Sunday, February 25, 2024

Supporting STEM Learning in Young Children - Embracing a STEM Mindset

 

STEM learning for preschoolers and toddlers
Images from freepik at Freepik.com


As many of us know, "STEM" programming for school-aged kids and teens spread from the educational system to libraries a decade or so ago (although science and nature programs have been a part of library program for longer than that), and it should be no surprise that now it has trickled down into programming for preschoolers, toddlers, and even babies!

But, does this mean we are having toddlers do full-on chemistry experiments and microscopy as the images above might suggest? Absolutely not! For one, there is the obvious safety issues, for another many advanced STEM activities are not developmentally appropriate for younger children for other reasons. In fact, you do not have to have separate, official "STEM" programs at all in order to support STEM learning in young children! Many of the things we already do in storytime or other programs for the very young support STEM learning; we may just need to be more intentional about it and adjust our mindset.

STEM for the very young is all about the mindset and approach, and the good news is that children are born scientists! Babies and toddlers are already hard-wired to explore the world around them, to be curious, and to experiment. When a toddler stacks blocks, they are learning about spatial relationships; when they knock them down they are learning about cause and effect. A baby explores their environment using all their senses: touch, taste, sight, hearing, and smell. Unfortunately, this natural sense of curiosity and wonder is often stifled rather than encouraged once they start school, where they are expected to conform, play is discouraged, experiential learning is less available, teachers are forced to "teach to the test", and science education often falls by the wayside, which is why it's so important to encourage it now.


Embracing a STEM Mindset

A "STEM mindset" is a growth mindset. It is all about being curious and open to learning. By embracing and modeling a STEM mindset in our approach we are not only supporting and encouraging children's natural sense of wonder and desire to explore, but also *empowering the caregiver* to do so at home. Some characteristics of a STEM mindset are:
  • It's the PROCESS, not the product! Repeat this often, as many caregivers become focused on the product and things turning out or looking "right".
  • "Failure" is an opportunity for learning through critical thinking and problem solving! As Pete the Cat says, "there are no failures, only lessons". Repeat this often as well.
  • Encourage and model curiosity, wonder, and exploration.
  • Question everything! Model asking and exploring What? How? Why? Where? When? questions
  • Let kids do as much themselves as possible! Another mantra to repeat often as caregivers tend to take over in their focus on doing things "right".
  • Make sure you are presenting scientifically accurate information, no matter what kind of program or activity. So no 4- or 8- pointed snowflakes; no polar bears hanging out with penguins!
  • Model making observations and noticing details, colors, shapes, patterns, etc.
  • Activities for young children should be play-based. Play is how young children learn!

STEM elements that can be incorporated into storytime or any other programs, and for any age (also see my previous article specifically on incorporating math literacy):
  • Counting up & down
  • Sorting & grouping
  • Shapes
  • Measuring (rulers, tape measure, measuring cups & spoons)
  • Estimating
  • Graphing
  • Making observations
  • Making predictions
  • Including factual information, introducing non-fiction
  • Asking questions
  • Finding or figuring out the answers
  • Point out scientific process in art, cooking, other activities
  • Stacking, building
    • Blocks; foam, wooden, cardboard
    • Magnatiles
    • Bristle blocks
    • Star builders
    • Bricks
    • Stacking cups
    • Many others
  • Sensory exploration
    • Sensory toys
    • Sand/water tables & toys
    • Sensory bin
    • Nature
  • Open-ended activities
    • Process art
    • Small parts play
  • Incorporate at least one STEM activity into multi-station or "party" programs
  • Include STEM careers in "community helper" days, career fairs

And a few tips for STEM programming in general:
  • Be sure you are highlighting and explaining the STEM principles involved
  • Research in advance to be sure you understand and can present accurate information and explanations
  • Test all activities in advance to be sure they work, look for difficult steps, safety concerns, etc.
  • Basic science is the easiest, most budget friendly, and IMO the most fun.
  • Invest in basic equipment and multi-use items
  • Vinegar & baking soda are your friends!
  • Only change one variable at a time
  • Do your research before buying expensive gadgets, be sure they're appropriate for the intended age & goals, try to share with other libraries or schools
  • Technology is often over-emphasized at the expense of the other three areas, and often most expensive (for more about this, see "STEM is a Four-Letter Word").

Here are a few resources for embracing a STEM mindset and STEM activities specifically in regards to younger children (see part 2 of my "STEM is a Four-Letter Word" series for more STEM resources):
  • Let’s Talk, Read and Sing about STEM! Tips for Infant/Toddler Teachers & Providers, great for tips to pass on to caregivers
  • S.T.E.A.M. for Infants & Toddlers!?! Slide show with info on development & several activities
  • Baby Steps to STEM: Infant and Toddler Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Activities - I HIGHLY recommend this book! Especially good if you do not have a strong background in child development. It provides a solid foundation in understanding learning and brain development, and how to support it with STEM concepts in mind, lists of supplies and materials, advice on modeling wonder, curiosity, & exploration, and more.

    This is followed by many activities, with clearly outlined concepts, learning outcomes, tips, materials, steps, questions to ask/model, vocabulary, ways to expand the activity, and children's books that relate to the activity/concepts. Though it focuses on babies and toddlers, many of the concepts and activities are good (maybe even better) for preschool and primary grades.

I hope this article helps you to be more comfortable and confident with your ability to support STEM learning in general and specifically with young children. I also hope that it empowers you to be able to demonstrate to your superiors, admin, community stakeholders, and caregivers how you already are supporting and will support STEM concepts and learning within the framework of storytime and other programs you already offer so you hopefully will not be pressured to spread yourself even thinner by adding yet another program to your roster! 
[Of course, if you have the time, desire, energy, staffing, and funding to add the occasional preschool STEM play program, go right ahead! Just know that it is not a necessity, and STEM can be supported within existing programs.]

And to close I will quote someone who truly embraces the STEM mindset, followed by photos of young children engaged in developmentally appropriate STEM activities:

"Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!" - Ms. Frizzle

 

STEM activities for young children, STEM for preschool and toddlers
Images by (l to r) freepik, prostooleh, and freepik at Freepik.com



Sunday, February 18, 2024

Babies - Toddler Storytime



 
Another recent toddler storytime...

A couple of weeks ago I happened across a couple cute books about babies while straightening up the shelves, so decided on that for that week's storytime theme, since several of our attendees either are babies, have baby siblings, or are about to have new babies.

As always, we started with our "Hello" song: 

Hello, my friends, hello.
Hello, my friends, hello.
Hello my friends at storytime,
Hello, my friends, hello.

I introduced myself, then welcomed all of the children by name, and quickly went over expectations (this is toddler storytime, geared for ages 1-3, but all ages are welcome; toddlers are not expected to be able to sit and listen quietly, so it's okay if they are milling around but please keep them in this general area, not behind me, not racing around the room; feel free to step out if they get too restless and rejoin when they calm down or for the activities afterward).

Our warm-up song for the month was "The Wheels on The Bus", followed by two egg-shaker
 songs (I usually alternate scarves one month and egg shakers the next, because I found it didn't make for smooth transitions trying to do one song with each all the time). First I tell them to make sure their egg shakers work! Then I run thru shaking various ways and stopping on cue prior to doing our songs:

Shake Your Shakers

Shake your shakers way up high, 
way up high, way up high.
Shake your shakers way up high,
Shake your shakers.

(way down low, over here, over there, fast fast fast, slow slow slow)

Primary Colors Egg Shaker Song
(Nancy Stewart)




Once they'd had plenty of movement to get their wiggles out, I lead into reading the book I'd selected with a song that I've used for years, "If You're Ready for a Story". I like it because I can do as many verses as needed, and adapt it to the energy level. 

For our book I chose Karen Katz's Ten Tiny Babies. Karen Katz is one of my go-to authors for toddlers and babies because she keeps the text short and simple, with content little ones can relate to, and they typically can be made fairly interactive. I particularly like this book because of the diversity (babies represent different ethnicities/skin tones, and adults appear to be an interracial couple) and all the actions the kids can do along with the babies in the story, such as running, jumping, and wiggling. And as a bonus it helps us practice counting from 1 to 10.

We concluded with bubbles, while singing "Ten Little Bubbles", counting up and back down.

One little, two little, three little bubbles;
Four little, five little, six little bubbles;
Seven little, eight little, nine little bubbles;
Ten little bubbles go POP!

Pop, pop, pop go all the bubbles.
Pop, pop, pop go all the bubbles.
Pop, pop, pop go all the bubbles;
All the little bubbles go POP!

Ten little, nine little, eight little bubbles;
Seven little, six little, five little bubbles;
Four little, three little, two little bubbles;
One little bubble goes POP!

Then I announced that was the end of the storytime portion, and that we did have activities afterward, but we would go ahead and sing our "Good-Bye" song in case we didn't get to say good-bye to all of our friends later.

Storytime is over, wave good-bye.
Storytime is over, wave good-bye.
Storytime is done, and I know that we had fun.
Storytime is over, wave good-bye.

Activities 
This week I didn't really have any activities that related to the book, but of course the kids don't really care. I just pulled out a variety of things:
  • Foam blocks
  • Sensory tubes
  • Sensory balls
  • Stacking cups
  • Bunny builders
  • Sensory bin (sand with animal & castle molds)
  • Paper & crayons

How It Went
Though the kids were not necessarily as interested in the subject of babies as I thought they'd be, they did enjoy doing all the actions along with the babies in the book. As always, there was lot of excitement when I pulled out the bubbles! Bubbles are not only fun, but great for tracking and encouraging reaching across the midline. Even babies too young to chase and pop them love watching them. I had a slightly smaller crowd that usual, 12 kids and associated grown-ups, but still a decent crowd. 

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Year of the Dragon - Toddler Storytime


Image by Freepik


I realized after I posted my general toddler storytime plan that I did not have any posts of actual storytimes I had done since I developed that plan. So, here is an example of one of my typical toddler storytimes from this week....

Since Lunar New Year was this week and it is the Year of the Dragon I decided on a "Dragon" theme for this week's storytimes, although the toddler storytime really doesn't have a strong theme as we use the same songs/rhymes for a month and the activities may or may not have a strong connection to the book.

We started with our "Hello" song: 

Hello, my friends, hello.
Hello, my friends, hello.
Hello my friends at storytime,
Hello, my friends, hello.

I introduced myself, then welcomed all of the children by name, and quickly went over expectations (this is toddler storytime, geared for ages 1-3, but all ages are welcome; toddlers are not expected to be able to sit and listen quietly, so it's okay if they are milling around but please keep them in this general area, not behind me, not racing around the room; feel free to step out if they get too restless and rejoin when they calm down or for the activities afterward).

Our warm-up song this month is "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes". We start out slowly, then faster, and faster (for the preschoolers I also add doing it backwards).

Next we did two scarf songs (I usually alternate scarves one month and egg shakers the next, because I found it didn't make for smooth transitions trying to do one song with each all the time). First I prompted them to save their scarves up high, down low, twirl in a circle, scrunch into a ball, etc., then did the songs:

Painting Rainbows

Painting rainbows, painting rainbows
Way up high, in the sky.
Pretty, pretty rainbows; pretty, pretty rainbows
Way up high, in the sky.

First comes red, then comes orange,
then yellow, then yellow,
Next comes green, then comes blue,
And purple, too; and purple, too.

(repeat first verse)

Popcorn

Popcorn kernels, popcorn kernels,
In the pot, In the pot.
Shake them, shake them, shake them.
Until they POP, until they POP!

Both of these are to the tune "Frere Jacques", but the tempo is slightly different. The first song is a little slower, softer, more melodic; the second is a bit faster, more energy and excitement. "Popcorn" is is a big favorite here, so we usually do it 3x.

Now that they've had plenty of movement to get their wiggles out, I lead into reading the book I've selected with a song that I've used for years, "If You're Ready for a Story". I like it because I can do as many verses as needed, and adapt it to the energy level. 

I briefly introduced the idea of Lunar New Year and it being the year of the dragon with a non-fiction book (didn't read it, just showed a couple of pictures), and then read Tom Fletcher's "There's a Dragon in Your Book!". I love this whole series, but especially this one. They are cute, not too much text, simple, adorable illustrations, and very interactive.


Generally I use the same songs/rhymes all month in toddler storytime, but every now and then I will add one that goes along with the theme of the book, and this was one such occasion. A simple rhyme patterned after "Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear" that gave them a chance to pretend to be dragons.

Dragon, Dragon

Dragon, dragon turn around.
Dragon, dragon touch the ground.
Dragon, dragon fly up high.
Dragon, dragon touch the sky!

Dragon, dragon swing your tail.
Dragon, dragon shake your scales.
Dragon, dragon give a "Roar!"
Dragon, dragon sit on the floor.

We concluded with bubbles, while singing "Ten Little Bubbles", counting up and back down.

One little, two little, three little bubbles;
Four little, five little, six little bubbles;
Seven little, eight little, nine little bubbles;
Ten little bubbles go POP!

Pop, pop, pop go all the bubbles.
Pop, pop, pop go all the bubbles.
Pop, pop, pop go all the bubbles;
All the little bubbles go POP!

Ten little, nine little, eight little bubbles;
Seven little, six little, five little bubbles;
Four little, three little, two little bubbles;
One little bubble goes POP!

Then I announced that was the end of the storytime portion, and that we did have activities afterward, but we would go ahead and sing our "Good-Bye" song in case we didn't get to say good-bye to all of our friends later.

Storytime is over, wave good-bye.
Storytime is over, wave good-bye.
Storytime is done, and I know that we had fun.
Storytime is over, wave good-bye.

Activities 
  • Q-tip Dot-Painting Dragon - I found a template online, and gave them red, green, and purple paint. This provides fine-motor practice and lets them play with colors.
  • Sensory Bin - The sensory bin was currently filled with sand, along with some shells and molds. To tie with the dragon theme, I buried some dragon treasure (gold foil coins and plastic jewels) in the sand.
  • Foam Blocks - the kids love these! I end up putting them out almost every week
  • Alphabet Dinosaurs - Dinos are kinda like dragons, right? They're both reptiles, and the closest thing I had to a dragon toy. Each one is made of two pieces that fit together, and one half has the uppercase letter, and the other half has the lowercase of the letter.


How It Went 

I had a big crowd; twenty-five kids and twenty-three adults! Usually my toddler storytime averages 12-16 kids, but maybe 3-4 times a year the planets align and I get a big crowd. A couple of the kids (and some adults!) seemed slightly overwhelmed, and it was a bit loud for one little boy who kept putting his hands over his ears. But it went pretty well, and I think everyone had a good time. Some of the kids were more engaged than others, but that's pretty typical with this age and a crowd that large.

Ideally, I'd rather keep it a little smaller, but this big of a turnout is pretty atypical and it's usually just about right. If it ever becomes more consistently that large, I will probably divide it somehow; either a second session or add a baby storytime. However, I really need more staff before I add an additional storytime. There are also several 3 year olds, and even a couple over 3, that I may need to very gently encourage to move on up to the preschool storytime.

Friday, January 19, 2024

My Basic Toddler Storytime Plan



Toddler storytimes are a relatively new thing for me. Previously, I almost exclusively did preschool storytimes, though I did sub a few times for toddler storytime. In my current position, when I first started in-person storytimes back up in 2022 I was only doing 1 family storytime per week, but then starting that summer I divided it into 1 toddler storytime and 1 preschool storytime. The toddler storytime is planned for ages 1-3, with the preschool storytime being for ages 3-5. However, those ages aren't strictly enforced, though I'm thinking of changing the toddler age range to 1-2 because I'm starting to get a lot of 3 year olds, which is taking away from the true toddlers, and many of them are ready for the preschool storytime.

I've played around with the format, and have finally settled on one that seems to be working pretty well for us, for now. There are some key differences between the toddler and preschool storytimes:

  • Shorter
  • More songs, fewer stories
  • More movement
  • Use shaker eggs, movement scarves, bells, or other "instrument" every time
  • More repetition - use all the same songs & rhymes for 4-6 weeks (I do occasionally add a new one that ties into the book), in addition to the welcome and ending songs being the same all of the time
  • Usually only 1 book
  • Very short, simple books, preferably with bold illustrations, interactive, and a really good rhythm
  • Always end with bubbles (before good-bye song and activities)
  • Activities afterward, some overlap with preschool storytime as I always have at least 1 or two older kids, but I always put out the foam blocks, sensory tubes, sensory balls, and stacking cups for the younger ones.

Basic Toddler Storytime Plan:  

  1. Open room and announce it's time for storytime (I found if I let them in early, they would get too restless and start running around and getting into stuff, better to let them stay in the play area and let entering the room signal it's time to settle down.).
  2. Greet families as they enter and hand them program sheet.
  3. Shut door after everyone is in to prevent escapees.
  4. Greet and welcome the group, briefly go over expectations.
  5. Sing short "Hello" song, then introduce myself and say hello to all the kids by name (I generally average 5-10, rarely more than 12.  I would not try that with a large group.)
  6. Warm-Up Song - Something with a little movement.
  7. Shaker Eggs/Scarves - With 2 songs or rhymes. I alternate; eggs one month, scarves the next usually. If doing scarves, I have them pick one up as they enter, if doing eggs I pass those out when we're ready to use them. I take things up afterward, before moving on, but I also tell parents it's not worth causing a meltdown if their child really doesn't want to part with them.
  8. Lead-in song - I use "If You're Ready for a Story"
  9. Read book - very short and simple!
  10. Song/rhyme
  11. On a very rare occasion, might attempt a second, very short book here
  12. Bubbles! Sing "Ten Little Bubbles" count up, then blow bubbles to pop, then sing again counting down. Bubbles are not only fun, but encourage tracking and reaching across midline. (Letting kids blow bubbles also works their oral musculature for speech, but that's best left as a home activity. I use a bubble machine or gun; no blowing in a group to reduce germ spread.)
  13. Good-bye song - first explain that there are optional activities after, but we're going to go ahead and sing our "Good-bye" song in case we don't get a chance to say good-bye to all of our friends later.
  14. Activities - usually  2 or 3 plus other toys, if larger group add more. I try to keep them developmentally appropriate, play-centered, and working on some developmental skill. Sometimes do a craft, but not often for this age as it isn't developmentally appropriate. Some examples:
    • Sensory bin, they LOVE this! I use a base such as water, sand, kinetic sand, shredded paper, rice, or water beads with manipulatives added (plastic animals, gold coins & jewels, figures, boats, ducks, measuring cups & spoons, fishing set, etc.)
    • Sensory tubes & balls (always put these out)
    • Paper & crayons
    • Play dough - great pre-writing activity! Rolling and smooshing dough strengthens little hands and fingers.
    • Dot painting - they loved these at first, but have gotten a little bored with it, so use infrequently
    • Play food
    • Counting & Sorting manipulatives
    • Building sets (foam blocks, star builders, bristle blocks, etc)
    • Toy cars & construction vehicles with activity mats
    • Flannel sets on large flannel board
    • Magnetic gears
    • Magnetic letters
    • Plastic animals
    • Puppets & Finger puppets
    The storytime part lasts about 20-25 minutes, and I do sometimes deviate from the above plan by throwing in an extra short song or rhyme or on rare occasions getting in a second book, and sometimes cutting it short. Some of the songs that I use can be found on the "Repeating Songs" tab above (even some possibly cringe-worthy videos of me singing them), or in the thematic storytime write-ups listed in the right-hand column. Jbrary.com is a great source for songs and rhymes, with videos so you can hear the tunes and see the motions.

    The activities portion lasts anywhere from 15-30 minutes, depending on how many kids show up, their ages, and the activities. Occasionally I'll have a couple of families linger, but at 20-30 minutes I'll go ahead and put away anything they aren't using and go on out to the children's department, leaving the door open so I can keep an eye on things to be sure the room doesn't get wrecked and things don't "walk away" (sad, but true). Most families hang around in the children's department playing, socializing, and picking out books for a little while after storytime.

    *Note for Outreach Storytimes - When I do classroom visits to daycares and preschools, I do not do crafts or activities, just the basic storytime. When I first start with a new client, or at the beginning of the school year, I usually shorten it a bit the first time or two. but I generally find I can do 2 books easily with toddlers in this setting as circle time is part of their daily routine. I currently am only able make visits once per month due to lack of staff and all the demands on my time, but my preference would be to visit every other week.

    I'll add this plan to the "Storytime Plans" link above. If you'd like more detailed discussions of specific elements of storytime planning, check out all my posts tagged "Storytime Planning".

    What does your Toddler Storytime look like?

Monday, January 15, 2024

Make a New Plan, Stan - Storytime Planning in the New Normal



How many of you have had to change how you do storytime in the new normal? I certainly have, and judging from the feedback I got when I gave my "Fearless Storytime" presentation at the state conference last year, I bet most of you have.

And why is this? Well, a few reasons that I believe are directly and indirectly related to the pandemic. A big one is that children born just before and during the pandemic (and their parents) spent their early years in relative isolation, so are not used to structured activities, have less well-developed listening skills (not that 2 year olds are really expected to have any, but 5 year olds usually do), and aren't used to being around other kids, so the fact other kids are present is in itself a big distraction. Also, as a result of the pandemic years young families have not integrated attending storytime into their weekly routines, so attendance is much more sporadic and less regular than families in the pre-pandemic era. And finally, attention spans are noticeably shorter than before, and while I have no proof of this, I strongly suspect screen time plays a part. 

Other than occasionally subbing for toddler and baby storytime, all my pre-Covid storytimes were Preschool storytimes for ages 3-5 (or family storytimes, which I basically did the same), so that is where I have seen major changes. I did not start regularly doing Toddler storytime until after we returned to in-person programming in 2022. These are the changes I've had to make in Preschool Storytime, and following that is my new Preschool storytime plan:

  • Fewer books - Pre-pandemic, I would routinely read 3 books during a preschool storytime, only occasionally dropping to 2 if it was the beginning of the school year for outreach visits, or if the kids were just particularly restless that day. Occasionally I would even get 4 books in. Now, I very rarely ever get a third book in, and some days it's hard to get a second book in.
  • Shorter books - I am finding that some of my favorite books that always worked before with this age, now no longer work, and I have to use shorter books that I would typically use with toddlers or brand new 3-year old classes. I am scrambling to find shorter books that are still fun and not boring. So many of the new picture books I buy that I think would be really cute and fun turn out to be too long and/or text heavy.
  • More Behavior Management - I am also finding I'm having to do more "classroom" management, as young kids now often aren't accustomed to structured group activities, and since storytime attendance is much more sporadic, some of them don't come often enough to ever learn the routine. I find I have to do a whole lot more re-directing than I used to.
  • More Explicit Expectations & Reminders - In my job pre-pandemic, I really never needed to go over expectations, it just wasn't ever an issue. But now, I've found I need to start my sessions by briefly reminding them what age each one is geared for and how they differ, and what the behavior expectations are. Some caregivers need to know that it's okay if their toddler isn't perfectly still or quiet, and that it's ok if they have to leave early because they get too restless and to come back in when they calm down, or for the activities afterward, or try again next week. Others need to know that it's not okay for their child to be racing at break-neck speeds around the room, or in my "bubble" (if they're too close, others can't see; if they get behind me, I might step on them or knock them down, or I might trip and fall; and I don't want them getting into my stuff). 
  • Trouble Learning Names - Because attendance is so sporadic and irregular, it makes it very hard to learn and remember names!  
  • Replace Crafts with Activities - This is one change for the better, and one I was going to do anyway in order to be more developmentally appropriate, but it became a necessity due to the sporadic attendance. Never knowing how many to plan for (it could be 3 or 23) or what ages (it could be mostly 1-2 year olds or mostly 5 year olds) made it so hard to plan and prep for crafts, resulting in either a lot of wasted time and materials, or scrambling to prep more. I did have to gradually wean them from crafts to activities, but I think now they love it. That doesn't mean we never do crafts, and I always have paper and crayons available, but the focus is activities that require little prep, focus on developmental skills and play, and involve re-usable items.

Post-Pandemic Preschool Storytime Plan:
This plan is of course not written in stone, and I always adjust on the fly to meet the needs and abilities of the group I get on any given day. I generally do themes, but not always (for a discussion on using themes, see "To Theme or Not To Theme". I generally pick 4-5 books, and decide which ones I'll actually use in the moment, and usually just 2. I also don't always use every song or rhyme I have planned. I make a little program sheet (half page, front & back) that lists storytime expectations, songs and rhymes, and a literacy/development tip or suggested activity, sometimes announcements.
  1. Open room and announce it's time for storytime (I found if I let them in early, they would get too restless and start running around and getting into stuff, better to let them stay in the play area and let entering the room signal it's time to settle down.).
  2. Greet families as they enter and hand them program sheet.
  3. Shut door after everyone is in to prevent escapees.
  4. Greet and welcome the group, briefly go over expectations.
  5. Sing short "Hello" song, then introduce myself and say hello to all the kids by name (I generally average 5-10, rarely more than 12.  I would not try that with a large group.)
  6. Warm-Up Song - Something with a little movement, use the same one all month.
  7. If there's a theme, introduce it. Sometimes share a few photos & facts from a non-fiction book when possible.
  8. Lead-In Song - I use "If You're Ready for a Story"
  9. Read first book
  10. Song, action rhyme, or flannel rhyme. Repeat. If they really like it, may do a third time. If it's really short, may do a 2nd short one.
  11. Read second book
  12. Possibly another song/rhyme
  13. Good-bye song - first explain that there are optional activities after, but we're going to go ahead and sing our "Good-bye" song in case we don't get a chance to say good-bye to all of our friends later.
  14. Activities - usually  2 or 3, if larger group add more. I try to keep them developmentally appropriate, play-centered, and working on some developmental skill. Sometimes do a craft, but less and less often. Some examples:
    • Sensory bin, they LOVE this! I use a base such as water, sand, kinetic sand, shredded paper, rice, or water beads with manipulatives added (plastic animals, gold coins & jewels, figures, boats, ducks, measuring cups & spoons, fishing set, etc.)
    • Paper & crayons
    • Play dough
    • Dot painting - they loved these at first, but have gotten a little bored with it, so use infrequently
    • Play food
    • Counting & Sorting manipulatives
    • Building sets (foam blocks, star builders, bristle blocks, etc)
    • Toy cars & construction vehicles with activity mats
    • Flannel sets on large flannel board
    • Magnetic gears
    • Magnetic letters
    • Plastic animals
    • Puppets & Finger puppets
The storytime part lasts about 25-30 minutes, and I do sometimes deviate from the above plan by throwing in an extra short song or rhyme or on rare occasions getting in a third book (usually in my outreach visits), and at least once having to stop after 1 book! I occasionally use shaker eggs, scarves, or bubbles, but not as often as with the toddlers, and sometimes a puppet or other prop. Some of the songs that I use can be found on the "Repeating Songs" tab above (even some possibly cringe-worthy videos of me singing them), or in the thematic storytime write-ups listed in the right column. Jbrary.com is a great source for songs and rhymes, with videos so you can hear the tunes and see the motions.

The activities portion lasts anywhere from 15-30 minutes, depending on how many kids show up, their ages, and the activities. Occasionally I'll have a couple of families linger, but at 30 minutes I'll go ahead and put away anything they aren't using and go on out to the children's department, leaving the door open so I can keep an eye on things to be sure the room doesn't get wrecked and things don't "walk away" (sad, but true). Most families hang around in the children's department playing, socializing, and picking out books for a little while after storytime.

*Note for Outreach Storytimes - When I do classroom visits to daycares and preschools, I do not do crafts or activities, just the basic storytime. When I first start with a new client, or at the beginning of the school year, I usually shorten it a bit the first time or two. I currently am only able make visits once per month due to lack of staff and all the demands on my time, but my preference would be to visit every other week.

I'll add this new plan to the "Storytime Plans" link above, and I'll write up my general Toddler storytime plan next. If you'd like more detailed discussions of specific elements of storytime planning, check out all my posts tagged "Storytime Planning".

What changes have you made in your storytimes in the new normal?

Monday, January 1, 2024

Annual Reflection & Goal Setting - 2024



 
I have to say, 2023 was a very difficult year for me (and my co-workers). While there were no huge events like a pandemic, it was actually more difficult and stressful than 2020. I continue to struggle to make progress in my position as youth services manager, for a number of reasons.

First, people in general are just different now - they are more entitled, more selfish, less patient; families are even more overscheduled than before, families are no longer in the habit of coming to the library and attending programs regularly, and kids have even shorter attention spans and are more challenging to engage than before. Second, this particular community is a bit of a challenge as they are fairly insular, very conservative, in general not as supportive of the library as other communities I have worked in, and it's much harder to make community connections as an outsider. Third, I don't have appropriate staffing so that I can truly be a manager and do things they way they should be done, which became even worse after I lost my awesome teen librarian at the end of February due to the low pay when another opportunity fell into her lap. Fourth, I did not have adequate funding due to my programming budget being slashed in half.

And finally, the director that was hired at the beginning of the previous year (right after me) proved to be the most unprofessional, dishonest, and unethical person I have ever met and created a very toxic, stressful, work environment. Their management style was basically emotional abuse, chaos, and reckless spending (which resulted in programming and materials budgets being cut in half). Instead of being supported, I was constantly undermined, sabotaged, steam-rolled over, and bad-mouthed behind my back. I felt I had to walk a very fine line, so that I was doing a good enough job that there were things she could take credit for and make her look good, but not so good a job that *I* actually got attention.  

Despite all these challenges, I did still manage to accomplish or make progress toward many of the goals I had set for myself and the department.

  • I developed and implemented a proper weeding schedule, which had to be abandoned after two months when our teen librarian left. I've come to accept we just will never have enough staff to do weeding and collection development the way it "should" be done, but will have to find a compromise that is logistically feasible for us.
  • I have continued to improve the collections, in particular doing a massive weed of J fiction, which freed up shelf space to expand the juvenile graphic novels, and made significant progress in improving the juvenile non-fiction section, which was very shabby and outdated. Also added some new Manga series, and continue to expand picture book collection.
  • Gave a presentation on "Fearless Storytime" at our state public library conference
  • Had another successful summer program, with solid program attendance and higher participation in the reading challenge after ditching Beanstack and switching to a simple paper "log".
  • Made some progress with developing community partners, but it is slow going.
  • Storytime attendance has grown, attendance for school-age and family programs during school breaks is generally good, but after-school programming just doesn't work for this age here.
  • Teen programming has been re-established with new staff, still trying out things to see what will stick and developing staff.

Now, for 2024....I am not really setting a lot of big or specific goals, just some general ones, because I expect 2024 to be a fairly rocky year, so mainly my goal is just to survive! The good news is, our horrible, toxic director is GONE!!!!

This is such a huge relief, but also unfortunately a little too late to completely head off the mass exodus that was beginning, and we are now also without an adult services librarian, an IT person, custodial service, and a children's assistant. So we have a lot of rebuilding to do, in a time where hiring qualified staff is extremely challenging, if not impossible at times. The future is very uncertain at this point, and we worry about who the next director will be. For the time being, the interim director who hired me (retired former director) is coming back to be interim director for the second time, which is a good thing! He treats all staff with professionalism and respect and this will give us some time to decompress, heal, and begin to sort through and repair the all the damage the outgoing director did to our finances, staffing, staff morale and mental health, and community relations.

My only goals for 2024 are:
  • To survive!
  • Continue to improve youth collections through weeding and development
  • Get my office straightened up and organized 
  • Work on staff training and better communication - improving customer service, programming, and general professionalism, breaking bad habits that developed due to director's interference and toxicity leading to stress and low motivation (myself included)
  • Get my programming budget back!
  • Hopefully hire an assistant with experience working with children & families to help with both customer service in the children's area and children's programs
  • Hope to attend the ALSC national conference in Denver this fall. I've always wanted to go to this conference, but never have been able to.
  • Continue to network within the community and with other local/state library staff
  • Finish the deep-dive into incentivized reading research I've been promising to do (I have been working on it, but time and energy has been in short supply!)
  • Again, keep trying for a healthier work-life balance. I just can't ever seem to manage that; as a manager it is so much harder to leave work at work than it was as support staff or as a non-supervisory librarian

I've come to realize and accept that things are never going to be like they were before 2020, and I'm probably never going to love my job like I loved the job I had when the pandemic hit and everything went to hell. But I am REALLY hoping things will get a little easier, at least less tumultuous, and at some point the rewards will outweigh the stress. I still enjoy my storytime families and other regulars, and occasionally get that high from a program that just goes perfectly or a really great patron interaction; it's just that the good has been so overwhelmed by stress and toxicity lately. Hopefully that is about to change!

For all of us, I wish a calm, peaceful, and Happy New Year! 

Friday, November 10, 2023

On the Struggle Bus



You may have noticed this blog has been pretty quiet lately, and unfortunately the reason for that is that I have been feeling completely exhausted and unmotivated, a passenger on the struggle bus that seems to be on an infinite route with no stops. I seem to be mired in a full-blown existential crisis, both personally and professionally. I feel like nothing I do really matters, and furthermore, nothing I have ever done really mattered. 

This has been building for a while, and many factors play into it, but I think the professional crisis began in 2020 when the pandemic hit just as I was finishing my MLIS, and the library system I had worked in for seven years suddenly terminated me (and 100 others) with no warning, no consideration, and absolutely no sensitivity. I always knew upper management viewed most of us as anonymous, disposable cogs rather than people, but to be actually thrown away without a second thought like that was devastating. I cried and mourned the loss of job I loved for a couple of days, but then threw myself into job-hunting, and I don't think I every fully realized or dealt with how traumatic that experience was for me. I know others were not so affected, but it affected me deeply.

I managed to land on my feet, finding a full-time professional position relatively quickly, but it proved not to be a good fit, and a year later landed what I thought was going to be my dream job. But due to understaffing, toxic management, a public that has grown meaner, more entitled, and less appreciative; and libraries being under constant attack, I am finding myself feeling exhausted, stressed, undermined, and unappreciated most of the time, and I have a hard time mustering any enthusiasm or excitement for things that used to routinely bring me joy. Work was my "happy place" in pre-pandemic days, an escape from stresses in my personal life; now it is just an even greater source of stress.

Another thing that I'm struggling with besides accepting that pre-pandemic life and the career I thought I was going to have are gone and everything is different now, is realizing that while certain experiences and people were significant and important to me, I was barely a blip on their radar. I know in my head that's normal and often the case as life goes on and everyone has their own lives and issues to deal with, but it still hurts sometimes.

Yesterday I visited the library where I used to work, where I truly loved working and was inspired to become a children's librarian, and I walked in and didn't see a single friendly or familiar face. So much has changed in the last 3 years, and it no longer looked or felt like the same place. I no longer felt comfortable there, or even welcome, really. It just hit me all at once, realizing that while the time I worked there and the relationships I had (in that branch & the system overall) were incredibly meaningful to me and I was very proud of the work I had done, the library had moved on without me and not only is it no longer the place or people I remember, no one really remembers me or anything I did while I was there anymore. I felt completely erased and insignificant, and I left and went to my car and cried.

I know I need to stop living in the past, let go of what might have been, what should have been, and just accept that everything is different now and that I need to move on like everyone else has. Sometimes people are more important to you than you are to them, and that's just how life goes. I need to learn how to stop defining myself by my accomplishments, my job, my relationships, or how others see me, and do a better job of having healthier boundaries and leaving work at work, but after a lifetime of being a type A classic overachiever, never feeling like I'm enough, and being in a field where vocational awe and poor leadership are so toxically pervasive, it's hard. 

I can certainly see why people are leaving the library field, especially youth services, in droves. Now is not a good time to be a librarian in general, and though all public librarians are generally overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated, I think children's librarians are the most prone to burnout due to the excessive programming demands that so often goes along with youth services. We are expected to be everything for everybody, without the staffing or funding to do so, with a public that has grown more entitled and less appreciative, kids that are so much more challenging to engage, parents that often don't parent, and upper management that is often out of touch and unsupportive, and frequently downright toxic. Some days I'm tempted to just chuck it, and let not-so-distant-future me deal with not having enough money for retirement. I wish I had figured out I wanted to be a children's librarian much sooner, so I would've had a chance to be one for at least a little while in the 'golden age'.

I know lots of you are struggling, too. If anyone has figured out how to escape some of the stress and still find some joy, to do a good job while maintaining healthier boundaries, to be able to let go and not let things drag them down, to stop taking things so personally and not lay awake every night thinking about everything that needs to be done or every little thing that went wrong, I'd love to hear from you! Additionally, how do you find the bandwidth to be there for your staff who are also struggling when you are barely hanging on by a thread yourself?


Sunday, August 20, 2023

SRP 2023 "Summer at the Library" Reflection


Image by freepik


This summer was the tenth of my career (not counting 2020, The Summer That Wasn't), and my second as youth services manager, responsible for designing and overseeing everything, including planning and executing most of it myself. This year was a little less stressful since it wasn't my first time, so I had a better idea of what to expect in terms of attendance and had more programming planned and supplies ordered in advance. It was also more satisfying since I got to design things they way I wanted this year, and I departed from the mainstream a bit, "going rogue" in some ways. In the past I've had a love-hate relationship with summer reading, and this year I was able to love it a little more.

Overall, it was a great success. We had a 32% increase in program attendance for birth-10 and families, and a 15% increase in program attendance for ages 11-18 (what we consider "teen"). This was primarily due to more and earlier promotion of "Summer at the Library", more promotion of big events, dropping registration, and getting the retractable wall between our meeting rooms fixed so we could open it up and accommodate more people at our big events (big events being the kick-off, paid performers, guest presenters, and a Meet a Truck event). Attendance for in-house programs was roughly the same, with a slight drop in attendance for the elementary programs, but an increase in attendance at family craft programs, which is what I was hoping for to keep crowd size more manageable in the elementary programs, and avoid some of the issues with younger siblings. Once again, we saw the same trend of a gradual decline in attendance after the first 2-3 weeks due to vacations, summer camps, and getting ready for back to school.

Here's what really worked for us:

  • Having a Purchasing Deadline. Our director imposed a purchasing embargo from May 16th-June 30th (the end of our fiscal year), which forced me to plan things early in order to get supplies ordered by the deadline. Made April-May busy and stressful, but June & July were much less so as a result.
  • Having a kick-off event. This brought a lot of families in that we don't normally see, or see as often, and generated a lot of positive feedback and goodwill. We had a petting zoo, face-painting, games, crafts, costumed staff as T. rex and shark, and an ice cream truck.
  • Having more big events. Paid performers cost $5 per person or less, and really draw a lot of people without a lot of staff effort. They really are worth the expense in the long run, and generate a lot of good will. More people coming to the library means more materials being checked out, more awareness of what the library offers.
  • Ditching the CSLP theme. We really weren't excited about it, and I wanted to be able to do a wide variety of programs and not worry about being tied to a theme. We went with a general "Summer at the Library: Read! Explore! Discover!" Took pressure off me and the YS staff by making it very open-ended and all-encompassing, and patrons didn't miss having a big theme at all. I don't think they even noticed!
  • Adding family craft programs (last year I had tried movie and game days as a way to add family programs with little staff effort, and there was no interest at all). This also helped reduce attendance for the elementary age programs, which had been over-crowded last year.
  • Keeping things simple, especially the first 2 weeks when we typically get big numbers. Planned things that did not require a ton of prep and set up time, and that would be easy to stretch or otherwise accommodate bigger than expected numbers, and younger siblings.
  • Hiring extra summer help. We hired a college student just for the summer, 12 hours a week, specifically to help me prep, set-up, and clean-up for programs, and to be an extra set of hands and eyes during the programs. It would have been a much more stressful and hectic summer without them! (I had two other part-time staff who primarily did the teen & tween programming and desk coverage.)
  • No Slime! Not doing programs for the elementary age that would have safety concerns for younger siblings. Nope, was not fighting that battle again.
  • Dropping registration! Registration was never helpful for planning, as there were so many no-shows and those who showed up without registration, just added more hassle and frustration, and resulted in more negative patron interactions. We only had registration for the teen tie-dye programs in order to know how many and what size shirts to buy (and still had the problems of no-shows and walk-ins).
  • Ticketing - We had one event that had a crowd limit set by the presenter that was lower than our max attendance, so we tried advance ticketing (tickets had to be picked up in-person, no phone reservations, starting a week before the event) on the advice of others, and still had no-shows, but it worked much better than online registration.
  • Consistent Days/Times - All kids programs & events were at 10:30 am, with Toddler Storytime on Tuesday, Family event or craft programs on Wednesday, Elementary kids on Thursday, and Preschool storytime on Friday, every week (except the week of July 4th). Teen programs were always on Tuesday & Thursday afternoons, though times varied slightly.
  • Working in a mini-break the week of July 4th, when we are closed one day and always see much lower numbers anyway. So did not do the full week of programming, just one Family Lego Day and one Family Storytime. Gave staff a nice break, without really impacting numbers.
  • Programs that were big hits: Elementary Butter-Making, Elementary DIY Dinosaur Models, Family No-Sew Sock Animals, Meet a Truck, all performers, Teen/Tween Tie Dye, Teen/Tween Guided Painting, Teen D&D
  • Sleeper Programs: not as highly attended (possibly due to being in July), but were loved by those that did attend, and got attention on social media - Bubble Science, Shark Week
  • Dropping Beanstack and switching to a more fun, easy reading challenge on paper; 46% increase in registration, and even though the completion rate of 34% was disappointing, it was still twice as high as last year.
  • Giving away books at the beginning. Yes, kids got books for signing up, and 2/3 never finished, but putting books in the hands of kids is ALWAYS a win! (They also got a 2nd book, pizza coupon, and raffle entry when they turned in the log at the end.)
What Didn't Work:
  • Elementary Solar System Mobile - Too much work coloring them all in (I felt the pre-colored templates would eliminate all creativity), and kids lost interest; few completed it, and only with significant adult help. It would be better as a group classroom or homeschool activity.
  • Teen/Tween Flip-Book Animation - no one showed up, though I still think this would be a good program. Our teen programming is in transition and re-building after a staff change, so maybe worth trying again and with more promotion.
  • Registration - Though we only used registration for the tie-dye program so we could have the right number and sizes of shirts, we still ended up with too many no-shows and leftover shirts. Next time, we will do something (1) cheaper, and (2) where size is not an issue. Maybe bandanas, and they can bring one additional item of their own if they wish?
  • Teen/Tween Magic the Gathering - This was brand new, and not many in this community are familiar with it, unlike D&D. So the two summer sessions didn't have very good attendance, only 1 at the first and 2 at the second, but the third month had 4, so it seems like it will grow with time. I wish we had waited until fall to start it, and had done programs that would have been more popular for the summer.
  • Consistent Weekday Morning Time Slot - Though we had good attendance having all the kids/family programs in the mornings, we aren't serving those families who are unable to attend mornings. But with our very limited staff and budget, it's hard to add additional evening programs, though I'll have to figure out something.
  • Reading Challenge - Yes, we had significantly better results this year than with Beanstack, and those that completed the Bookopoly reading challenge said they really enjoyed it, I was very disappointed that only 1/3 completed and submitted it by the end of the summer. Adult participation was very low; however, we did see a significant increase in children 5 and under participating, so we are getting the message out that summer reading isn't just for school aged kids that are reading independently, and the 0-5 age group had the highest completion rate (44%). So it worked somewhat, just not as well as I'd hoped.

For next year, I probably won't change much as far as programming, except to figure out how to add at least a few weekend or evening programs to accommodate those who can't come during weekday mornings, and tweak the teen/tween programming a little, possibly adding more. We may or may not follow the CSLP theme; that will be something we re-evaluate from year to year. [I honestly think CSLP has become obsolete; I don't find the manual very useful and can get better ideas with much more complete instructions online, and I haven't been thrilled with the artwork and often use other stock art.] I also think I want to add some kind of finale event, maybe that would encourage more people to get reading logs turned in.

I'm not sure what to do about the reading challenge. I was encouraged by the higher registration this year, but then disappointed by the low completion rate. Yes, having more/bigger/flashier prize drawings might help motivate more people to turn them in, but I don't believe it really motivates more reading. I honestly think people are just over reading programs that require logging, no matter how easy and fun we try to make it; it still becomes a chore. They are usually required to log reading during the school year, which I always hated as a parent, and don't want to have to do it in the summer, too. There are issues with any format; not everyone has internet access or the ability or inclination to use online trackers, paper logs get lost, etc. And whether reading logs do anything positive is highly questionnable.

What I've observed, read, and heard from others is that highly incentivized programs don't work anyway, if encouraging long-term reading habits is the goal. It does encourage more cheating, but even worse, incentivizing reading may actually have the opposite affect of the intended goal. Unfortunately, we have become stuck in this cycle of chasing numbers, forgetting about the original goal of summer reading, and ignoring the research that suggests otherwise. 
If I could really do summer reading any way I wanted, not worrying about numbers or stats, I'd drop reading logs all together! That's pearl-clutching inducing heresy, right? But, hear me out. 

Research may not support what summer reading has become, and "we've always done it that way" isn't a good enough justification to keep doing it. However, administrators and state libraries are loathe to give up their statistics, and even many among our own youth librarian ranks insist that they work, despite evidence to the contrary, often insisting they have seen the results (maybe in the short-term, but can you show long-term?), or using the emotional argument "But if even ONE child is motivated to come to the library/check out a book, then maybe they will find that one book that will hook them...". Sounds good, tugs at our heartstrings, appeals to our vocational awe in wanting to believe we make a difference...but I believe library practice should be based in evidence, not emotion, and this ignores the very real, research-supported, possibility that these highly incentivized programs actually decrease reading in the long run. (I still intend to do a deep dive on this with proper citations, I promise!). Unfortunately, it seems this may have become the "inconvenient truth" of our profession.

But I digress... What I would do is instead is encourage reading with messaging, with giving away books all over town, with programming and outreach. Do more storytimes out and about in the community, incorporate books and reading into your programming as much as possible. For example, a cooking program for teens based on recipes found in YA books, STEM activities inspired by books, non-traditional book clubs, giving booktalks at the beginning of every program, arts/crafts inspired by book characters or illustrators, anything that encourages reading and portrays reading as both fun and functional. What would we use for stats? Why not base it on how many books given away, circulation, and program attendance? Why have we come to place so much importance on how many minutes or numbers of books are read? Does that REALLY mean anything? A child reading one book, but really enjoying that book and being excited about reading the next one is better than a child reading 10 books to get a prize, but not really enjoying it or continuing to read after getting said prize.

Will I be able to do this? Probably not, but I will at least pitch the idea, and if denied, I'll gather more evidence, and pitch it again next year!

If you have significantly changed your approach to summer reading, or if you have done any research on the subject, actual research or a lit review, I would LOVE to hear from you! Please drop me a line at adventuresinstorytime@gmail.com!