People | March 27, 2024

Good Housekeeping – How Laundromat Libraries Are Leveraging Technology for Family Reading


LaundryCares helped this mother of 13 connect with reading at a laundromat in Minneapolis.

Using Laundromats to Get Children in the Cycle of Reading

For some people, reading might feel like just as much of a chore as laundry. But for 13-year-old Kenali, who stumbled into the extraordinary world of books while lugging her family’s clothes to the Mega Wash laundromat, that’s no longer the case.

Thanks to LaundryCares, in partnership with the Too Small to Fail Initiative, families are now spending the spin cycle reading together in designated reading nooks at more than 350 laundromats nationwide. Worldreader has enabled these built-in reading spaces to feature our BookSmart app. BookSmart, which allows families to read for free anywhere, on any device, offers activities for children and caregivers to pass the time it takes to wash and dry.

“This is the first time that Kenali has had unlimited access to books in her life,” explained Elizabeth McChesney, Early Childhood and Partnerships Director for LaundryCares. She added that while the rising 7th grader loves to read, she couldn’t get to her neighborhood library – until LaundryCares and BookSmart brought her a library of her own. 

Worldreader recently won the 2023 Library of Congress Literacy Award – International Prize for our work with the BookSmart app, uniting families with reading through technology while addressing the reading crisis. According to the 2022 National Assessment of Education Progress, roughly two-thirds of children in the United States are unable to read with proficiency.

“When Kenali heard there was an app for her to receive a whole library of free books, she ran home and got her mom’s phone, which is also the only phone the family owns. She downloaded the app and started reading immediately.”

Elizabeth McChesney, Early Childhood and Partnerships Director for LaundryCares

LaundryCares joined 26 peer organizations across the country last year in receiving Worldreader’s Amazon Grant funds with a goal of building reading comprehension and emotional intelligence, and fostering a love of reading among children. To accomplish this, grantees also were given access to the app to share with the families they serve. 

Although it might seem an unusual setting, laundromats can be ideal places for connecting families with reading, McChesney explained. “We tend to see whole families coming together with their children, and laundry is often done on the same day of the week – it’s built into the family routine.” McChesney said this sets up a perfect opportunity to link the habit of laundry with the habit of reading. 

“Our research shows us that the typical wait time for a family at the laundromat is about two hours. Within this timeframe, there’s some beautiful opportunity for high-quality literacy to happen.” McChesney added that the BookSmart app is a particular blessing for parents and caregivers in historically marginalized communities, thanks to its accessibility.

“Once they understand what BookSmart is, once they try it, they get excited. They can’t believe the breadth of the stories available, and they also get super excited about the activities that go along with books that they can do with their kids.”

Getting adults excited about reading is important, McChesney said, noting that some adults – particularly in low-income communities and communities of color – have had discouraging educational or life experiences around reading and may feel disconnected from it as a result.

A reading nook for children at a local laundromat

“There’s a real reading trauma in our country among so many people who’ve been failed by traditional reading programs and instructional methods. So much of reading is relational. When you see a parent with a child on their lap reading out loud, that’s love. That’s something that must be passed down.”

An additional vital element is gaining the trust of caregivers. Without it, family reading can be difficult to achieve. McChesney referred to one woman in particular, a mother doing laundry for her 13 children, who initially hesitated to try BookSmart because, “If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is,” she recalled.

“When I pulled out my phone and showed her exactly how it worked and that there were no strings attached, she signed up on the spot.” This is why, McChesney stressed, laundromat staff and attendees have a powerful opportunity to serve as “trusted messengers,” connecting families to books in a familiar and organic space. 

“Where we’re really getting traction is when the attendant says to the parent, ‘Try it.’ This kind of work is a real gift of literacy to communities. We’re delighted to see how cross-sector partnerships are forming, with the goal of connecting families with reading,” she said.

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