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.
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.
- 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.).
- Greet families as they enter and hand them program sheet.
- Shut door after everyone is in to prevent escapees.
- Greet and welcome the group, briefly go over expectations.
- 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.)
- Warm-Up Song - Something with a little movement, use the same one all month.
- If there's a theme, introduce it. Sometimes share a few photos & facts from a non-fiction book when possible.
- Lead-In Song - I use "If You're Ready for a Story"
- Read first book
- 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.
- Read second book
- Possibly another song/rhyme
- 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.
- 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 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.