Out with the Old: refreshing a traditional storytime

I’ve mentioned a few times that in my library system, there was only one kind of storytime being offered across 7 branches. It was a mixed-age, preschool storytime that was advertised for ages 0-5. When I took on my position as a branch librarian in this system, I struggled a little with the concept.

At first, I fell into the routine that the first librarian created, adding only flannel stories and the occasional use of puppets. I didn’t want to make an abrupt change and lose the regulars from this program, after all. Then, I experimented with some changes to help meet the needs of all my various storytimers. Still, I was observing that parents and caregivers who brought younger children (0-2) were simply leaving early.

I held on to trying to be flexible for months because, honestly, it felt too hard to do anything else. I’m responsible for all programs in two small branches. I’m at a primary branch for 4 days out the of the week because it’s much busier than my secondary. However, when I go to my secondary branch, I offer three programs in one day. (I’ll have to do a week in the life post later to share the wonkiness of my schedule.) Having one kind of storytime meant that I could just repeat the same one three times a week. Diversifying would add more planning and set-up time to my week.

But then something tipped me over the edge. Almost out of nowhere, I started feeling some dismay over how uninvolved adults seemed in my storytime. I tried a couple things to get them engaged. First, I tried giving a spiel about participation and helping kids feel successful. When that didn’t work so well, I took away the chairs in the room. People went and found chairs or took advantage of the few chairs I left out for grandparents. Some days the adults in the room would chat so loudly with each other that I couldn’t focus.

I just couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to make some changes. So I completely re-arranged my schedule (and I’ll write about this later in the week) and re-imagined what a storytime could be and how to create a new feel for such a traditional program.

First, I did something small that I think had a big impact.

I stopped calling it a storytime.

Instead, I named it Little Learning Party!

The new name reflects that storytime is not for sitting quietly or passively observing. It’s fun and engaging and should be the highlight of your day. Before, I wasn’t convinced that people understood that storytime involves singing and playing and wiggling. Young parents especially would call me to ask what we do in storytime and they would react with concern when I told them that storytime is 30 minutes. I’d explain that we dance and sing and play games and they’d feel relieved again. “Oh, good. You’re not going to read the dictionary to my three year-old.”

Then, I manipulated my chairs a little more. I placed about five of them against the wall closest to our storytime rug. They’re still about 10-15 feet away, so they’re close enough that an adult can quickly step in, if need be, but also far enough that if adults do start chatting, it’s not loud enough to disturb me. When people streamed in today, I called all the adults over to the rug with me and just said, “we’re trying something new today!” I reassured grandparents that they were welcome to stay in their chairs.

Next, I re-vamped my spiel. Here’s how it goes now:

“Hi, everyone! Welcome to the Little Learning Party. This is not your average storytime. Today we’re all going to sing along, dance together, use our imaginations, and laugh. If you’re an adult here, I want to see you all moving and grooving right along with me. Forget about your phones and all your worries and use this time to remember what it’s like to be a kid. When you and your child are excited about the same thing, it unlocks so many possibilities for me to share what I know with you and make positive connections to learning. Are we ready to get started?”

I made sure to use my most fun-loving voice. Adults enthusiastically nodded along with me.

Finally, of course, I had to make some changes to the way I structured the program.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t change a whole lot about the actual activities in my storytime. Instead, I just changed the way we went about them. I ordered scarves and a parachute and purchased a bundle of bubbles locally. Without chairs immediately around the rug, I had a much more open space, too. Using my props to their full advantage, I use all my space by having kids wave their scarves while we march around the room. Or I play a song and let the kids pop bubbles that adults blow. It’s a grander scale of awesomeness.

In the past, I’d stuck to the former librarian’s method of using music as an activity between every book. Not anymore. Now I use it as more of an intermission to help with wiggles and also to build up the energy level I want. If I notice kids are losing their focus, it’s time for that intermission. After the dancing that’s somewhere in the middle of our storytime, I do a form of simon says as a way to get kids listening again and then I ask them to sit with me for another story.

Traditionally, this program ran 40-45 minutes. I adjusted that too. Since it’s a mixed-age storytime, I feel 30 minutes with a craft and playtime after is more reasonable.

I had my first storytime with this new structure this week, so I’m proudly posting that next. See you there!

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