Little Troopers is a cross-agency partnership between Swindon Libraries and Information Service, Family Nurse Partnership, Housing, and Care Leavers teams to support young, vulnerable families. The open, drop-in group is for parents up to 25 years, with the average age around 20, and their children up to age three.
Background and context
Little Troopers is a cross-agency partnership between Swindon Libraries and Information Service, Family Nurse Partnership, Housing, and Care Leavers teams to support young, vulnerable families. The open, drop-in group is for parents up to 25 years, with the average age around 20, and their children up to age three. Some parents are care-leavers, single parents, or have vulnerabilities. The group meet weekly for 90 minutes at the Everleigh Centre, Penhill, Swindon. The play and stay group includes sensory-based craft activities, messy play, Rhyme Time, and a free snack and drink. An average of 10 families attend, with about eight attending regularly.
This partnership brings early communication literacy services to a community centre setting. It provides quality reading and modelling of interactive rhymes from Swindon Libraries’ Outreach Librarian. Parents are encouraged to join in and put the interactive behaviors and reading to children into practice at home.
The group is also used as an activity for parents who use the venue as a contact centre. With the mix of practitioners present, parents can seek housing and health advice and have their children weighed.
Swindon Libraries has been attending the group since it started in 2018. Their aims are to help support child speech and language development, provide direct access to reading materials, make families aware of library services, and help the parents build their confidence in interacting with their children, especially through reading and play. The group, with its regular attendees, stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic. On return in autumn 2021, a new cohort has started, so the relationship-building has started anew.
The session includes role play, using the toys, talking with the children, reading books and listening to the parents about their experiences. At the end of each session, Swindon Libraries deliver a library-style Rhyme Time (singing a variety of nursery rhymes with actions and group interaction). Parents are encouraged to join in, suggest rhymes and interact with their children. All families are given the opportunity to join the library, borrow books, and are given information and the opportunity to ask questions about library services. As the activity isn’t taking place in a library, the Outreach Librarian brings books specially selected for the session, which families can read on the day and take home to borrow. This uses librarian expertise to curate an appropriate, varied selection families will like, making it easy for families by having books immediately to hand, bringing the membership sign-up process to them, removing barriers some of the parents have about visiting their local library, and overcoming the limited opening hours of the local library. Plans are underway to create a more permanent book selection at the centre to create a space which looks more like a library space, and is more likely to encourage families to borrow more books more often.
It has been challenging to engage the younger parents, who may not see the value of reading, particularly if they have lower literacy or it has not been a part of their upbringing or family culture, or they are unaware that reading to very small children is beneficial and contributes to their speech and language development. It can also be challenging during the Rhyme Time to engage parents to join in. This can be for various reasons such as feeling unconfident, self-conscious, unfamiliarity with the rhymes, that they are ‘doing it wrong’, or thinking their babies are too young for there to be benefits.
The group is a valuable resource for parents with positive results. Since restarting the group after Covid restrictions, Swindon Libraries has worked closely with families to build trust and relationships. The same families have been regularly attending and 33 families have signed up for library memberships. Since signing up for membership at the group, one family has independently visited and borrowed over 100 books from the library in the last six months. These were non-library users previously and would have remained so without this intervention.
Modelling behaviour from the Outreach Librarian is key. Parents have begun to model storytelling behaviour including voice and tone moderation. The modelling behaviour has been consistently effective, with parents mirroring the Outreach Librarian’s talking and reading to the children. Parents have enjoyed regularly attending the sessions and have come to support and encourage each other. Previously skceptical and non-library using parents have become advocates and champions for the service, making unprompted, positive recommendations to new parents in the group about library services and the variety of books and events on offer.
Library staff working sensitively is also crucial. The Outreach Librarian works hard to build parental confidence in reading, choosing books and increasing interactions with their children. Part of this is reinforcing the idea that there is no ‘wrong’ way or book to read with their children. Staff have observed an increase in parental confidence, for example, where a very quiet parent transformed from not interacting in week one to actively and confidently participating with their child and the group by week six. Similarly, a young dad who had been mildly disruptive at week one became increasingly engaged and a positive role model for other young dads at the group.
The Outreach Librarian Debbie Jackson has stated that
it is one of the best groups I have been involved with.
One reason the session works so well is because it is in a private space, with enclosed outdoor space with play facilities, where parents can talk freely and openly with no other users of the building nearby. The entrance door is closed, and only staff members can access the space, so parents know that they and their children are safe there. The library has strong relationships with The BookTrust and The National Literacy Trust, who have supplied free books for all of the children, with some given as Christmas presents. The families were delighted to receive them and have fed back that they have enjoyed reading them at home, and hold them at a higher value than borrowed books.
Through the group, the library has created positive relationships with the other practitioners, who support each other’s work. For example, the Family Nurse Partnership promotes library services on their visits and the library provides them with resources to support their work. This is unlikely to have happened without their continued interactions at the group.
Professionals in the Parent Practitioners team have seen the expertise that libraries have brought to the project and asked Swindon Libraries to start a similar, new group in a library setting for young families. The parents and children are a mix of ages, but needing additional support, for example with an Autistic child. The group started in April 2022 and runs for 30 minutes weekly at Swindon Central Library during term times. The session includes a Rhyme Time and help with choosing and borrowing books. All families joined the library in session one as none were members. Five families attended the first session and seven the second session, with eight likely to be the maximum group size. The Little Troopers group is planned to continue as a rolling programme. Subject to ongoing evaluation, the Parent Practitioners group will continue in line with demand.
The Outreach team has learned that there is a need for the library service to be involved with vulnerable groups to support families in breaking the culture of not reading from birth, in understanding the importance of early literacy interactions for child development, and in being school-ready. Given the resources, they would scale the project up to include:
- Books specifically purchased for the group to borrow via their library card
- Resources to give to parents to consolidate story and rhyme-related interactions with their children at home, such as toys, instruments, and sensory items
- More free books to give away on a regular basis
- Developing a free workshop for parents to gain recognition of reading and singing with their child and understanding the importance of this in their child’s development and communication skills. This could also lead to follow on work with being school-ready on exit from the group
- Staff-led library visits
- Signposting courses for parents with low literacy levels, possibly in collaboration with the Adult and Community Learning team.