Visitors entering the Arbutus Library on Sulphur Spring Road are greeted by small, shovel-shaped markers leading the way to a table covered with gray T-shirts and a bulletin board displaying brightly-colored toys and pamphlets.
The shovels signify Baltimore County Public Library's theme for its annual summer reading program: "Dig Into Reading."
Sneaks the Cat, the library's summer reading program mascot, embarked on his 27th summer journey earlier this week to encourage children of all ages to read during their break from school.
The library's eight-week program began June 17 to help kids maintain, if not improve, the reading comprehension skills they developed during the school year, said Elizabeth Rafferty, a youth services specialist for the county library system.
"There's something called summer slide," said Gail Ross, branch manager for both the Arbutus and Lansdowne branches. "Kids who read during the summer, grow in their reading skills."
"And the way that they can do that is by reading for fun," Rafferty said. "They can read whatever they want to read and not just what they're assigned by their teachers."
Last year, there were 48,539 registrants for summer reading in the county, according to Rafferty. That continued a four-year trend in which the program has set a new record each year.
There were 26,944 registered for this year's program even before it began earlier this week, she said.
More than 2,400 participants registered for the Arbutus Library's summer program last year and more than 750 at the Lansdowne Library.
Though the program is geared more toward kindergarten through eighth-graders, teens and preschoolers can also register for programs specialized for those age groups. Students can register online or in the library.
Participants receive a game board with 16 lines on which they write the titles of each book they read or each reading activity they complete throughout the summer.
"It's all reading so it's like read your favorite magazine, read a chapter of your favorite book, read for 15 minutes outside, read to your pet," Rafferty said. "It's just a variety of reading."
"Or they can read a book and that replaces any activity," she said.
"The beauty of this is, you don't have to read a 10-page chapter," said Ross. "You can just read until you're tired of reading and just put your bookmark in."
Ross said the reading activities don't even have to be in standard chapter books. She said craft books, cookbooks and educational books also count.
The extra time summer offers also means an opportunity to try something new, she said.
"You don't have homework sitting on top of you," Ross said. "You have time to teach your children how to crochet, how to knit, how to sew."
Once they complete four reading activities, kids receive a sticker. Once they amass four stickers, they can pick a prize ranging from a light up spinning top to a monster projector pen to a beach ball.
The most important part of the program, Ross said, is that students must come into the library to get their game boards, stickers and prizes. This provides an opportunity for a tactile interaction with books and reading in a world different from that of computers, tablets and smart phones.
"The selection that's available here is not available on any tablet," Ross said."Right now the collection is so beautiful."
She said that because books, especially children's books, come in a variety of "sizes, shapes and feels," some with pop outs or textile inserts, coming to the library will always be an experience incomparable with a tablet.
"I don't think the tactile experience is the same (on a tablet)," Ross said.
Rafferty agreed and said that, even in this technological era, reading is still a critical skill.
"A lot of parents give their kids a tablet to keep them occupied whereas in the past, they might have given a coloring book," she said. "So we lend out titles for the iPad.
"Reading is a huge part of technology and if they (students) don't have proper reading and comprehension skills, they aren't going to be able to use their technology very well," she said.
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