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Chelsea Clinton to unveil kids’ space to read, play in Belmont Cragin laundromat

Chelsea Clinton and her mother, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, participate in the 11th annual Clinton Global Initiative University at the University of Chicago on Oct. 20, 2018. | Max Herman/Sun-Times file photo

A laundromat might not be the first place parents look for educational opportunities for their children.

But after the success of a New York City program that started putting learning spaces in laundromats, Chicago is getting its own version on the Northwest Side, with nine more planned this spring.

Chelsea Clinton is helping spearhead the initiative and plans to visit Wash Time Laundromat, 4748 W. Fullerton, at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday to lead a storytime session after she unveils the laundromat’s new educational space, which will include books, a play area and developmentally driven toys.

The concept is a simple one — parents with young children do a lot of laundry, and early-childhood education can be very expensive, so it’s necessary to bring opportunities closer to parents at a minimal cost.

One of the organizations sponsoring the Chicago initiative is the LaundryCares Foundation, a group that has for 13 years organized nationwide “Free Laundry Days” to help low-income families.

Last year, in order to add educational resources to the free laundry days, LaundryCares partnered with Libraries Without Borders — a group fighting poverty through literacy — and the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail to launch the Laundry Literacy Coalition.

The alliance came after learning spaces were added in three laundromats in New York City, where a study by an NYU professor found children engaged in 30 times more literacy activities in laundromats that had learning spaces than ones that did not.

Though the permanent addition is the first for a Chicago laundromat, librarians with the Chicago Public Library already hold storytime at more than a dozen laundromats in some of the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Those programs will continue at the new learning spaces.

The same study by the NYU professor, conducted in partnership with Too Small to Fail, found the addition of librarians to laundromats increased children’s engagement in literacy activities. Parents also felt more loyalty to the laundromats and went out of their way to go to ones with learning spaces.

The need for early-childhood education in Chicago has been noted — nearly 40 percent of Chicago’s public school students do not meet or exceed reading standards, in part because more than 60 percent of low-income households do not own any children’s books, according to the Chicago Literacy Alliance. Those staggering numbers lead to 30 percent of adults having low basic literacy skills.

To help help buck that trend, the city announced last year that it would make full-day pre-kindergarten universal for 4-year-old kids in the city by 2021.

The alliance plans to research which Chicago neighborhoods would benefit the most from the addition of laundromat learning spaces. By the end of the spring, at least nine more are expected to open, after which the same NYU professor will study how they impact Chicago students.