Virtual Storytimes are hugely popular right now, and for good reason. But a lot of librarians are new to video creation and don’t know where to start. Through trial and error, and some research, I’ve put together this list of best practices. Please leave your ideas and resources in the comments!
The greatest challenge of Virtual Storytimes is retaining toddler attention. We can’t use our usual crowd-control methods, so most of that responsibility falls to the parent or caregiver who is watching the video with the toddler. We can make a few vital choices to make our videos as attention-grabbing and retaining as possible.
I want to say though: all of these tips are for best case scenarios. If you can’t make them all happen, it’s okay! We are all working with the time, resources, and technology that we have. At the end of the day, if you release a video full of compassion and enthusiasm, you’ve done a wonderful job and you should be proud of yourself.
Related: Check out my article “Virtual Storytime and Circle Time: 15 Tips to Make a Dynamic Video” in School Library Journal.
The videos that I am creating for my library are weekly “Virtual Circle Times.” Songs, activities, and a craft. Every part of the storytime except for reading a book. The videos are prerecorded and edited by me, at my house. The first one was posted on March 31st, and received over 1.8k views on Facebook in the first week! We also uploaded it to YouTube. Check it out above.
Edit Your Video
I’ve been seeing a variety of videos uploaded by libraries – some are simple livestreamed storytimes, others are pre-recorded and fully edited. I’ve also seen a lot of librarians talking about how nervous they feel in front of a camera. Fifty toddlers and their parents? No problem. But as soon as there’s a camera involved the butterflies appear.
For me, pre-recording and editing my video was the obvious choice. I don’t see much added value in live streaming. Parents can still comment on your pre-recorded video and request songs for next time! Here are some things you can do while editing your video:
Remove Awkward Moments
Nerves are completely understandable, and it’s the best reason to prerecord and fully edit your video. You can edit out all the times you messed up a line, or in my case, you can edit out all the many many times you said “Great Job!!!!” after completing a song. It also gives you a chance to retry tricky parts. I recorded my introduction lines twice, and chose the better of the two.
Most YouTubers edit their videos with many cuts – removing awkwardness and dead air – to keep our attention hooked. We can do the same.
You may already have a simple video editing software on your computer that can do the trick (like iMovie). But if you don’t, Da Vinci Resolve was recommended to me, and I found it excellent. It’s free, and especially if all you want to do is cut out awkward moments, it’s very easy to learn.
Include Song Lyrics on Screen
In my opinion, this is a must for online storytimes. In real-live storytimes I always project lyrics on the wall, and I think it’s even more important in video form. Our ideal scenario is that parents and caregivers are singing along with enthusiasm that rubs off on the kids. Adding lyrics is an easy way to help make this happen. At the very least, make the lyrics available in the video description.
Add Background Music, Photos, and Animations
This isn’t as daunting as it seems. You can download free music with “no attribution required” from a few different sites (share your favourites in the comments!). My go to source has become YouTube’s Audio Library. I inserted quiet, happy background music during my intro and conclusion, during my craft demonstration, and during my trivia activity. It’s an easy thing to do, but it makes a big difference in production quality.
For photos, there a many free “no attribution required” options. My favourite is Pixabay. I included photos to help toddlers associate the words, and to keep their attention. For example, I included a photo of a frog when introducing Five Green and Speckled Frogs, and I included a photo of a dalmatian during the answer to a trivia question.
As for animations, just go with a bright background colour and a cute, simple title animation in your video editing software. Use the same colour, font, and animation throughout the video, and every week. This is a super easy way to create a recognizable “brand” for your video series.
Include Scarf Songs
Grab a scarf (or a pillow case, a streamer, a paper towel) and maintain those valuable prop songs! Encourage parents to get creative. Everyone has something they could use as a scarf. Mix up your scarf song repertoire with Jbrary’s playlist.
Show a Simple Craft
While it’s not a vital part of an online storytime, it is fun and easy! My first craft was a toilet paper roll puppy to match my theme. Next week my craft is going to be homemade shakers so that we can add shaker songs back into the mix. Make sure your craft can be completed using very simple household items, and that it will work whether the family is using tape or glue sticks.
To film it I positioned the camera above a table, and only recorded the putting together of the craft. I did not film myself cutting out each piece. Parents can pause the video to collect and prepare materials. Or they can just watch the craft and complete it later.
Include an Activity
In my real-live storytimes I include a three question Yes or No trivia challenge based on our animal theme of the week. I decided to keep that activity in my videos – to maintain routine and to add some extra early literacy learning to the mix. Other activities you could use include hide-and-seek flannels or a simple, silly dance lesson.
Keep Things Interactive
Having a back and forth with toddlers in real-live storytimes is a huge early literacy technique that we lose in video form. But we can still ask questions and pause for answers in our video. For example, ask kids how many fingers you are holding up, then count them together. Think Dora the Explorer. “Should we try singing this song again, but a little faster? Okay! Let’s do it!”
Do Not Instruct Kids to Touch Their Face
So many toddler songs include actions that involve touching your face. Parents who are trying to teach their kids to avoid touching their face may feel frustrated if your video instructs them to “touch their nose” or pull “sticky sticky bubblegum” off their face. They may even stop watching. If you can alter the lyrics, do it. If you can’t alter the lyrics, remove the song.
I love the welcome song that goes “Well hello everybody can you say hello / say hello / say hello” but I left out the verse “Well hello everybody can you touch your nose.” I usually sing “Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes,” but “Eyes, Ears, Mouth, and Nose” really can’t be easily changed, so I dropped the song. In normal circumstances, naming and pointing to body parts is a great early literacy skill to develop in a storytime. But save that for after this is over.
A great alternative to these face touching songs is this handwashing song! I’m going to include it in every storytime video. It’s cute, fun, easy, and it teaches a valuable hand washing technique.
Alter Song Lyrics to Keep Things Light
One of my favourite storytime songs is Sleeping Bunnies. But the thought of singing “Oh so still / are they ill?” while kids lay on the floor pretending to be sleeping made me uncomfortable given the pandemic. I changed the lyrics to “Look at the bunnies! / Let’s do something funny!”
The full lyrics with the alterations are:
See the sleeping bunnies
Till it’s nearly noon
Come let us wake them
With our merry tune
Look at the bunnies!
Let’s do something funny!
Wake up sleeping bunnies and hop hop hop
Wake up sleeping bunnies and hop hop hop
Wake up sleeping bunnies and hop hop hop
Break Up Your Storytime Videos
My library decided to post separate videos for Circle Time and picture book reading. I think there is huge value for kids to see familiar librarian faces reading to them, but I didn’t want my Circle Time Videos to be any longer than 15 minutes. It’s enough of a challenge to retain attention in real-live storytimes – I can’t imagine two-year-olds sitting still to watch circle-time and a storytime all at once. Breaking it up into separate videos is a great way to offer parents some flexibility.
If you do decide to include stories, be sure to check with the publisher for copyright releases. For song-related copyright questions, I recommend referring to this post from (you guessed it) Jbrary.
Keep It Fun!
In many ways making videos is a challenge compared to real-live storytimes. But it does allow us some extra flexibility. Make it your own in some, fun, silly way. Wear a costume for one of the songs! Have a real banana as a prop during your banana songs. Introduce your storytime regulars to your pet cat. My dog would not stay out of the video, so I decided to let him into the shot for a few seconds during my conclusion (it helped that my theme was puppies). I think kids especially will enjoy his appearance.
Be Intentional About Your Setup
It’s true that most librarians are not YouTubers, and we can’t be expected to have all the paraphernalia at home to make a high quality film. But we can work with what we have, and we can still produce high quality content. I was very lucky and grateful to borrow a film light, a tripod, and a phone clamp from a family member who works in filming. If your library has a green screen kit, you likely have film lights and a tripod that you could use.
I am by no means an expert, but here are some general tips:
- Don’t sit directly in front of or behind a window. Ideally, the window would be slighting in front of you, and to the side at a 25 degree angle.
- Don’t have a busy background. Even a bookshelf might be too much.
- Wear solid colour clothing.
- Use lamps or film lighting to even out the light from a window. Try to make sure the light is balanced on either side.
- If you are using a floor lamp and it’s a bit to harsh (causing your video to look overexposed) try a DIY diffusing techinque (like wax paper or white fabric).
- If you don’t have a tripod and a phone clamp, find a way to fashion them. A floor lamp or a tall bookshelf could take the place of a tripod. You can use alligator clips, duct tape, or an empty tissue box to prop up your phone on the “tripod.”
Ms. Mauger on Twitter has been creating awesome storytime videos! She shared these photos of her creative set up, using a box with a hole, a cymbal stand, and even a badminton racket!
Write a Short, Enthusiastic Description That Encourages Participation
This can be similar to the blurb you use in your newsletter. Something like:
“Welcome to Virtual Storytime with Miss Karissa! Together we will be singing songs, doing an activity, and making a craft. Join us every Tuesday at 10am for more early literacy fun.”
You can also use this space to remind parents to sing along enthusiastically, and that they can replay songs multiple times. In my video I mentioned that I’d love to see photos of their crafts and comments of song suggestions, and it’s not a bad idea to include a reminder in the description.
As I said at the beginning – if you are able to produce a video full of enthusiasm and compassion, you have succeeded. These tips are meant to help guide other librarians and teachers who are suddenly diving into virtual storytimes. I hope they helped! Leave any questions or additional tips in the comments. Let’s continue to share ideas and work together to get through this.