The Joy of Reading Outdoors with Your Family
The idea is quite simple: take the pages from a children’s picture book, attach each one to a stake and line them up along a path for folks to read and enjoy.
Scarlett Struble stood on her tiptoes at Autumnwood Park in State College last September, peering at large, colorful pages on podiums and screeching with delight. The 3-year-old was one of many participants in the unveiling of StoryWalk®, an innovative idea that combines literacy, exercise, nature and family bonding. Scarlett and her mother, Danielle, ran from podium to podium reading pages from the book Cat’s Colors by Airlie Anderson.
“We love it,” Danielle said. “We love books and going to the park so it’s wonderful to get to do it all at once.”
What’s it all about?
A StoryWalk typically consists of laminated pages from a children’s book attached to wooden stakes installed along an outdoor path. As you stroll down the trail, you’re directed to the next page in the story. The activity incorporates the great outdoors, literacy and gross motor development. And children and adults enjoy the experience together.
The StoryWalk® concept was created in 2007 by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vermont, and developed in collaboration with the Kellogg-Hubbard Library.
The StoryWalk® at Autumnwood Park was the first to open in Centre County, and a second one opened at Tri-Municipal Park in Centre Hall last November. Other Pennsylvania StoryWalks include Rose Tree Park (Delaware County); Exton Park (Chester County); and a temporary installation at Bethlehem Public Library in 2018.
Cathi Alloway, director of Schlow Centre Region Library in State College, said some sites use temporary signage, but the Centre County Walks utilize permanent frames that allow stories to be swapped out approximately every four months.
The Centre County walk sites were funded with a grant from the Centre Foundation and are a partnership between the Centre Foundation, Schlow, Centre County Library and Historical Museum, and Centre Region Parks & Recreation.
“Centre County has approximately 13,500 children under the age of 9, with many families seeking free activities that can be conveniently scheduled,” Alloway said. “StoryWalk® trails provide multi-sensory engagement for families and children by combining reading, exploration and physical activity in a natural setting. When all senses are involved, learning is a deeper and richer experience.”
While there is no way to get an accurate count of visitors to StoryWalk®, Alloway said counts of attendees at events and qualitative data from attendees is gathered. Organizers also hope to hear from child care organizations and schools that may use the sites for field trips.
When the call for Centre Foundation’s Centre Inspires grant applications came out, Paula Bannon, head of children’s services at Schlow, remembered speaking with former children’s services director Anita Ditz about how wonderful it would be to create a StoryWalk® in Centre County.
“We wanted to create an outdoor literacy activity that families could enjoy year-round,” Bannon said. “StoryWalk® seemed perfect. In a world with too much screen time, enjoying a StoryWalk® is the perfect way to bring families together to unplug and explore nature and stories at the same time.”
While the concept of StoryWalk® may seem creative, its beauty is in its simple foundation, Bannon said.
“Physically moving through a story via the posted pages is such a simple concept, but it packs a huge punch,” she said. “With each book we choose, some sort of concept—whether it’s colors, shapes, movement, feelings, etc.—will be introduced or reinforced to the young reader; it creates opportunities for conversation and bonding between the child and their grown-up.
“Having this place outside,” Bannon continues, “gives children a chance to change up their usual environment, develop motor skills, enjoy the beauty of our local parks and talk about elements of nature they see around them. All at once, StoryWalk® addresses so many of the areas that bolster kids’ overall development.”
One of Schlow’s goals is to extend its presence beyond its physical building and reach new families, said Katie Brennan, Schlow children’s services librarian.
“People who participate can expect something surprisingly interactive given that StoryWalk® is self-guided; each post along the path contains not only pages from the story, but movement and conversational prompts as well,” she said.
Another area in which StoryWalks can have an impact is to change our ideas about toddler capacity.
“We’re also hoping that StoryWalk® can act as a bridge into reading for families who think their toddler or preschooler has too much energy to dive into a book—it’s a perfect example of the fact that reading and literacy skill development don’t have to mean sitting still or being quiet.”
Kelsey Williams of State College attended the Autumnwood Park unveiling with two of her three her children.
“My mom frequently takes my kids out in nature,” Williams said. “She often takes books about nature and sets up a blanket in the middle of the woods and encourages all of us to engage using all of our senses. I am so thankful for these experiences and hope to do more of them. It takes a lot of intention to create these experiences on our own as a family. StoryWalk® provides a fun and easy way to engage together outside with literature.”
To learn more about StoryWalk® and how to bring one to your community, visit https://www.kellogghubbard.org/storywalk.
Jennifer Pencek is a freelance writer based in State College and programming coordinator of the Gender Equity Center at Penn State University