When I first started doing storytimes three years ago, they were fine. At their best, kids were engaged. They sat still during 2 stories and laughed at all the right times. Parents softly sang along to the songs, and helped kids complete their craft. As they left, kids gave me hugs and parents politely thanked me.
At their worst, it was chaos. Parents talked to each other during songs and stories. Kids weren’t following the story. Crafts went half-finished. Egg shakers were tossed across the room. Chain reaction temper tantrums began. Kids left in tears while parents politely apologized.
Storytimes were 1 of 1000 things I had to do each week, as is the case with many small town children and teen librarians. (My all ages storytimes were rockin parties, but I’ll post about that another time).
Anyone who does toddler storytimes knows that sometimes you’re just going to have one of those days. But over the course of 3 years, I started making small changes that helped avoid those chaotic, nightmare times. And a few months ago, I started at a new library. I decided to make some big changes, read more research about early child development, and pour much more time into preparation.
Storytimes are relatively easy to do. But they’re hard to do well.
The times when I have learned the most about being a great storytime librarian is by watching other great storytime leaders. I’ve seen librarians, kindergarten teachers, and early childhood educators (ECEs) who modeled such good behavior that it rubbed off on everyone around. As a storytime leader, you get to be that model to the parents. With that in mind, here are the 8 most impactful changes I made to my storytime:
1. Explicitly Encouraging Parents to be Enthusiastic
I give a short, encouraging speech at the beginning of every week. It goes something like this:
Thank you for being at storytime today! As always I want to take a minute to encourage parents and caregivers. You are your child’s number one role model. If you show enthusiasm for something, it’s amazing how much of that will rub off on your kids. Let’s have some fun today!
This tiny little acknowledgment has a massive impact on the event. It empowers the adults. They already know that they have a huge influence over their children, but hearing it acknowledged is a reminder to put that influence to work.
Where as before I had problems with nearly every parent chatting with other parents when I was reading to the kids, now I have a room full of reactions: laughter, gasps, and answers.
Before: Parents half-heartedly singing along to the songs, looking a little self-conscious.
Now: Parents dancing, swaying, clapping, snapping, and belting out every song. Kids mirroring the behaviour and focusing more on me instead of looking for approval from their parents.
This comment releases parents of their self-concious fear and let’s them be silly with purpose! It’s amazing to see!
I’ve started this new thing in storytime where I dedicate 15 seconds to explicitly encouraging parents. I tell them that they are their child’s NUMBER ONE role model and that showing enthusiasm during songs, stories, and crafts is a powerful way to communicate.
— Karissa Fast (@karissadawna) April 18, 2019
One of the biggest wins of this exercise is that parents will see the results of their actions immediately. Their enthusiastic behaviour has been reinforced by their child’s enthusiastic behaviour, making it more likely that they will consciously model enthusiasm about early learning outside of the library! Which brings me to my next point…
2. Giving Reminders to Practice Early Learning Skills at Home
Children’s librarians and early childhood educators KNOW that storytime is more than just one hour of entertainment. It’s about showing parents and children how to grow their early literacy skills, and giving them the tools they need to succeed.
I started to be more conscious about addressing this, and naming specific skills.
Some examples of this:
Do you know what time it is? Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes! Have you been practicing at home? Good! Let’s see those skills. [after the song is over] That was amazing! Okay, if you keep practicing at home, maybe next week we can go even faster.
Before you leave, feel free to browse the picture books I’ve set up at the back. I picked some of my favourite funny books to read out loud so you can have a storytime at home!
Don’t forget to take a tracing exercise before you leave! We can practice our drawing skills at home.
3. Choosing crafts that kids can complete (mostly) independently
This was a hard one for me. I love a good, impressive craft. And I often struggle with the knowledge that most of these crafts are going to be in the trash can in a week. I used to think that if I provided more difficult crafts that actually served a purpose of looked good, I’d be reducing waste. I now know from talking to parents…that’s not true. A great craft might last a couple extra weeks on grandma’s fridge, but ultimately it’s getting tossed. AND an impressive craft usually includes more plastic material.
The main reason I switched from difficult crafts, however, is that I noticed parents were doing most of the work. While chatting to each other. While their child ran wild.
Now, I try to find or create crafts that will take 5 – 10 minutes for a toddler to complete. Ideally, parents are sitting with their child, giving guiding comments and encouragement. The tasks toddlers complete are developmentally appropriate (gluing, colouring, deciding where on the face the eyes should go). I always try to include at least a small opportunity for customization. For example, they can decide where to glue the spot on the dog. They can pick which colour they want for the body of the snail. They can name their penguin. This gives them a sense of ownership and pride in their craft. They did it themselves, and they made it special.
4. Starting the picture book section with the same preamble
Remember what we do during a story! We look at the pictures. We listen to the words. And we think about what the characters are feeling.
Emphasize those verbs! Not only are they crucial to language development, but action words have a high impact on this age group.
I have the whole audience point to their eyes, ears, and brain while I say this. The biggest challenge while reading is stretching those developing attention spans. Reminding children of 3 active things they can do during the story helps them focus, and let’s them know what they are doing right.
I always like to point out good listening behaviour, especially when the entire group has done a good job. I say something like:
Wow! What an amazing group of listeners we have today! I really like how you paid attention to every word of the story. Thank you for listening!
5. Naming and encouraging early learning skills while developing them
This technique is 100% for parents. Of course you wouldn’t want to pause the storytime for an educational lecture each time you face an early learning skill. What you can do is incorporate one sentence into what you were already saying. This sentence can be directed towards children and parents, and can fit seamlessly into your storytime.
We’re about to sing Sleeping Bunnies! This song is full of imaginative play that will help us grow our imaginations!
For the verse in If You’re Happy and You Know it where you “do all three:”
Do you think we can do all three? Does anyone remember the first thing we did? The second? What about the third? Yes! Okay we are going to challenge our memory and our attention span to do this part.
Look at that great gluing! Being gentle and careful with the glue stick will help us practice fine motor skills.
6. Incorporate Games
When I think of a traditional storytime, I don’t think of “games.” But many of our favourite storytime songs are games! Very simple games, but games none-the-less.
Some games to consider: Simon Says (active listening and reacting), Freeze Dance (physical literacy and active listening), Bubble Popping (motor skills and hand eye coordination).
One easy peasy game that I’ve started to use to welcome kids to storytime is The Name Game! Every week I choose a different action: hands on your head, hands in the air, stand up, wave, jump, etc. The rule is simple. As soon as you hear your name, do the action. Then everyone cheers and waves at you. It’s super easy, and gets kids to feel welcome and excited right off the bat.
Another game that I’ve been using is a weekly animal trivia game! Every week we learn about a different animal. I ask 3 true or false questions about the animal. The kids and caregivers put their thumbs up or down to guess the answer. This explicit learning exercise is challenging and rewarding for the kids.
7. USE POWERPOINT!
I never thought I would be saying this, but I whole-heartedly think that using powerpoint in storytime is one of the best things I did to level up my events. Here’s why:
- It creates structure.
- Every caregiver in the room can see the words to every song
- I can enhance the learning.
- For example, during the popular Animal Trivia game, I have gifs of the animals on the screen, usually exemplifying what we just learned about the animal. So when we learned that the smallest penguin in the world is called a Little Blue Penguin, we saw an image of a real Little Blue Penguin (yes, they really are blue.)
- It creates visual cues so that kids can start to learn what is coming next.
- For example, every time we sing the Sleeping Bunnies song, I have the lyrics and an image of a sleeping bunny. Kids have learned to associate the image with the song.
8. Use a Ukulele
Ukes are perfect for storytime! They are inexpensive, easy to learn, and they sound adorable. Plus there are already loads of resources for using a uke in storytime, like the Storytime Ukulele blog!
I use the ukulele for 2 or 3 songs out of 8. For action heavy songs like Head and Shoulders, I ditch the uke and focus on the actions. For longer songs though, like If You’re Happy and You Know It, Shake Your Sillies Out, or Baby Shark, I love to play and sing. It adds a new dimension of the experience, and can enhance the musical learning. The chords can guide children’s voices, and helps them think more about the tune.
Each week I change the words and actions to Baby Shark to be about a different animal. Here’s my Unicorn version:
So that’s it! I wish that I had a list like this when I started running storytimes. I learned about storytime practices during my MLIS, but there is a big difference between learning in class and learning by trial and error with an audience of 15 impatient toddlers.
Go forth and storytime!