These days, libraries offer much more than books. Most people know they can check out videos, music, video games, books on tape and toys. But in the Harford County Public Library system, patrons can also check out educational kits, filled with games, toys, suggested activities and sometimes even costumes.
The library has been offering kits in one form or another for decades, said Melissa Harrah, the system's Learning and Sharing Collection librarian. The first ones, still in circulation, were created to help children go through scary experiences or life transitions, such as getting a new sister or brother, or having surgery. Other kits provide guidance for parents with children in specific life stages.
About six years ago, said Mary Hastler, the county's library director, the library system added LEAP (Learning, Explore and Play) kits, for children in grades three through eight. Each take-home kit had a different science theme, with one focused on electricity, for example, and another providing activities, videos, books and materials related to chemistry.
Now, the library is bringing science education to pre-readers, with Little Leapers kits for the youngest future readers and scientists — those age 5 and younger. Four kits are for toddlers up to age 2, and six are for children 3 to 5 years old. Funded partly with a $25,000 grant from Celebree, the local chain of day care and preschool centers, 117 kits have been created. They are being dispersed throughout the library's 11 branches, and can be checked out for a week at a time, with the option of renewing for a week if there's no waiting list.
"As far as I know, it's ground-breaking," said Hastler, adding that many programs are available to promote science learning, and many promote early literacy, but she doesn't know of any that combine the two.
Lisa Henkel, head of operations for Celebree, said the private company, with 19 Maryland locations and one in Delaware, supports programs "that align with our value to support, educate and nurture."
"The curriculum behind the kits is just fantastic," she added.
The kits were developed by a team including Harrah, Jeannine Finton, the library system's LEAP coordinator, and Margaret Polischeck, children's librarian at the Abingdon branch. They have been working on the kits since summer, Harrah said.
The four kits offered for infants to age 2 explore baby animals, colors, senses and shapes and numbers. For the older preschoolers, the six kits are "I am a Chemist," "I am a Marine Biologist," "I am an Entomologist," "I am a Botanist," "I am an Architect" and "I am a Paleontologist."
The kits, packaged in clear boxes, are filled with books and activities meant to appeal to young learners and their caregivers. The "I am an Entomologist" kit, for example, includes nine non-fiction books about bugs, a CD called "Read it, Sing it, Bugs," binoculars, a magnifying glass, a flashlight, a bug jar, a Creature Peeper viewer for seeing bugs from the top or the bottom, four insects encased in acrylic for damage-free examination, a butterfly life cycle puzzle, five photo cards and six rubber plates that reveal images of bugs when a piece of paper is placed on top and colored over with Crayons.
"We just jam-packed these things," said Harrah.
She said each kit has a binder with pictures and suggested activities. For example, the "I am a Chemist" kit includes recipes for making bubble solutions and ideas for cleaning pennies with lemon juice and mixing food colors. That kit has beakers, eye drops, tweezers, a child-sized lab coat, and goggles for both children and adults.
The kits are being launched March 27 with an 8:30 a.m. event at the library's Bel Air branch. Local officials have been invited, and youngsters will have opportunities to try simple science experiments.
"We wanted them to be fun," said Harrah of the kits. "We wanted them to be simple enough that the parents, caregivers, would feel comfortable using these kits with their young children and not be overwhelmed by the concept of science."