash & Learn, and doing it well. This program can be led by anyone with a heart for children and the community. And although having a love for this work is central, it is extremely important to self assess things like implicit bias, and your ability to manage children before you begin. In doing so, you may find that you are not equipped or ready to host programming in this space, and that’s okay! If you do have some reservations about whether or not you are the right person for the job, there are other ways to contribute to learning in laundromats, like setting up a bookshelf that you keep stocked with plenty of books, or installing cool/compact furniture where kids can have a special zone to call their own. 

Cater to your Community

Design a program that mirrors the community it’s in. For example, if you have Spanish-speaking guests that frequent the laundromat, offer plenty of books in Spanish. At Book Harvest, we believe that all children deserve to see themselves reflected in the books they read, and to have access to literature that represents the diversity of the world around them. If you are in need of a curated list of diverse and inclusive books, you can visit our wishlist for examples. Running a book drive and letting your network know that you are in need of these books is a great way to keep your shelves full and the children reading.  

A few activities you can do with children at the laundromat

Host a Story Time: Story times are great for working with children one-on-one, or with a large group of eager learners. They can be used to immerse kids in language and illustrations, motivate them to sing and dance along with the pages, and inspire them to resurrect main characters from pipe cleaners and Playdough. 

Play a Game: Playing games is a great way for younger children to practice things like taking turns and sharing, and for children of any age to practice good sportsmanship. Uno, Hangman, and La Loteria (Bilingual Bingo) have become must-haves for Book Harvest’s Wash & Learn Durham program. Not only are they games that many kids already know how to play, but they always draw in reluctant participants who claim to be “too old” to play with the group. 

Teach a skill: My 12-year-old daughter volunteered with me one morning and taught a group of six children to make slime. It was messy, yes, but the peer-to-peer interaction made all the icky cleanup worth it! During that time, my daughter was able to practice leadership skills, and the kids and I had conversations about the different things they enjoy doing, that they can teach to their friends. In addition to developing hands on knowledge, the laundromat is a great place for kids to gain valuable social-emotional skills like gratitude, empathy, and even humor.

The time that children spend learning and reading does not have to be limited to the classroom, family reading hours, or those precious moments right before bed. And because our nation’s educational proficiency rates do not hold a candle to our aspirations for our children’s success—it is vital that we each take hold of the reins of their learning, by creating a space for children to talk, read, and sing wherever they are!  


About the Author

Nadiah Porter is the Community Partnerships Manager at Book Harvest, a North Carolina nonprofit based in Durham. Under Nadiah’s leadership, the Wash & Learn Durham program has grown from one laundromat to three, in less than one year. Learn more at www.bookharvestnc.org

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