CALDWELL, Idaho — A local initiative is putting the average two-hour laundromat trip to good use — by making it a place for early childhood education.
Idaho Libraries and Laundromats started in 2020, intending to connect families in rural areas to quality literacy resources.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of American adults between 16 and 74 years of age were reading below a sixth-grade level in 2020.
"If kids aren't reading by the end of first grade, it's a one in eight chance they'll catch up to their peers without costly direct intervention," State Librarian Stephanie Bailey-White said. "Those first couple of grades are so important. The more resources and tools they have entering school, the better off they will be throughout all grades."
The Idaho Commission for Libraries (ICfL) began setting up "Family Read, Play, Learn Centers" with books and educational materials in laundry facilities by partnering with local laundromats.
"Families are spending at least 90 minutes at a laundry mat. So why not provide great books and other early literacy materials so they can interact with their kids while they wait for their laundry to dry?" Bailey-White said.
Since launching two years ago, the initiative has established 17 laundromat learning centers. On Thursday, Get the Funk Out Laundromat in Caldwell joined the team.
"We're all so busy. This gives another opportunity for parents to sit and read with their kids, or let kids read their own books," Get the Funk Out owner Katie Upchurch said. "When they come to us and say, 'Can you sign my reading log?' That makes my heart so happy."
Through ICfL, the Caldwell Public Library provided Get the Funk Out with bilingual books, information about library outreach programs, and a whiteboard with alphabet magnetics.
"In Caldwell, we have just one library and it is central to the city. There's a lot of areas that don't have the opportunity to get to the library," Monique Gaddy, outreach services librarian, said." It's a problem in the city of Caldwell. Especially because we have limited public transportation options."
The Caldwell Public Library recently purchased a van through ICfL to expand service availability, Gaddy said. The facility also offers delivery and contactless pickup services for those within walking distance. In the meantime, she sees the laundromat as another solution to Caldwell's limited library access.
Gaddy said the learning corner is already a hit.
"We've already seen a lot of people using the literacy center," she said. "To see families already using it and being able to talk to the children and encourage them to read any book they want to or come by a free library program. It's been awesome."
Blanca Alcoser regularly drives from Ontario, OR, to wash her family's clothes at Get the Funk Out Laundromat in Caldwell. She said the machines are larger, and the space is nicer than local facilities.
Often, Alcoser brings her children to the laundromat. She said that the learning corner gives them something constructive to do while they wait.
"It's very beneficial. I've seen them grow in a mental and reading capacity," Alcoser said. "It's been helping her a lot, like being more alert and learning more."
ICfL plans to open four more laundromat libraries this week.
The new locations are in:
- Idaho Falls
ICfL Youth Services Project Coordinator Kristina Taylor said the commission aims to open four to eight new centers annually. She said the laundromat program is funded through federal grants. Each center costs about $2,600. Moving forward, Taylor said local libraries would host live story times once a month and provide make-and-kit education materials.