North Philadelphia: Rock Climbing Wall Helps Children Overcome More Than Physical Obstacles at Cecil B. Moore Library

Throughout his six years at the Cecil B. Moore Library at 23rd Street and Ridge Avenue, Sun Moon Bey, librarian and lead maker, has seen many changes, but none more gratifying than the successful revamp of the library’s youth section.

“The space was a lot darker and more conventional,” Bey said. “Now, there’s definitely not a way that you can stop a child or teenager from coming over here. Adults like coming over here. Literally. They’ll prefer to come over here than the adult side sometimes.”

In December of 2017, the library reopened after being closed for two months for renovations including a rock-climbing wall, new carpet and more shelf space. What started as an initiative funded by the William Penn Foundation and Studio Ludo, a non-profit organization that designs and promotes play structures to encourage free and imaginative play, has turned into one of the biggest learning tools in the library.

Librarians have used the rock climbing wall as a way to help positively re-center the kids’ energy and focus after being at school all day. Bey, in addition to being a librarian, is also a certified personal trainer and has certifications in youth and senior training. He’s been doing extensive research on the impact of learning, exercise and play.

“We do a number of exercises or should I say, like, a play bootcamp with the children,” Bey said.

But, the wall means more than just an activity for energized children. Bey has seen the play space become a method for building relationships with the kids and watching their self-esteem develop.

At the Cecil B. Moore branch, the children feel comfortable expressing themselves, sometimes even more so than when they are at school, he said. Kennedy, a 12-year-old elementary school student, has been coming to the library for three years and the librarians have become a source of guidance through her growth.  

“I think [the librarians] are helpful in a lot of things,” she said. “Like, in school you can’t talk to teachers about the stuff you talk to them here. The teachers be all busy like, ‘I’m just gon’ leave it alone.’ Sometimes I just come here and I’m like, ‘I’m just gonna talk to Ms.Kayla about it.’”

Bey and children’s librarian Kayla Hoskinson have transformed the space into more than just somewhere students can go for academic help. It has become an environment where the kids and teens are learning concepts they struggled to grasp in school as well as social skills, most importantly communication, that prepares them for the real world.

“Everyday, we try to include it in our activities because the community that they grow up in specifically this area, North Philly, is a tough area,” Bey said. “I grew up in this neighborhood, weakness is not tolerated. It’s like if you’re from Brooklyn and you live in Bushwick. You know that even though you might want to respond in a type of way, you know what could happen. Getting them to understand that once they’re in this building that you can temporarily leave that out there is difficult. For them it’s all day, it’s their lives.”   

Given the neighborhood’s high poverty and crime rates, library assistant Tamica Brittingham described the library as a “safe haven for the children.”

“There’s a lot of shootings around here and children come in here all the time,” she said. “We have a lot of closures and short staff, but they’ll be at that door [everyday]. Children love this place.”

Along with the play space, the library offers the kids nutrition lessons to emphasize how healthy eating significantly improves their energy level and ability to learn. The library has partnered with Philabundance, the city’s largest non-profit food bank, to help provide healthy snacks for the children.

“We encourage the nutritional value because if you fill up on chips, sugar, soda and it’s been close to an eight hour day, you’re not going to function well,” Bey said.

Bey and Hoskinson wear many different hats working in the youth section, but through all of the different activities, lessons and play spaces, the focus is always on the children.

“Overall, I’m here to give to the neighborhood and give to the children,” Bey said. “That’s what we’re all here for.”

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