When COVID-19 hit, librarians around the world started offering virtual storytimes: some prerecorded, and some live. Many of us who opted for prerecorded have now shifted to live virtual storytimes, due to having less time to edit, changes in publisher copyright allowances, or because our website now has a full roster of storytime videos and it’s time to try something new.
In a live virtual storytime, 15 – 20 families register for a multi-week session. They login at the designated time, and sing, play, and craft along with the librarian and the other attendees. Unless they are muted by their parents or a staff member, attendees can hear each other. And usually everyone can see each other on video. These sessions range from 20 – 45 minutes, depending on the library.
It’s a challenge: how do we transform ourselves from a tiny image on a screen into the dynamic librarian that they know and love? Or, even more challenging, this might be some kids first time meeting you, so: How do you build that rapport from scratch as a small, virtual version of yourself?
It can be done, and it’s all in the details. Make sure you bring your game face, because you’re going to need it.
While being physically removed from our audience is a huge barrier, we can create the feeling of closeness by upping our engagement level. Draw attendees in with questions – even more questions than you normally would ask during storytime. Reading a picture book? Ask them to name each new animal as it appears in the story. Introducing a new song about a frog? Ask them “What do frogs eat?” or “Has anyone ever seen a frog? What was it like?” Call on attendees to answer, or just go with the flow. It’s a toddler storytime. It’s not going to be perfectly orderly.
Call out praise to individual kids when you notice they are participating. This will signal to attendees that they are more than an anonymous face on the screen, and will positively reinforce their behaviors. Be specific about which skills you are encouraging, and make sure that every kid is mentioned a couple times. This is a very small thing that can make a huge difference in transforming yourself from an image on a screen into an engaging librarian.
“Tomas, way to go with that counting!”
“Wow, Allie, I love how you placed your spots in a pattern.”
“That’s right, Kristie, there are 4 frogs left!”
“Yes, Joel, you are doing the actions so well!”
Do a Live Craft
We prepared 5 weeks of craft materials in advance, and had families pick them all up at once at our curbside service. Near the end of the storytime I show them the example, and then we build our craft together, step-by-step. Kids hold up their craft after each step, and we all appreciate how everyone makes their crafts in their own special way. This has quickly become many attendees’ the favourite part of Storytime.
Pick a Short, Funny, and Interactive Read-a-Loud
This might be more of a personal preference, but I find that it is much easier to convey silly humor over video than it is to convey a beautiful message. One strength of video storytimes is that the librarian’s facial expressions can be easily seen more closely, and can add a lot to the story. It’s also great when the story text explicitly asks the readers to respond verbally (like Crunch the Shy Dinosaur, or Please Don’t Open This Book.) We know that screen time is more valuable when it is interactive, so why not go the extra mile with an interactive picture book?
Every week I ask everyone to find a scarf. Or a blanket, or a piece of fabric, or even a tissue! Anything you can wave around. This breaks things up, and again, creates something that connects attendees to you and to each other. For some kids, using a scarf prop will remind them of the storytimes they attended at the library, and will make them feel more comfortable and connected.
While some kids are waiting for their scarf or looking for one, lead everyone through some “warm up” activities. Wave the scarf up and down. Side to side. In a big circle in front of your face. Now wave it as fast as you can above your head! Wave it sloooooowly. Wave it back and forth like a flag! Kids can jump in once they have a scarf, and from there it’s easy to transition into your song. If you’re into it, try adding flannel boards, puppets, and bubbles to your storytime too! Kids won’t have those props at home, but they will still come alive watching you.
Make Every Song an Action Song
The main thing that I lost when going from prerecorded to live storytimes is the ability to put lyrics on the screen. Without lyrics, parents are less likely to sing along, which means kids are less likely to sing along. The last thing I want is a bunch of toddlers sitting still and staring at a screen as though they’re binge-watching Paw Patrol. Make every song an action song. By giving kids something to do in addition to singing along, you are keeping their minds active and engaged.
A typical line-up for me is:
Shake Your Sillies Out
Five Green and Speckled Frogs (we hold our hands up with the number of frogs)
The Hand Washing Song
Hokey Pokey (changed to be about the weekly theme: Dino Pokey, or Croaky Pokey)
The best thing you can do is be the same loving, silly, enthusiastic you that you are during in-person storytimes. Make the silly faces along with the characters, dance along with your songs, have get-to-know-you conversations before and after the show. Make your classic, cheesy jokes (mine are: catching my scarf on my head and pretending that everything is suddenly pink, hiding the last seek-and-find felt piece on my back and turning around while “trying to find it,” and fully rocking out on certain verses of ukulele songs.) Give kids the feeling that they are at one of their favourite old storytimes from the before times.
You can be a bit of joyful consistency in their topsy turvy world.