A student at one of KCLS' afternoon study zones. Photo courtesy of King County Library System
Where can you learn a language, watch a movie, listen to an audiobook, get tutoring help at 10 p.m., snag an aquarium ticket, learn to use a 3-D printer and borrow a pass to go hiking in a state park?
Hint: At this magical place, all of these services are available absolutely free.
You know the answer, right? Your local library! And you probably also know that the activities listed above are only the beginning of the ways that Puget Sound-area library systems are serving families. These ways go far, far beyond checking out books.
Want to make sure your family is taking full advantage? Here’s a nearly complete A-to-Z list of some of the coolest family-oriented library services around.
(Note: Did we miss one of your favorite library services? Post it in the comments, and we’ll consider adding it to the list.)
Cancel that Audible account and start using your library to stock your audiobook collection — every road-tripping family’s best friend. You can of course reserve and check out CD audiobooks from your branch library, but better yet, start streaming. The Libby app — a delivery vehicle for OverDrive’s audiobooks — makes accessing OverDrive’s huge library of audiobooks super simple.
As Seattle Public Library considers a library levy that would eliminate overdue fines, that already happens in some cases. Snohomish County’s Sno-Isle Libraries hasn’t fined patrons in 32 years. SPL lets teens get a one-time Fresh Start.
If you have a reluctant or anxious reader, one of the local “read to a dog” programs, often hosted at libraries, might be your kid’s best friend. Kids settle in next to a trained dog, open a book and begin reading to their gentle, non-verbal companion. Check your library’s calendar for upcoming events offered by programs such as Reading With Rover and Bow-Wows and Books.
We all know library systems offer a ton of online media for families (and grown-ups), but take some time to really dig in. Warning, you may not emerge for a few days. Through services such as Hoopla, Kanopy (more on that below) and OverDrive, families can access literally hundreds of movies, TV shows, documentaries, newsreels, ebooks and much more. On Hoopla, for example, you can filter offerings by children and families categories, and also download full comics.
Fresh book picks
Want to help your kid push beyond, say, “Captain Underpants”? At Seattle Public Library, you can fill out a “Your Next 5 Books” form in five minutes and they’ll send you a personalized list back. (I did this recently for my 9-year-old graphic novel lover, and got this personalized list back, most of which were new to us.) KCLS has a similar program called Book Match, as well as many other tools for helping you identify your next read. (Physical libraries are, of course, also a great source for book lists and librarian recommendations.)
A friend of mine recently reserved a meeting room at Seattle’s Northgate Library (one of many available at libraries around the city) for a group of parents to meet and plan summer camps together, while the kids played outside. Brilliant! KCLS and other libraries also offer event rooms for use free of charge. Just check your local branch. Other local library systems have similar policies for meeting rooms – here’s Pierce County’s list.
Gross motor skills
Many children’s areas at libraries are stocked with Legos, blocks and other manipulatives, but Pierce County Libraries goes to 11, by offering playtime with giant blue Imagination Playground blocks. The blocks are rotated to branch libraries, awakening the fort-building fervor even in preschool and school-age kids (check the events calendar for upcoming sessions).
Outsource that homework struggle. Every weekday all around the Sound, hundreds of volunteers show up at local libraries to sit at designated tables and help kids take care of business. At SPL, the program is called Homework Help; at KCLS, it’s called Study Zone; and so on. And you don’t even have to leave home. Through programs such as KCLS’s tutor.com, kids can access online tutors from 2 p.m. to midnight; other tutoring services available 24/7. Pierce County Library System offers a similar service, in English and Spanish, from 1 to 10 p.m. every day.
Jobs for teens
Does your teen need something to do this summer? Local libraries have volunteer opps that will earn kids work experience, community service hours and actual skillz. Pierce County Library System has a Teen Volunteer Corps summer program (apply by June 15). At Seattle Public Library, teens can sign up to be Learning Buddies, or participate in service learning projects; KCLS allows teens age 15 and up to volunteer.
Head to the “online” section of your library system’s website to find one of our favorite family entertainment choices — Kanopy, whose tagline is “thoughtful entertainment.” At Kanopy Kids, find a dream list of (mostly) terrific documentaries, indie movies and shows, as well as Scholastic video books. Don’t forget to check out the offerings for you, too.
Got an international trip coming up? Your library website can connect your family to Mango language classes in six languages; and you can track your progress, too. An app called Pronunciator also offers instruction for 99 languages, and is also offered in Spanish. Tacoma Public Library also offers Rosetta Stone “dynamic immersion” classes through its website.
As I was writing this article, I noticed it was 9 p.m. and went to the Seattle Public Library site and reserved four Seattle Aquarium passes for a month ahead, saving myself $80–$120. You, too, can do this. Seattle Public Library offers passes to 15 venues (including the Seattle Aquarium, MOHAI, MoPop and Living Computer Museum and Labs); new passes become available online each night at 9 p.m. for 30 days ahead.
At KCLS, you can check out tickets to eight attractions (hottest tickets include KidsQuest Children’s Museum and Seattle Aquarium) you can reserve two weeks ahead and new passes are available at 2 p.m. every day. Pierce County Libraries offer passes to six South Sound attractions (including Washington State History Museum and Museum of Glass), but you have to reserve them in person at a branch location. Tacoma Public Library offers a similar program.
New York Times
If you’re dying to read an NYT article but have hit your limit for the month, Seattle Public Library offers full-text access; you can even access articles through the New York Times app with a special access code. SPL also offers full-text access to The Seattle Times and The Washington Post. KCLS also offers The New York Times, and you can also access useful magazines such as Consumer Reports.
Want entertainment that also teaches early literacy skills? Tumble Books, which most local library systems subscribe to, has a large library of animated, talking-picture books where kids can easily follow the words in the story; online chapter books for older readers, where kids can read along with audio or read silently, and can also adjust the font, color and line spacing; and videos on nature, history and biography. BookFlix is a similar service, with read-along Scholastic books and much more. At Sno-Isle Libraries, you can click on a title to listen to stories recorded by library staff.
Have a budding coder, comic artist, 3-D crafter or superhero fanatic? Libraries have been upping their STEAM game so much in recent years that it’s hard to keep pace. A sampling of upcoming events at KCLS’ downtown Bellevue Library’s IDEAx Makerspace includes a Coder Dojo workshop, a Harry Potter crafting class, a drop-in creativity lab and an audio recording workshop for teens. Tacoma Public Library’s Digital Media Labs, located at the Tacoma Public Library’s Main Branch and with a mobile version as well, offers similar programs, with drop-in hours every afternoon. Pierce County Library System lets kids check out a Science to Go backpack with books, field notebooks and activities; it also owns 3-D printers that rotate between locations.
Take the library outdoors! As part of a one-year pilot program, Pierce County Library patrons can now check out a state park Discover Pass; you’ll also get a backpack bursting with nature exploration tools such as binocs and field guides.
Books that you can take without checking out and that have no due date are a library fan’s dream — these are called uncataloged books, or "honor-system books," in Seattle Public Library parlance. Head to the children's section of your SPL branch to find a great selection of board books and kids’ chapter books that fall into this dreamy category.
Spanish story time
Whether you have a child whose native language is not English, or you’d like to expose your child to new languages, local story times have got you covered. King County Library System, for example, offers story times in 15 languages, from Russian to Mandarin to Hindi and Arabic. Seattle Public Library has regular story times in Mandarin, Somalian and Spanish (“Hora de Cuentos” at eight locations). (Keep an eye out for other cool story times, such as annual firefighter story times, and an annual drag queen story time at SPL’s Greenwood Public Library.)
Programming at local libraries includes many musical offerings — in some cases, kids can even touch or try an instrument. King County Library System regularly hosts “instrument petting zoo” events.
When you’re out and about and need to connect your laptop or tablet online, you can use your Seattle Public Library card to “check out” a mobile hot spot, and continue to use it for 21 days (reserve ahead if you can, though, as hot spots are popular).
Yoga can help kids develop flexibility, strength and mindfulness, and so, naturally, local libraries are getting their downward dog on. In the next month, for example, KCLS offers nine different kids’ yoga classes. Pierce County Library System offers yoga story time at Gig Harbor and South Hill branches.
Need more ideas on living adventurously with the fam? ParentMap's new book "52 Seattle Adventures With Kids" is here! From secret hikes to off-the-radar bike paths to tree house hotels, this must-have Puget Sound adventure guide offers unlimited ideas for affordable family outings all year long.