StoryWalk program connected Boston families to parks, libraries

The StoryWalks featured pages of selected picture books, set up in an outdoor space for anyone to read and walk through. (Photo by Sarah Readdean/BU News Service)

By Sarah Readdean
Boston University News Service

Reading is often considered a sedentary task one does in a rocking chair or in bed. But thanks to the efforts of one organizer and her team, this past month saw a project that turned reading into an outdoor walking adventure, increasing heart rates while encouraging imagination.

Anne Ferguson, of Montpelier, Vermont, created the StoryWalk program in the fall of 2007, combining her work in public health with her love of nature and care for early literacy.

“I needed to create something where the parents were as active as the children,” Ferguson said. “The parents couldn’t just send the kids out and say, ‘see you later.’ They had to go with them. They had to read to them.”

Two series of StoryWalks were implemented throughout Boston this past August and September, in partnership with the Boston Parks & Recreation Department, the Massachusetts Port Authority, the Highland Street Foundation and the Emerald Necklace. The second set of StoryWalks featured 11 books at 11 different parks.

Ferguson recalled a supervisor once saying that partnerships are critical to public health promotion. The program grows in popularity, she added, when more community members are involved in planning.

“I’m just so thrilled,” Ferguson said. “The one in Boston is a really beautiful example of how to work in partnership and within a community.”

Charlie Gluck, a librarian at the Boston Public Library who coordinated the StoryWalks, said she reached out to children’s librarians across the local library network, asking what book titles and outdoor spaces they’d like to see near their branch. She then brought the list of locations to Boston’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“We have 26 branches across the city and Boston is pretty expansive,” Gluck said. “So, finding locations that are appropriate and close to our branches, regardless of how close we are to the center of the city, was important.”

In addition to the 10 children’s walks, one book featured in East Boston was geared toward adults. “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan is a wordless graphic novel depicting the experience of an immigrant trying to build a better life in a new land. Offering this book among the children’s StoryWalks, Gluck said, would serve the local community well.

“We have a really diverse community in Boston. There are a lot of adults whose primary language, spoken and read, is not English,” she said. “And it seemed like a good opportunity for adult outdoor programming in the city.”

Ferguson said she wanted StoryWalks to be welcoming to everyone, regardless of language or literacy.

“The story tells itself through the pictures,” she said. “There are parents that don’t have the ability to read but could bring their children there and still experience the StoryWalk together.”

Considering the city’s diversity, Gluck added, StoryWalks stand out as great multigenerational programming.

“Boston is a book desert. There are many families in this city that do not have a personal library at home,” Gluck said. “Being able to go out into the community and read a book together will encourage parents to start conversations about reading with their kids.”

Mary Salwich stopped by the James H. Roberts Memorial Playground in Allston with her 7-month-old grandson, Julian, before heading out for lunch. Salwich said she visits Boston from New Hampshire twice a week to babysit.

Taking Julian from his stroller, she narrated in a captivating voice what was depicted on each page of the storybook “Train Stop” by Barbara Lehman. The laminated pages were zip tied about two and a half feet from the ground along the playground fence.

“The pictures help him to focus and look and understand what he’s seeing,” Salwich said, adding that stories like these can guide children’s imagination and learning.

“We can make up the name of the girl,” she said. “We can use the picture and say the object, like ‘apple tree.’ There’s two apple trees. So you can count, you can use colors.”

Ferguson stressed the importance of combining early childhood literacy — the development of reading skills between birth and seven years of age — with physical activity.

“Just reading to them exposes them to books and new ideas,” she said. “Children being outside in nature. Less screen, more green.”

“The type of learning that occurs in [libraries and museums]—self-directed, experiential,
content-rich—promotes executive function skills that can shape a child’s success
in school and life,” according to a Boston Children’s Museum report titled “Take a Hike!”

The Children’s Museum established the Massachusetts StoryWalk collection, a statewide StoryWalk loan program, which Ferguson attributes to Massachusetts being the state with the most StoryWalks.

Ferguson’s initiative expanded out of Vermont “right away,” she said. All 50 states and around 20 countries have brought StoryWalks to their communities.

Noah Lenstra, an assistant professor of Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, organized Let’s Move in Libraries, a nonprofit that helps libraries promote health in their community. Lenstra conducts research that tracks StoryWalk partnerships with public libraries.

The number of news articles about library StoryWalk programming increased more than tenfold from April through August 2021 compared to the same months in 2019, Lenstra wrote in an email.

“This dramatic rise in media coverage,” he wrote, “reflects a dramatic surge in the prevalence of these partnerships across the country.”

Gluck said that although StoryWalk is an open program that doesn’t yield clear visitor metrics, there has been a lot of positive feedback in the different library branches. She added the librarians have expressed interest in implementing more outdoor programming.

“Being surrounded by books and by art,” Gluck said, “becoming more familiar with it means that children, when they do learn to read, will have a greater comfort with those books.”

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