An Interview with New York University’s Dr. Susan Neuman

Dr. Susan B. Neuman is a professor of childhood and literacy development at New York University. Previously, she has been a professor at the University of Michigan and has served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education. In her role as Assistant Secretary, she established the Early Reading First program, developed the Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program and was responsible for all activities in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act. Her research and teaching interests include early childhood policy, curriculum and early reading instruction for children who live in poverty.

Since last year, the LaundryCares Foundation and Too Small to Fail have been working with Dr. Neuman to conduct new research on the impact of creating playful literacy-rich spaces in vended laundries.

In 2018, the LaundryCares Foundation – along with organizations like Too Small to Fail — joined forces to launch new efforts to create a national movement and action plan to promote early childhood literacy through laundromats.

To that end, the partners developed a robust a Family Family Read, Play & Learn Kit consisting of high-quality materials designed to create playful, literacy-rich spaces for young children and families in a vended laundry environment. These items included:

· A small, comfortable sofa for parents and children to sit on together
· A machine washable rug
· An open-facing bookshelf
· An assortment of children’s books
· Signage with photos, tips and messages prompting fun ways to talk, read, and sing together at the laundromat
· A set of colorful animal puppets
· Children’s coloring sheets/activity sheets.
· A magnetic board with magnetic letters and numbers

Last year, Too Small to Fail and LaundryCares Foundation implemented these kits in three laundry locations across New York City in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. They worked with Dr. Neuman to then conduct a two-phase pilot experimental study of these spaces. The research examined the three laundries with the kits, which served as the “treatment” group, and compared them to three “control” stores, which served comparable populations yet didn’t feature the literacy kit materials.

Dr. Neuman recently sat down for an interview with PlanetLaundry Editor Bob Nieman to discuss her ground-breaking New York study, her current laundry-literacy research in Chicago, and the importance self-service laundry owners can have on the early childhood development of those in the communities they serve.

What spurred your initial research into laundromats as critical environments for early literacy development?

One of the things that we know and was very much a part of the Too Small to Fail agenda was to reach people where they are. Too many literacy programs have asked people to come to them. What we recognized is that it’s important for us to reach out to the community. Children are out of school more than they are in school, so how can we use this informal time that children are out of school to really make it a language- and literacy-enriched activity?

The laundromat is where many children spend a good deal of time. In fact, some children spend as much as two hours a week in laundromats with very little to do. We realized that this was a wonderful opportunity to really do something very simple but potentially very powerful in terms of their literacy development.

Why were vended laundries, in particular, chosen for this study?

Laundromats are community-based businesses. People may not think of them that way, but they are. They are where communities gather. Laundry customers don’t go to laundromats that are far away from them; they go to stores that are close by and in their neighborhoods.

One of the things we began to realize is that parents bring their children to the laundry – many times out of necessity, of course. And these children can meet other children there. It’s a way of creating a literacy community, a very natural kind of context. It’s a safe context where parents feel they can bring their children. As a result, it seemed like an ideal place to put some very simple kinds of materials, which hopefully would engage parents and their children and encourage the children to engage with one another over literacy-related activities.

What were the key findings of that first study in New York City?

One of the key findings is that you can do something very simple that will cause an enormous difference in children’s lives. In these three laundromats, which were located in high-poverty areas in communities in New York City, we installed very simple literacy-related play areas with magnetic letters, little couches, books for the children to enjoy, markers and paper.

We just put them there. There were no instructions. There was nothing telling them what to do. And what was fascinating was that the children gravitated toward this.

In the New York study, we had a treatment and a control situation, and the big highlight from that first study was that we found there was 30 times more literacy-related activity in laundromats that included the “Family Read, Play & Learn” spaces, compared to laundromats that did not have these literacy-related play areas. So, we could actually say that this area caused literacy to occur – it was a causal relationship, not just a correlational situation.

That’s pretty dramatic that we can up the ante of activities that are very important for children’s later literacy development just by just putting some simple structures into a laundromat.

In the second phase of the New York study, we had librarians visit the laundromats once a week to talk, read, sing and play with the children, and we found that the average amount of time the children stayed in those literacy areas was 47 minutes!

A pre-school teacher would die to hear that number. That just doesn’t happen. In fact, I was just looking at the data from our current study in Chicago, and we have kids who are staying those reading and play areas for an hour and 10 minutes – engaged in literacy-related activity.

It also shows that, given an opportunity, people take advantage of it.

Another key finding of the first study was the great range of activity. It wasn’t just about reading books, but about play and talk as well. There was a wide range of activity and that range is important for children, as they go to school and begin to understand the functions of literacy and why it’s important to learn about it.

Another discovery that was very interesting is we found that the children’s parents did a great deal of observing within the laundromat. Of course, they were washing and folding clothes, and they would come over and watch the children playing – and with great appreciation for what they were doing. However, the interesting phenomenon was that they would watch the librarians actually doing an activity, but they wouldn’t try to replicate it themselves.

Therefore, one of the factors we want to focus on in this new study in Chicago is to perform more modeling and demonstration for parents so that they begin to feel more empowered to engage in literacy activities with their children. We want to see greater carryover in this new study, to where the parents have learned something at the laundromat and now they’re going to play it out with their children when they go home. We didn’t find that in this first study.

What is the “knowledge gap,” and how can laundry owners be a part of closing that gap?

We’ve been studying the knowledge gap for a long time. Basically, my research says that, when a parent talks to a child, he or she is not only talking and using a lot of words but is actually conveying important knowledge. That knowledge becomes central to kids when they go to school. In other words, you can’t comprehend what you’re reading if you don’t know what those words are all about.

As it turns out, the laundromat offers wonderful opportunities for knowledge gathering. Just think about it – all of the measuring, the folding, the patterning and the sorting that has to be done to launder clothes. All of that kind of work is central to what children will actually have to do when they go to school.

So, with the Chicago study this time around, we want to focus on learning about skills such as measurement and patterning when the children are at the laundromat, as well as how we can we support that. If we can support it, that means the knowledge gap will decrease, because the children will develop a basic understanding of not just what’s in a book, but of how to apply what they’re learning to actual practice in real life.

Why are libraries – and, in turn, reading and learning spaces within laundromats – so vital to our society?

Of course, libraries have been doing outreach forever. They are the “knowledge safety net” within our culture. With the internet, we need librarians more than ever – to help children navigate all of the information and misinformation. Libraries are absolutely essential.

One of the things we’re trying to do with the new study is to link together the laundromat and the library more strongly. In other words, you found a book at the laundromat that you love reading. That’s great – now understand that the library is the gift that keeps on giving. Clearly, children cannot own an enormous library of books, because it’s not affordable. So, we want to get librarians into the laundromats to show kids that the library is a place where they can have access to books forever – that libraries are an unending source of literacy and learning. Our point is to use the laundromat as the beginning to creating lifelong learners and to ensure a connection with libraries as this resource that’s always there for them.

The other thing that is striking about libraries is the fact that there’s no evaluation. Everyone who walks into a library is a patron, regardless of their socioeconomic status. That’s important, because people need to feel comfortable, to feel like they’re in a safe space where they can learn.

Kids naturally want to look at books. They’re really interested in books. So, we want to keep literacy in the laundromat as a fun activity. It’s easy. It’s fun. It’s enlightening. And more children will see reading and literacy as something they want to do, especially when their parents also model the activity – in the laundromat, in the library and at home.

What are the key motivators to entice young children to read?

A lot of kids want to read because they want to imitate others in their family. Once of the nice things about learning and literacy spaces in laundromats is that children will often go into these literacy-related areas and see an older kid reading. They may not know each other and are meeting for the first time – but that younger child will mimic what the older child is doing. That’s what young kids do; they look at what someone they respect is doing, and they want to mimic it and try it out. That’s the kind of thing that really motivates children. They want to be adults. They want to pretend. At the laundromat, you’ll see a lot the kids pretending to read. They’re not really reading, but they’re pretending what it’s like to be a reader. That’s a very important activity, because it gives them a role and a role model. They see what it looks like to read, which is essential. That’s a key motivator.

Another thing that motivates young children is seeing bright books with wonderful covers and interesting topics like dragons or dinosaurs or other things they’re curious about. They want to learn, and they want to explore the world in print because they’re interested in things. We often say that young children love “islands of expertise.” You’ll see that children will focus on something – whether it’s dinosaurs or whales or something else, and that’s what drives their interest. It will drive them to books, television programs, the internet – all related to the same topic. That’s what will motivate kids to learn to read. And they’ll use multimedia in that way. They’ll cross media, which is fascinating.

In the past, you’ve noted that “poverty trumps all,” with regard to early childhood achievement. What exactly does this mean? And how can laundromats play a part in leveling the playing field?

Poverty has devastating effects on young children, and the longer they’re in poverty the worse. Some families will go in and out of poverty, while some families experience sustained poverty. Those in sustained poverty may have a very difficult time educating their kids. No matter how passionate the parents are, it’s difficult because their resources are limited – their personal resources and often the resources within the neighborhoods in which they live. These neighborhoods will have few libraries that are open. So, in many cases, the laundromat may be the only place children can find reading and literacy-related materials – really the only place.

In the New York study, when we asked parents how many books they had in their homes, 60 percent of the families reported having less than 20 books in their homes, including both adult and children’s books. In other words, if it weren’t for the laundromats, these children wouldn’t have books.

That’s pretty serious, especially during the summer when schools are closed and many of the libraries in poorer areas have drastically reduced hours due to staffing limitations. Sometimes, laundromats are the only place where children will see these kinds of materials and have sustained time to actually use and play with them. Adding literacy spaces to laundromats is an important initiative. To some extent, it can help to level that playing field, providing children in underserved areas what other children most likely have – including books, magnetic letters, paper and markers, as well as people there to support all of those efforts. It really is an important activity, and especially in the summer, it makes a big difference.

You’ve mentioned the current follow-up study you’re conducting in Chicago. What does this next phase of your research entail?

We’re now in 20 laundromats in Chicago, and we’re in many multi-cultural neighborhoods. In New York, we were primarily in strictly African-American neighborhoods and Hispanic neighborhoods. This time, we’re in very broad and culturally varied communities, and I’m looking forward to seeing how these literacy areas will work across the entire community.

Also, we want to push the laundromat more in this study. In other words, there are a lot of activities that go on in the laundromat, and we want the children to use their literacy in the context of the laundromat.

For example, we have signs posted in 10 of these laundromats about how bubbles are made and other types of exploratory questions. Now, instead of just doing “library in the laundromat,” we’re thinking about how we can use the laundromat as a context for larger thinking about literacy. And that’s really exciting to me.

We also want to do more modeling for the parents. We’ll be asking parents about their experience at the laundromat, watching their children having fun playing and learning in the literacy areas in the store. We’ll ask how this experience is impacting what they do at home. Do you play more? Do you read more? Do you take your children to other literacy-related events? Are you loyal to this particular laundromat, as a result of its new literacy offerings?

Of course, ideally, we’d love other trade organizations to take this on. Ultimately, if children have places like this all over their cities, can you imagine the power and the opportunity for them? So, we want to use these studies as an exemplar of what businesses can do to really help their communities. And, clearly, in helping their communities these laundry owners are helping themselves, because more customers will patronize their stores and more people will have positive views about being in the laundromat. I think it will form a great supportive network.

Those who live in high-poverty areas often are very isolated. But, when they begin to feel they have safe spaces for their children to gather and learn about things, this can provide enormous benefits to the community – making positive changes within the community and, ultimately, to the children themselves.

All in all, what key points should laundromat owners take away from your research?

The takeaway is loyalty to the laundromat and loyalty to the community is central to their businesses. They are part of a community, and they need this kind of activity to show that they care about the community and not just about making money from it. They offer a community service and that’s important.

For instance, I visited a store in Chicago, and this one patron stopped me and told me how much they loved the owner of this particular laundromat. “He does so much for the community,” she said. “I can’t even tell you how we feel about this laundromat. He has provided mammograms, librarians, literacy-related areas for the children – we just cannot say enough about his support of this neighborhood.”

And, as a result, they support him. Ultimately, it’s a business decision. If you want a strong business and loyalty to your business, you have to show the community that you really care.

Little things can mean a lot. After all, some of the literacy center are so tiny, yet we’ll see 10 or more children all crammed in there – engaged, laughing and learning. It doesn’t take much space. It doesn’t take much effort. But it makes a huge difference.

I definitely want to thank the laundry industry for its commitment to their communities and for being – to my knowledge – the first industry to have ever taken on childhood literacy as a chief agenda. Believe me, people in my field are praising the work that’s being done in laundromats.

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