North Philadelphia: Children’s Librarian Kayla Hoskinson Talks Rock Climbing and Safe Learning Spaces

The rock climbing wall inside the Cecil B. Moore Library at 23rd Street and Ridge Avenue is an atypical, but exciting, sight to see when first entering a library. After being shut down for two months to renovate the library’s youth section in December 2017, children came back to the surprise of a new rock climbing wall as the centerpiece of the library’s new play space.

Kayla Hoskinson, children’s librarian and member of the American Federation of County, State, and Municipal Employees district council 47 union, was a part of the early development and planning for the rock wall and the library’s expanded play space. Not only does she offer academic help to children who come to the library, but she’s also seen by the kids as a source of guidance in their personal lives, as well as with school and family.

What has been your personal experience with the ups and downs of being the children’s librarian at Cecil B. Moore library?

The ups are that the kids are all super curious and everyone has their own shining personalities, so everyday is different. I’m never bored. The downs are issues that everyone carries with them everyday. Some days are really hard, in terms of conflict that the children and teens get into, and trying to solve the little things that flare up between people so that the space remains safe and accessible for everyone.

How have you seen the rock climbing make an impact on the kids and their growth?

When we reopened, everyone came back and their eyes lit up with what they saw. All of this was brand new, and it’s a lot brighter than it used to be. For a long time, we would use it almost every single day, and it was sort of a thing that we would use in two ways. Either for homework, to try to get some energy out and then sit down and concentrate, or, if we had started homework already or working on a project with a group of kids and we’re hitting roadblocks, it was a nice thing to be like, “Maybe we need a break. Let’s work out our bodies.” A lot of the people that come everyday are pros at it now. It’s sort of just become a part of what the library is. But, there are new groups who come in all the time who still have that “Ah-ha!” moment when they see it. It has created kind of this amazing thing where the kids and teens will see it as a challenge and want to get to the top. And, they push themselves to be able to do that.

Where did the funding for the rock climbing wall come from?

The wall is part of a whole play space project, so we’re not the only branch that has something like this. Funding for the spaces came from the William Penn Foundation, with support from the Knight Foundation as well. The most interesting one, aside from the wall because the wall’s my favorite, is another library’s space that features a tower in the middle of it. You can climb up into it and look across the whole library. That play space is at the Whitman Library. There are a few different iterations trying to see if they can incorporate play into the library

So, it didn’t come from the library’s budget. There was a whole design team and process. When I was hired it was already in the works, so I just jumped in on it.

How do you perceive this library as being a safe haven for children and teens?

We have put a lot of work in trying to make it a place where everyone feels safe and accepted. Obviously, with kids and teens there’s always going to be the issue of bullying, and a lot of them are together the entire day of school. So, they bring a lot of the conflicts they had before with them. Frustrations with school and frustrations with family, too. A lot of the kids are also family and they’re annoyed with seeing their cousins all the time, even though they love each other, of course.

We try, as much as we can, and it’s never perfect, to establish treating this place as sort of a neutral zone, which is putting into words that this is the place where you come and drop all that stuff. And that you need to be careful with how you talk to each other in this space, and how they talk to us, and how we talk to them. So, we often encourage them to hold us accountable as well as holding themselves accountable. Just how the kids will come in and share things with us, it’s pretty clear to me that they see this as a place where they can trust that if they have something they need to share or something sensitive, that it can get worked out here.

Are there any issues in this area that you feel should be focused on more?

Gun violence. Other libraries have gotten a lot of attention because they’re close to the opioid crisis and they’ve literally had people OD in their bathrooms, and I’m really thankful that we don’t have that here. But, gun violence touches a lot of the kids who come here, and so we have had kids who come in here super upset and it’s because a brother or cousin has been shot.

We’ve had shootings at this corner here, that is 25th Street and Cecil B. Moore, and down the street towards Ridge, probably 20th and Cecil B Moore, where teens who work here and kids who come after school witness those things, and then they bring it in with them. There’s always this kind of bizarre reaction, too. Like one time, there was this shooting outside and all of the kids rushed to the window, and I was like, “Can we not be at the window?” It’s pretty pervasive and jarring to hear kids talk about in a pretty normalized way.

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