A Place to Just Play: A New, Vital Role for Public Libraries, Part 2

Panoramic shot of the Free Play Room

Free Play Room at Laura’s Library (Credit: Westbank Library)

Yesterday I explained how I discovered the innovative free play programming at my local public library in the Austin area. I reached out to the staff responsible at the Westbank Community Library (Leah Tatgenhorst, Mary Jo Finch, and Autumn Solomon) with some questions I had. Their responses are below.

And if you’d like to learn more about the topic, the staff there are going to host a professional development program on Friday, October 12 in Austin for librarians and educators. More on that below the interview, or jump straight to the workshop details!

What led you to create free play programming? 

The creation of Free Play was serendipitous. Antonio Beuhler, who founded a self-directed education center here in Austin (Abrome), is a frequent educational speaker at the library and leads an education book club for our community. He introduced us to renowned psychologist Dr. Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn.

Westbank Staff with Peter Gray and Antonio Buehler

Westbank Staff with Peter Gray and Antonio Buehler (Credit: Westbank Library)

In his book and his Psychology Today blog, Dr. Gray argues for the importance of play to help children develop decision-making and negotiation skills, become better problem solvers, develop empathy for others, learn how to take and mitigate risks, and of course, have fun. Antonio helped us conceive the program – 3 hours where children engage in mixed-age play and explore materials with little adult interaction.

Over time, children who come to Free Play grow comfortable with their autonomy and develop ownership of the library as a place for them. Their parents support each other in the sometimes difficult process of letting go.


Why do you think it’s a good fit for your library?

Self-education is at the heart of the public library mission. Beyond that, in conversations with us, our community has expressed a desire for greater community connection, an interest in their children being safe to play in the community, and concerns about school stress and the resulting stresses on busy families. We were eager to create programming with a drop-in time frame to accommodate schedules and offer a chance to connect with neighbors in a relaxing environment with minimal rules. This is Free Play: free choice, free time, stress free, no expectations, no grades, no instruction. It arises spontaneously and when it has run its course, it fades. Its process is discovery, and its only standard of measurement is how much fun it is.

We encourage visitors to:

  • create their own games
  • develop relationships with people of all ages
  • pursue their own interests
  • read just for fun
  • enjoy unstructured time in a non-homework space


Do you have a success story to share? Have you seen it make an impact?

Since we started the program we have had a weekly attendance ranging from 50-100. The numbers have been fantastic, but the real success lies in the connections made. Parents have connected with each other sharing coffee, stories, information and support. Kids are connecting by creating games, sharing materials, and resolving their own disputes. The community is connecting with staff and volunteers by letting us know how much they appreciate a neighborhood place that welcomes joyful noise.

Any challenges you faced, or lessons learned? Anything you’d do differently? Would you do this again?

The opportunity to begin Free Play arose quickly so we focused on preparing programs staff, but in hindsight would have focused on preparing all staff for this shift in programming. It can be challenging sitting back and waiting to intervene when you see children testing the boundaries of a non-traditional library environment. This is something library school did not prepare us for!

It took us a few weeks to determine the layout of the space, which includes a fenced backyard, and to encourage parents to step back and let kids explore freely. We place staff near the entrance to greet families and to make sure no one runs out the front door into the parking lot, but the main goal is to model a hands-off approach while we engage in free play and conversation as adults. We have band aids and ice packs at the ready, but have not had to use them often.

At the outset we envisioned Free Play going from Spring-Summer, but because of the success we have made it a regular program. We are building on the idea by incorporating aspects of Free Play into programming across the board. So short answer, yes we would absolutely do this again. We also are eager to help other librarians embrace Free Play. We will be offering a professional development opportunity for all library staff and educators on Friday, October 12th from 9am-noon at Laura’s Library.

Children playing constructively

Constructive play (Credit: Westbank Library)


Did you find it was more or less successful with different age groups?

Our biggest success was with younger kids and their parents, but we are starting to see grandparents and older siblings attend. We are still exploring ways to engage older kids and teens. We had a teen volunteer over the summer and that was a tremendous help. We observed that teens navigate relationships with kids and adults in unique ways, leading to social and emotional learning on all parts. We intend to develop this aspect further.


Did you have to educate people to explain the purpose/benefits?

Staff members chat with parents about the importance of self-directed play as a means to learn. We also have a bookmark we hand out which highlights the purpose of Free Play. Parents who stay during Free Play enjoy the camaraderie of other parents and support each other in letting go of their kids for a bit, thereby reducing parental anxieties.

We have also been fortunate that Antonio agreed to facilitate when we started the program to help answer education questions that caretakers inevitably had and to reassure them it’s okay to play! We consciously have made minimal rules to allow children freedom to work out issues on their own without adult intervention. Our simple rules are stay safe, respect others, respect the space, have fun!

Free Play Clean Up

Free Play Clean Up (Credit: Westbank Library)


I want to thank the staff at Westbank Community Library for answering my questions and sharing their photos and videos!

If you can make it, be sure to attend their October 12 workshop. Here’s more information about it:

Upcoming Workshop:

Free Play: Preparing Libraries and Communities for an Uncertain Future

Where: Westbank Library, Laura Bush Community Branch

When: October 12th 9am-noon

Who: Speakers include Mary Jo Finch, Director, Leah Tatgenhorst, Programs Manager, Autumn Solomon, Associate Director, Antonio Buehler, education partner. All librarians and educators are welcome to attend! This talk will be of particular interest to program, children & teen librarians, and management.

Play is how children learn to take control of their lives.

-Dr. Peter Gray. Free to Learn

Self-education is at the heart of library missions. Westbank Libraries worked with Dr. Gray to better understand how play helps children develop decision-making and negotiation skills, become better problem solvers, develop empathy for others, and learn how to take and mitigate risks.

The self-directed learning movement, which has free play at its core, is an engaging and simple way to bring your community together. Play is an essential part of childhood, and libraries are a natural partner to offer programs that support discovery through open-ended, child-directed play. Westbank Libraries created Free Play, a 3-hour weekly program that welcomes joyful noise and encourages parents to sit back while their kids explore and discover together.

Topics of this presentation will include: becoming antifragile, the importance of play and child-directed learning, logistics of free play and open ended programming and how to adapt it to your library. A light breakfast will be served, doors open at 8:30am. Come and get your questions answered, and engage in some free play of your own!

To register, please email programs@westbanklibrary.com with your name, library and how many will attend. Registration is not mandatory, but helpful for planning.

Additional resources:


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