Reading Sparks brings exciting STEM events to Portsmouth

We spoke with Patricia Garrett from Portsmouth Library Service to learn about accomplishments and difficulties faced when bringing Reading Sparks to young people in the area.

How have you been delivering Reading Sparks in your library?

Firstly, packs were displayed and available for loan in libraries embedded in areas of greatest deprivation in Portsmouth. These libraries were Paulsgrove, Central, North End, Southsea and Carnegie libraries. To ensure that these packs remained in these communities, we didn’t allow these packs to be reserved or requested.

Secondly, we approached local agencies who had contact with families from disadvantaged backgrounds. Not only was this to raise awareness that packs were available, but also in the hope that they would help get packs into relevant homes, as we were aware only having packs in libraries could be a barrier. All organisations were pleased to hear about the project, but only a small handful felt they could take responsibility for pack distribution or had means to communicate the project with their service users.

Organisations that agreed to distribute information to families via newsletters or similar included teams that work with foster families/looked after children/residential units, HAF providers and food banks. An email was also sent to all families who hold leisure cards, which are available to people on means tested benefits and entitles residents to discounts at Portsmouth City Council facilities. A mother that ran a private Facebook network for parents who home school their children also agreed to post about the availability of Reading Sparks packs.

There were some organisations that agreed to take packs and distribute them directly to their service users, and in some cases retrieve them as well:

1. Portsmouth’s Children’s Social Care: Social workers agreed to take packs out to families on monthly visits, and then collect them on a return visit. Whilst this partnership was initially a positive step forward and squarely met the aims of the project, ultimately only 3 packs were ever delivered to families, and these were never returned. Perhaps social workers were too overwhelmed to think about the project or families were too troubled to complete the activities.
2. Abri Housing Association: Outreach workers agreed to distribute packs at their Free Grub Clubs during the school holidays, and then collect packs a week later. Free Grub Clubs were for children eligible for free school meals.
3. Adventure playgrounds: These playgrounds are in areas with high levels of social housing. Youth workers agreed to take packs that were available for gifting and distribute to children.
4. Portsmouth Family Welfare Association: The Portsmouth Welfare Association provides household items, clothing, starter packs for new mums and food for anyone in desperate need. They’re based at Carnegie Library and agreed to hold a few packs to give out, encouraging families to return them to the library on their next visit.

We had hoped to engage with schools and other organisations, but unfortunately we found that we kept losing our packs. At one point almost half were long overdue, making further distribution outside libraries inadvisable. We sent letters out to families requesting their return and got a poor response – in fact, those parents who did return packs had assumed they were gifts. We also concluded that some packs had been taken from libraries without being issued to library cards – perhaps because they didn’t look like traditional library loan items.

Have you been collaborating with any other organisations with Reading Sparks?

Other organisations we’ve worked closely with included:

1. Portsmouth City Council’s Youth Service: The staff at the Charles Dickens Centre provided help with the youth element of the project. This Centre lies within Charles Dickens ward, one of the most deprived districts in the city. In 2021 during a Friday evening youth club, they ran science activities suggested by an organisation called Sublime Science, and also found two young people to help us devise an in-library activity at Southsea Library.
2. Portsmouth’s School Library Service: The SLS provide library services to schools in Portsmouth and beyond, and they have good links with schools. They helped find schools to attend a Konnie Huq visit to Portsmouth Central Library in May 2022. In October 2022, they helped arrange both schools for Christopher Edge to visit and a school to host a STEAM ‘Go fly your kite’ workshop.

How has this partnership supported the library and other participants?

The partnership with the Youth Service has helped us reach young people from disadvantaged backgrounds which otherwise wouldn’t have been involved. The Youth team are familiar faces and are trusted by young people.

The School Library Service already has close links with schools. It can be very difficult to approach schools ‘cold’ and get a response, but using the SLS network made the process of arranging STEM activities in schools so straightforward.

What have the young people, families and library staff gained from taking part in Reading Sparks?

The Reading Sparks project has transformed our capacity to offer enhanced STEM activities in libraries. The budget to develop an exciting and varied science event programme has boosted attendance at in-library events (much to the pleasure of library staff) and enhanced the Summer Reading Challenge Winner’s event we hold every September at Southsea Castle. This year, CBBC presenter and Youtuber Stefan Gates gave 2 incredible science shows based on his show ‘Fartology’: an irreverent and family focussed look at the human body.

All the events we’ve put on have been booked up very quickly and received rave reviews on feedback forms. Many parents have commented that their children love science and these events have fed that passion while also providing opportunities that just weren’t available without having to pay or travel long distances.

Some of our partner organisations have benefited from the partnership, too. Abri Housing Association, for example, helped us distribute free Quick Read books to their residents as part of another Reading Agency initiative.

The Youth team at the Charles Dickens Centre have also benefitted as we have arranged for them to host the Space Odyssey mobile planetarium during October 2022 half-term. As well as offering sessions to families generally, the team will be promoting the event to young people in this most deprived area who have probably never been to a planetarium or met an astronomer.

Do you have any standout stories from your participants?

Rather than stand out stories, this project has attracted some lovely and appreciative comments from families.

June 2022: Sciencey Slime workshop at Southsea Library. This workshop was co-devised by the young volunteer helping with the project. In this workshop, the children learnt how to make different kinds of slime.

“Thanks for a great session today. Our daughter had so much fun!”

May 2022: Maths and magic with Dr. Matt Pritchard. Dr. Pritchard is a magician and science communicator who delivered a magic show with some maths facts thrown in.

“Informative. It took my breath away. An amazing hour.”
“Great event, I look forward to the next!”

March 2022: Sublime science workshop at Southsea Library. Sublime Science delivered a hands-on workshop that demonstrated science experiments.

“Great session. They loved it”
“This was a great event and fantastic that it was free”

September 2022: Zoolab Animal Explorer workshop. In this session children were taught about and got the opportunity to handle exotic animals such as snakes and tarantulas.

“An amazing event enjoyed by everyone.”
“Please run similar events. It was fantastic for the children and they learnt a lot.”

How does Reading Sparks engage young people in reading and STEM? Why is this important?

In the Portsmouth project, the young persons element was undeveloped. We didn’t have existing youth groups in libraries, so were starting from scratch. Our Youth Service partner managed to find two young people to volunteer for the project, but ultimately only one stayed with us to help plan and deliver the slime workshop.

We do, however, have plans to work with Seekers Create, a local organisation that has expressed interest in Reading Sparks. Seekers are a creative social enterprise who work with young people to plan, design and create heritage trails for the community to enjoy. Their brief will be to work with young people to develop an activity for younger children based on one of the Reading Sparks packs. This activity will then be run with younger children either in a library or school. Seekers will create a video which explores this process and the resultant activity.

After this point we should be in a better position to directly address this question, but it would stand to reason that the Reading Sparks project ethos of developing an interest in science via reading is important because reading provides a gateway to exploring specific scientific themes in an accessible way, slightly removed from a school curriculum-based teaching approach. This then gives young people the chance to disseminate this learning to a younger audience in their own way, thus embedding the knowledge.

How would you like to grow the project and your partnerships in future?

It’s become very clear that STEM activities are highly sought after by families and get booked up very quickly. We will be looking to providing more science related activities post project, budget permitting. Our partnerships with the Youth Service and the School Library Service will help reach audiences that might not necessarily use libraries regularly.

The Reading Agency and Science Museum Group invite children on a winter reading adventure

The Reading Agency is thrilled to announce that we are continuing our partnership with Science Museum Group for the Winter Mini Challenge, a reading adventure which encourages children to continue reading over the winter holidays with a free, digital platform offering rewards and prizes for continuing to read.

Following the success of this year’s Summer Reading Challenge, The Reading Agency is once again teaming up with Science Museum Group to continue the Gadgeteers theme throughout the winter. Through taking part online via the Challenge website, children will be able to join six fictional Gadgeteers.

The characters – brought to life by children’s writer and illustrator Julian Beresford – use their curiosity and wonder to understand the science behind a whole range of interests, from fashion and technology to cooking and music. With activity ideas and resources from Science Museum Group, the Winter Mini Challenge will help to spark children’s curiosity about the world around them, inspiring them through creativity and invention. The setting for the Winter Mini Challenge is a festive party at the Gadgeteers’ community centre. When a sudden snowstorm whirls in, can the Gadgeteers use their ingenuity, creativity and curiosity to keep everyone entertained until the weather brightens?

During the school holidays, some children can experience a ‘dip’ in their reading skills. The Winter Mini Challenge supports this by providing an outlet for children to continue reading for enjoyment outside the classroom. The supporting resources will help families and teachers to provide free-to-access recreational activities over the holiday.

The Winter Mini Challenge will launch on 1 December and run through until 20 February.

Karen Napier, CEO, The Reading Agency said: “We know that reading and science skills development go hand in hand. That’s why we’re delighted to be continuing our partnership with Science Museum Group for this year’s Winter Reading Challenge. We hope that the ‘Gadgeteers’ will spark the imaginations of children up and down the country this winter.”

Susan Raikes, Director of Learning at the Science Museum Group, said: “We are delighted to continue our partnership this year with The Reading Agency for the Winter Reading Challenge. We are sure that the further adventures of the ‘Gadgeteers’ will inspire children to use their imagination. Reading ignites curiosity and this is an opportunity to explore the science and innovation all around us.”

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Tottenham Literature Festival Big Read

We’re delighted to be partnering with the Bernie Grant Arts Centre on Tottenham’s first ever Big Read, to be launched during the Tottenham Literature Festival 2022. The Bernie Grant Arts Centre, together with Marcus Garvey and Coombes Croft Libraries, will be giving away 1,000 books, free to the local community in Tottenham.

The inaugural Tottenham Big Read author is award winning poet, broadcaster and #TLF22 speaker, Lemn Sissay OBE. Children can pick up a copy of Lemn Sissay’s Don’t Ask the Dragon and older readers/adults can get the abridged Quick Read version of My Name Is Why. Copies will be available at BGAC during the festival week and in participating libraries.

As part of Lemn Sissay’s event at #TLF22 Family Day on Sunday 20 November, children will have the opportunity to read along Don’t Ask The Dragon with the author and have their free copies signed!

In January 2023, the Bernie Grant Arts Centre will be partnering with a local library to host a reading group for adults to discuss My Name Is Why. More details to follow soon.

The Tottenham Big Read is delivered by the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in partnership with The Reading Agency and supported by Arts Council England.

#TLF22 is running Monday 14th – Sunday 20th November 2022, with a rich and varied programme throughout the week, a Festival Day Programme on the 19th and Family Day Programme on the 20th. Click here to buy tickets or find out more” about #TLF22 and the Tottenham Big Read.

The Big Give: Read On

Give the gift of reading this winter.

At The Reading Agency, we know that reading is a source of support, inspiration and comfort in the most challenging of times. Reading has the power to bring us closer to others, connect with the people around us, keep us learning and help us to feel better.

Through our research this year, we’ve found that the mental health support needs of those living with no fixed address are significant. 45% of people experiencing homelessness have been diagnosed with a mental health issue. This rises to 8 out of 10 people who are sleeping rough (1), and the prevalence of psychosis is up to 15 times as high, with older people experiencing homelessness being more likely to suffer from depression or dementia (2).

Research shows that regular readers for pleasure report fewer feelings of stress and depression than non-readers. This campaign aims to support wellbeing and provide comfort in the most challenging of times (3).

That’s why, this winter, we’re raising funds for our Read On campaign.

From 29 November, for every £1 you donate a Quick Read will be gifted to someone who will benefit the most from reading this winter. We want you to help us to spread the joy and power of reading. Please help us reach our target of gifting at least 25,000 copies of our life changing Quick Reads titles to homeless communities across the UK.

Working in partnership with our library partners, these books will be given away in five locations across the UK: Birmingham, Cornwall, Luton, Newham and Oldham.

Each gifted book will include information about local library services as warm, safe community spaces where people can engage with reading material, access digital services and training and access reading groups, events and information about other support services.

Donate now.

Thank you.

#ReadOn #BigGive

1. Homelessness and mental health | Crisis UK
2. LGA (2017) The Impact of Homelessness on Health – A Guide for Local Authorities
3. J Billington (2015), The Benefits of Reading for Pleasure

The Reading Agency

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