Projects | December 20, 2023

Partner Spotlight: Play Smart Literacy


Supporting caregivers by connecting reading, talking, and playing for stronger learning opportunities.

When caregivers understand the connection between talk, play, and child development, they are empowered to be active participants in improving their child’s future. That is the heart of the mission for Play Smart Literacy, a mobile early childhood and family engagement outreach group in Chicago. 

“I love using positivity and joy as catalysts for change, and this is our basis of work with families,” said Michelle Dinneen-White, Founder of Play Smart Literacy. “We see so many parents or family leaders afraid of ‘doing it wrong’ when they try to read or play with their children. We want to open them to the realization that the whole experience can look messy or nonlinear.” 

Rooted in Chicago’s underserved communities, Play Smart Literacy focuses on families and children from birth to five years old. “We strive to empower adults to ensure that children enter kindergarten ready to succeed,” Dinneen-White said, stressing the importance of caregivers recognizing their critical roles and understanding that they’re the perfect people to help their children make connections between talk, play, and learning.

Whether it’s reading while snuggling before bed or reading a recipe while prepping a meal together, these are all important early learning experiences that emphasize the value that books, stories, and words have to us all.

Michelle Dinneen-White, Founder of Play Smart Literacy.

Through a partnership with Worldreader, Play Smart Literacy recently incorporated the free mobile app BookSmart into its toolkit for families. The digital library of reading resources opens families up to thousands of books on a 24/7 basis with just the click of a button.

BookSmart has been wonderful because it offers more ways to connect with families,” Dinneen-White shared. “We are very thankful to Worldreader for letting us offer their wonderful books as amazing play and conversation prompts for families.”

Play Smart Literacy is one of 27 community-based organizations nationwide that received grants from Worldreader to promote family reading and build the reading confidence of parents and caregivers to support their child’s learning. As part of this effort, grant recipients have also incorporated the BookSmart app into their work, sharing it with the families they serve. 

Play Smart Literacy is working with The Roux: Gas Station With A Literacy Purpose, which is transforming a few Chicago gas stations into family learning hubs in neighborhoods that don’t have access to books. For the last few years, Play Smart Literacy has helped to design an outreach strategy at the gas station. In addition to promoting the BookSmart app, The Roux also added Play Smart Literacy “Math Talk Playdate” signs on all of their pumps this summer, so customers can take both home with them to access and build a reading practice. 

Whether connecting in the grocery store, laundromat, family shelter, daycare, or gas station, Dinneen-White said that families are always excited about free books. She recalled two women who had started using BookSmart expressing excitement about the download option. The women shared that they don’t have access to reliable connectivity, so the ability to download a book to share with their children later has been a very positive experience. 

Another dual-language family was excited that their son could download and read books alone or with his mom in English, and his dad could read the books to him in Spanish. When sharing BookSmart with families, Play Smart Literacy has found that offering access to stories in multiple languages is a great asset. Because Chicago has a large migrant population, this feature has been a game-changer for families. 

BookSmart, Dinneen-White added, has also been a valuable tool for families needing more confidence in their reading or using early literacy strategies and abilities. “Booksmart offers an informal but powerful way for adults and children to connect.” She noted that many of the families they serve face barriers when it comes to access to books and literacy resources. However, because 98% of people have access to a device, the immediacy and availability of the app help break down these barriers.“We are so thankful every time an adult chooses to open a story because it adds a little glimmer of hope to a child’s day,” Dineen-White said. She quotes Tammy Steele, the author of Play Smart Literacy’s guidebook The Gift of Words: How Do Children Learn to Talk?, saying, “It doesn’t take more time; it only takes more words.”

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