7 Reasons to Visit the Little Red Reading House and Learn About Literacy

Gifted to UCalgary in 2023, the Little Red Reading House is Calgary’s magical hidden gem for children and families. When you visit, you set more than just your own child on the path to early literacy.

Written by Jennifer Myers, BA’97

Some educators and researchers compare learning to read with learning to ride a bike: once you know how, it’s hard to forget and easy to take it for granted. So much so, it might be surprising to some to learn that just 40 per cent of Canadian teens have the literacy they need by age 15 to enjoy lifelong benefits. And it’s hard to remember just how challenging it can be for young kids to grapple with the written word.

In 2023, the Little Red Reading House (LRRH) was gifted by Calgary Reads to the Owerko Centre at the University of Calgary, with support from the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation. The gift was a part of the Calgary Reads dandelion strategy to make a broader impact on children’s literacy. Becoming a part of UCalgary presents an exciting new opportunity for community-based research on child literacy. With the goal of moving the needle even further on early literacy, since joining the University, the house will soon hire the Westman Researcher in Residence, a program research manager, to make the LRRH a centre for collaborations between literacy, learning and child-development research, and child-serving community organizations.

View of the Little Red Reading House in the neighbourhood of Inglewood. Photograph by Riley Brandt.

Thanks to the LRRH, improving childhood literacy is something to which we can all contribute. Here’s why you need to visit with a child in your life.

Revisit the Magic and Wonder of Childhood with the Child in Your Life

Joy, whimsy, amazement and exploration — It’s impossible not to feel like a kid again when you enter the Little Red Reading House, located in Inglewood.

The house is filled with books on all surfaces — all at child height. There are small cozy chairs, tiny mushroom-shaped stools, a whale in the bathtub, a dinosaur in the shower, a diorama closet and, oh, the nooks! Settle into the cushions under the dining table and close the curtains for a good quiet read by flashlight. Crawl under the stairwell nook and lay down under the sky painted above you while your book takes you on an adventure. Let your imagination soar by the painted castle in the princess corner — all the while the kids are reading and, before they know it, learning and growing too.

Different themed reading spaces abound in the LRRH. Photographs by Jennifer Myers.

With plans for a new sensory-friendly reading space in late spring 2024, there is something for every child (and their grownup) at LRRH.

Support Developing Children’s Literacy Skills Early

The LRRH aims to get kids reading by Grade 3. If kids are behind in reading by this time, it’s much more challenging to catch up.

Dr. Susan Graham, PhD, director of the Owerko Centre, a partnership between the University of Calgary, Alberta Health Services and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. Photograph by Mark Agius.

“Research shows us that poor language and literacy skills in the early years contributes to limited academic achievement, limited occupational opportunities, poorer mental health and poorer health quality of life,” says Dr. Susan Graham, PhD, director of the Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

So, what does it mean to be literate?

“There are different levels of literacy,” says Dr. Lorraine Reggin, BA’00, PhD’24, LRRH research program manager. “Someone might read simple words, but can you read instructions for administering a medication to your child or a contract for the terms of your employment? We find that level of literacy correlates with types of employment access, and also with mental health and well-being. It’s infused in every aspect of life.”

A visit to LRRH is about inspiring reading for the youngest kids. Most visitors to LRRH are between three and nine years old (but there’s lots to explore for older kids, too!)

Learn How to Make Reading Fun

Ask any kid in Grade 1 – learning to read is hard work!

The LRRH makes reading fun, but it also provides resources so you can do the same at home.

“There is a myth that learning to read will happen on its own,” says Graham. “But, our brains didn’t evolve to read; it needs to be taught. Kids need parents and other adults to support their ongoing learning.” But Graham says it doesn’t have to be a burden. “Reading can happen in all kinds of different places like reading the names of cereals in the grocery store or street signs when you’re driving.”

At LRRH, not only do kids get to enjoy a reading house designed entirely for them, the house has ideas to share on how to start a family book club, workshops on how to read to kids, author-reading events, literacy games and organizing school field trips.

Be Inspired to Create Your Own Reading Spaces

One of the special reading spaces in the LRRH. Photograph by Jennifer Myers.

With its themed rooms, nooks and crannies to curl up in, LRRH inspires creativity, warmth and belonging. And, importantly, it’s full of ideas for creating your own reading space, too.

“Creating a special space or a routine for reading makes sure it is always an option,” says Reggin. “It doesn’t have to be a specific place. Every space can be a reading place. It’s about making books accessible. Store books with the cover facing out; maybe read at a certain time of day; make it an experience for the child with a caring adult who can talk with them about the books.”

Help Build Your Child’s Library

Making books accessible means having books at home. Graham and Reggin say that, when children grow up in homes with books, they achieve increased literacy and other skills earlier on, which is why LRRH gifts a book to every child who visits. Building a library of children’s books is more attainable than you might think and it doesn’t have to break the bank.

Little Free Libraries (LFL), where you can take a book or leave a book, are a great way to share books within your community,” says LRRH Co-ordinator Carolyn Wendt. “In fact, the LRRH will give LFL stewards a stack of children’s books, upon request, to stock up their libraries.”

In addition, the annual Big Book Sale, formerly part of Calgary Reads and now run by the Rotary Club, sells used children’s books for just $2 a piece.

“You can even fill a basket in your home with books from the Calgary Public Library,” says Reggin. “If you’re rotating library books in your basket regularly, it becomes a permanent fixture that is a part of your home.”

You Can Put Books in the Hands of Kids Across the City

Every time you visit LRRH, your $20. entry fee provides more books to Calgary kids. (Subsidized entry to the house is also available.)

Finished with the books your kids have outgrown? In 2023, LRRH distributed 40,000 children’s books, with 95 per cent of those donated by Calgarians. You can make sure your previously loved books carry inspiration and learning to more kids by dropping them off on the front porch of LRRH.

The LRRH stocks book banks at more than 30 partner organizations serving children such as the Calgary Food Bank, YW Calgary locations around the city and Big Brothers Big Sisters. The Books on Busses program, in partnership with the Calgary Board of Education, offers children from 10 northeast and southeast Calgary schools opportunities to read during their school commute. The Little Red Reading Van, meanwhile, takes books to summer camps and children’s events.

Seek Book Recommendations

Wendt says letting kids read what they love is a powerful motivator.

“Books that give families opportunities to open doors to a conversation they may not have otherwise is part of the magic of reading,” says Wendt.

Need some recommendations? LRRH staff and volunteers offer that, too. Themed book packs and rooms inside the house such as the sealife-themed bathroom, the Indigenous room or the STEM maker space can serve as a guide, as well.

Some favourites of LRRH staff include the Great Big Feelings series by author Hallee Adelman. Way Past Sorry, Way Past Mean, Way Past Embarrassed and others are books highlighting emotions and how to talk about them. A Bedtime for Bear by Bonny Becker, meanwhile, is about connection, acceptance and friendship.

Visit the LRRH Book Picks webpage for more literary recommendations for the child in your life.

The Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine was established with a generous gift from Stan and Marge Owerko and funded by ongoing community support through the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation.

The Little Red Reading House is supported through the generosity of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, Herbert & Maren Mueller Foundation, Rotary Club of Calgary, TransAlta, and Westman Charitable Foundation.

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