Please take a moment to picture the face of a child you care about. This child may be your own son or daughter, a niece or nephew, grandchild, a youth you may have coached, or a little one who runs into your laundromat with her mom each week. I think of my own two children who are now aged 7 and 9. We all know that raising children comes with a flurry of joys and challenges. Yet I’ll never forget the moment I first looked into my babies’ eyes. They filled with so much wonder and curiosity of a whole new world just waiting to be discovered.
Every child – regardless of their background – is born ready to learn and filled with limitless potential. Studies show that children’s brains develop more rapidly during the early years than at any other time in their lives. In fact, during this period, one million neural connections are being formed in the brain every second! These connections are strengthened through the loving care and support children receive from their caregivers – from the moment they’re born. Every cuddle, every conversation, every song, and every story parents share literally shapes the architecture of their baby’s brain in ways that will boost their ability to learn and develop into healthy, successful adults.
We also know that the quality of the environment in which children grow up is critically important. Unfortunately, significant gaps persist in neighborhoods throughout the country. Today, almost 60 percent of children in the United States start kindergarten unprepared, lagging behind their peers in critical language and reading skills. And for families growing up in poverty, they’re likely living in poor neighborhood conditions and severely lack access to information, tools, and environments that support healthy development. For example, studies show that in communities affected by poverty, there are “book deserts” in which there may only be one age-appropriate book per 300 children, whereas in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods, children have an average of 11 books at home.
This is a critical problem we at Too Small to Fail have been working to address, but we haven’t been able to do it alone. That is why we are truly grateful for our longstanding partnership with the LaundryCares Foundation. Over the past five years, we’ve been tackling these inequities by highlighting the incredibly valuable role laundromats can play to support families and early learners.
Why laundromats? A core strategy of Too Small to Fail has been transforming everyday “spaces” into language-rich environments. This strategy is based on research showing that children under the age of 5 spend significantly more time in informal settings than formal in-school or childcare settings. Estimates of in-school time for young children is approximately 500 hours per year, compared to the 20,000 hours they experience outside of it. Therefore, everyday spaces that children frequent – like the local laundromat where they spend an average of 2.5 hours each week – have enormous potential to serve as informal learning environments. Additionally, there are approximately 30,000 laundromats across the country representing tremendous potential to reach parents and caregivers at scale.
Too Small to Fail has been incredibly proud to work with the LaundryCares Foundation – along with other literacy partners – to create Family Read, Play and Learn spaces to transform laundromats into playful, literacy-rich environments for children and families in underserved neighborhoods across the country. These spaces, available to any laundromat owner through the LaundryCares Foundation, consist of high-quality materials designed to create a language-rich environment – including a comfortable sofa, child-sized table and chairs, rug, bookshelves, bilingual children’s books, toys, blocks, a white board with magnetic letters and numbers, and signage with laundry-related conversation starters.
To date, these spaces have been installed in dozens of laundromats in more than 25 states across the country, and we’ve built the evidence base to show that this strategy is working. A pilot evaluation conducted by New York University revealed that children engage in 30 times more literacy-rich activities in laundromats with our Family Read, Play and Learn spaces compared to laundromats without. Our research also shows that there was significant value added when recruiting librarians and other volunteers to lead regular story times with families at the laundromat. Many parents reported that this may be the only place where they can access high-quality books and resources for their children and that, sadly, they don’t often have such nice, safe spaces for their children to play and learn in their community. Many customers also reported that they plan to return to the store because of this literacy play space.
We thank the LaundryCares Foundation for its commitment to our partnership to test and implement bold and innovative solutions to meet the critical unmet needs of millions of children in our country. Through our collaboration, we have been able to bring together a diverse network of nonprofit, corporate and philanthropic leaders – all working to build a catalytic movement to support children and families most in need.
There is much more work to be done, so we would be grateful for the industry’s continued support. Our aim is to install the Family Read, Play and Learn spaces in as many laundromats as possible, and continue building partnerships with business leaders and early childhood literacy organizations to help further our mission.
While we have plenty of positive data and research findings on the work we’ve done together, the outcome that means the most to me – personally and professionally – is when parents share that creating a safe learning environment for their children made them feel like their families mattered and that their children were valued.
As a nation, there is no greater investment than the value we place on our youngest learners who are each born with unique talents, strengths and abilities. Through one laundromat at a time, we can each do our part to ensure that every child feels valued and has equal opportunities to thrive – in school and in life.
In the words of poet and author Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”