This is an updated and expanded version of an article I first wrote five years ago, and recently gave a presentation on at our state conference. (If you are interested in the slides from my presentation, they can be found on my share drive.)
I decided it was a good time to re-visit this topic post-pandemic because there has been so much turnover in the field, thus a lot of people new to storytime, and because people are different now. Attention spans are shorter, more trouble following directions (both kids and adults!), storytime attendance much more sporadic, and more behavioral issues than pre-Covid days, so even veteran storytime presenters are having to refresh and re-evaluate how they do things.
Don't be afraid to:
- Sing! 🎶-- I have often heard people talk about not being comfortable singing in storytime because they feel they can't sing well. But, guess what? The kids DO NOT CARE! I promise. (In fact, most of them don't sing well, either.) I'm a lousy singer, but not one of the hundreds of kids I've had in storytime has ever noticed. Singing is an important early literacy practice as it breaks up and slows down language, gives kids a chance to play with different sounds, rhyme, and rhythm; and introduces vocabulary. If we want the kids to sing and for caregivers to sing with their kids, we have to model that early literacy practice, and show them that it's okay if you're not a naturally gifted singer.
- Be silly.💃 -- Kids love to see adults acting silly, so get up and dance with them, use silly voices, be goofy. Don't be afraid of silly books, either. Even ones that mention underwear, butts, or poop 💩 can be used to develop early literacy skills, and it teaches kids that books are fun! You also have to be able to laugh at yourself, because inevitably you will make mistakes, such as coming in and completely forgetting the tune of a song you've been doing for years, or say the wrong words, or skip a crucial page in a story.
- Learn as you go. 🏫 -- You don't have to know everything in the beginning, and you don't have to use every technique at first. Observe a few storytimes by different people, read up on child development and early literacy, follow a few blogs; but the best way to learn is by doing! Start with what you are comfortable with, then gradually expand your repertoire and comfort zone as you continue to learn. Also keep in mind you don't have to do all the things all the time.
- Fail. 😓 -- Don't let a fear of failure keep you from experimenting and trying new things, or you will stagnate. Mix it up! Give it a try! Some things won't work, and that's okay. Some say we learn more from our failures than our successes, and one less than spectacular storytime isn't going to kill anyone. But, you might discover something wonderful as well! As Ms. Frizzle says, "Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!"
Directors, managers, and supervisors, please give your staff the room and grace to fail! They need to know it's okay to try something and it possibly not work out. Encourage experimenting, and have an attitude that we'll try stuff and see what works, and if it doesn't we'll try something else. Don't make everything about numbers, either. Quality vs. quantity.
- Take advantage of others' knowledge & experience. 💻 -- There are so many online resources available to use today, so take advantage of them! We all share and borrow ideas from each other, and it's okay to copy part or even all of someone else's storytime in a pinch (just be sure to give credit to your sources). It's also okay to repeat part or all of your own storytimes if your audience is different. We don't have to always reinvent the wheel. There are some weeks I am just too busy to plan, or having a creative dry spell, and I'll look at other blogs, or even my own, and get inspired or even copy almost exactly. That's okay! If it's put out there, we intend for others to use it!
- Set Boundaries! 📵 -- This is not only necessary for your sanity, but for a successful storytime. Be sure your expectations of the children are developmentally appropriate, but never be afraid to ask the two chatty moms in the back to wait until after storytime, or to ask that child care worker to please put their phone away and stop texting. I will admit dealing with adult behavior is the one that is the most awkward and difficult for me. You may want to set a literal boundary around you that you ask caregivers to keep their children from entering. You also have to set boundaries in terms of how much programming or outreach you can do, how often, and what the content is. Lay out expectations up front, at the beginning of storytime and at the beginning of partnerships.
- Change gears in the middle. ⛭⚙⛮ -- If whatever you're doing just isn't working that day, don't be afraid to quit, even right in the middle of a book or activity, and move on to something else. Not every book/activity suits every group. Maybe they just need a different book, maybe they just need something more active right then to get some energy out. They may not be able to sit and listen to stories at all that day, but they might do fine with songs, dancing, or something else.
As a very wise former manager once told me, "Sometimes it's just a hokey-pokey day," and the article so-entitled has more details an tips for managing behavior, but briefly things to try are: extending beginning routine, redirecting, repeating all or part of beginning routine, move on to a different activity, sing ABCs or other very familiar songs, movement songs/rhymes, then try again. You may also find you have to change gears in the middle of your career, that the storytime structure that used to work for years just doesn't work anymore. This again is where continually evaluating and experimenting comes into play.
- Cut it short. ✂ -- Some days nothing is going to work, and no matter what you try the kids are melting down or climbing the walls. Maybe their schedule is off, or something special is going on at school that day, or it just started snowing. It could be you have a group of brand new 3 year olds that just aren't quite ready for a full-length storytime. Don't be afraid to just cut it short, with a pleasant "Well, I think that's enough for today, we'll try again next time." It's better to quit before everyone gets too frustrated, and keep it positive.
- Find your own style. -- No two people will present a book the same way. For that matter, we don't all like the same books. So don't feel like you have to use a book because it's an award winner or every other person you knows loves it; use books that you genuinely like. No two people do storytime the same, either. There are many different formats and styles, so experiment and figure out what works best for you and your audience. Some people use themes, some don't; themes are great if it helps you plan, but not if it just makes it more difficult. Some follow ECRR, some use Mother Goose On the Loose, some incorporate elements of Supercharged Storytimes, some have their own structure.
- Ditch Crafts! 🎨 - This might induce a little pearl-clutching because some folks are really attached to the idea of crafts, but hear me out. What I am referring to are the cookie-cutter, product-driven crafts. There are multiple problems with this type of craft, but the biggest is that they focus on following directions, are generally not developmentally appropriate, and the adults often take over. In addition, they can require a lot of staff time prepping and cutting things out in advance. Then, if you don't have enough, you're rushing to prep more, and if you have too many it's a waste of time and materials (yes, you might can use them in take-home kits, but then there's even more staff time taken assembling the kits for something that the adult is likely to end up doing anyway). I also frequently see them left behind or in the trash 🙁.
Instead, offer process-driven art and activities that are open-ended and focus on problem-solving and creativity, build confidence and socio-emotional skills. Messy, open-ended art; loose parts play, building sets, manipulatives, sensory tube/balls, sensory bin, literacy activities, fine-motor activities. I may sometimes do a more open-ended painting activity that focuses more on the process and developmental skills used than the product, or put out several different developmental activities. For example, last week our story had to do with food, and I put out wedding cake and pizza play sets by Melissa & Doug, a wooden fruit stringing activity set, magnetic fruit on baking sheets, a set of plastic fruit that is velcro-ed together that kids can "cut" in half, and the sensory bin that was full of rice in spring colors with different colored shapes hidden in it. Another day it might be blank paper and crayons, puzzles, busy boards, and foam building blocks. The sensory bin is ALWAYS a hit, and well-worth what it cost! ($300-$400)
I do occasionally do crafts because caregivers like to have something to take home, but I keep them simple, age-appropriate, and remind them to focus on the process and let the kids do as much as possible, and also have process-driven or sensory activities available; if we are not doing a craft, I always have crayons and blank paper available.
- This was how I closed my original, pre-Covid article, but I had to re-think this a little after Covid hit:
"Accept hugs.💕 -- Not everyone would agree, but I refuse to accept a world where we are afraid to show young children affection. One caveat - I never *initiate* any physical contact with a child (other than for safety), but I will gladly accept all the hugs and high-fives they want to give. Some of the kids I see in outreach are desperate for adult attention and approval, and who knows, that hug from you may be the only one they get that day."
I still accept hugs if a child initiates it, but generally more of a quick side-hug with my face turned away, and if I'm standing they are just hugging my legs anyway. But I now encourage high-fives and fist-bumps more, with frequent hand-washing. It's up to each person to decide how comfortable they are with hugs or any physical contact. Also, your employer or the places you visit may have rules prohibiting hugs. In the early days of the pandemic, I was very vigilant about mask-wearing, social-distancing, and avoiding any physical contact, as I am high-risk and was not vaccinated. But now that I am fully vaccinated and there are anti-viral drugs available, I'm not as concerned. But everyone has to decide for themselves.
Feel free to add your thoughts and suggestions in the comments!