I never intended to be a children’s librarian, so when I was hired as one, I was pretty in the dark as far as how to perform a successful and meaningful storytime. Fortunately, I was gifted with a really excellent coworker who did phenomenal storytimes (“Where’s Mr. J?” would be a refrain I’d hear at storytime for more than a year after he was moved to another location) and had the opportunity to attend equally amazing training sessions with Dr. Betsy Diamant-Cohen, the executive director and designer of the Mother Goose on the Loose. I also gobbled up as much information as I could on strong storytime planning and learned an immense amount from Soraj Ghoting and her Storytimes for Everyone. Now almost three years on the job, I recognize that many of the caregivers who come to storytime are just as uninformed about how to get the most out of storytime as I was when I first started, if not more.
Although I mostly see the same faces week to week, I try to do a rundown of storytime expectations and tips for caregivers so they know how to get the most out of storytime for their little ones (DC Public Library has a solid set of expectations at the bottom of their storytime page if you’re a storytime leader looking for some guidance). Now, I offer it to you. This list is by no means exhaustive and individual children will have, as they do, individual needs and best practices for their learning and development. Foremost, storytime should be fun, however—so don’t let these ideas turn it into a chore. If the event isn’t enjoyable, no one will get anything from it.
You’ll also want to remember that your librarian or storyteller may have slightly different or more guidelines that work for their particular storytime. Don’t let this list hamper your experience; I would recommend going by what your storytime leader suggests and adapting to your needs. But remember that it may take time for success to be proven—child development does not happen overnight.
How to Get the Most Out of Storytime: Tips from a Children’s Librarian
Pick an Appropriate Storytime Session
This is a small but mighty point—choose an appropriate storytime for your child. Often, libraries, bookstores, and other places that offer storytime do so by specific age group. This is because the developmental needs of an infant are vastly different than for that of a 3-year-old. While I try to be as inclusive as possible in my storytime design, recognizing that sometimes people just come to what they’re able to rather than what is most developmentally appropriate, I am also mindful to design around the intended age group so that we’re able to maximize the developmental benefits. My approach to a baby storytime is quite different to my approach for a preschool storytime and, while I can tailor to some extent on the spot, you’re likely to get the most out of storytime by attending the one that is geared toward the appropriate age group of your child.
Caregiver participation is easily the most important thing to me. It’s difficult to expect children to remain engaged throughout the half-hour when adults can’t model it themselves. You may feel silly doing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” as an adult, but the good news is, you aren’t the only adult doing it—the storytime leader is, too! The other caregivers in the room may be reluctant, but peer pressure is a hell of a drug: don’t be afraid to be a leader in this situation.
One of the main points Dr. Diamant-Cohen hammers home in her trainings is that one of the best ways children learn is by watching adults. It’s a real-life case of monkey see, monkey do. When the child sees their caregiver clapping their hands at the appropriate time to “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” they, too, will start mimicking the behavior at the cues. Even if they don’t fully understand the connection at first, this will come later as the connections between the neurons in their brains develop and cement.
Participation is also useful just as a bonding technique. Consider this: If you go bowling with a friend, it’s much more fun if you’re both bowling, right? You build relationships by doing things together. Regardless of the nature of the relationship, if a caregiver is bringing a child to storytime, it stands to reason that a strong relationship would be of value outside of storytime. Capitalize on this time together and demonstrate your engagement in the activity the child is meant to be doing and you’ll have the added benefit of a strengthened relationship. This way, you’re also discovering how to get the most out of storytime for yourself as well as your child. There’s no denying a stronger relationship with your child is a good thing!
It’s tempting to use storytime as an adult break time or social time. I see it frequently: caregivers sit back in the chairs, talk amongst themselves (which is not only distracting for the kids, but also for me—so please don’t do this), or huddle down with their phones. Childcare is not easy and I appreciate that, so when the opportunity for an apparent break time pops up, I get the impulse to take advantage of it. But if your goal is for your kid to gain as much as possible from the storytime experience, your own participation is key!
Let the Kiddo Roam…
Another important tip from Dr. Diamant-Cohen is that if your kid isn’t able to sit still throughout storytime, let it go. So long as the child isn’t in danger, it’s perfectly fine to let them roam around. It may appear that they aren’t paying attention, but you’ll be surprised at how they come back sometime in the future and can sing along or mime all the gestures to a song you thought they never heard a word of for all their wandering.
Kids, as I’ve mentioned, are individuals and have individual needs. For some, this means additional stimulation during storytime—or perhaps less. In either case, it might feel best for them to be up and moving around rather than appearing to focus only on the activities of storytime. So long as they aren’t standing directly in front of the book, clinging to the storytime leader, or otherwise impeding others’ enjoyment of storytime, there’s nothing wrong with a kid who just isn’t interested or able in sitting still for the duration of storytime.
That said, if your child is having trouble sitting still for lengths of time, it may be worth getting them assessed for a variety of things. I learned recently at a training for children’s librarians that this could be indicative of a physical issue, such as core strength, that may point to a larger problem. It may mean nothing—it probably means nothing in most cases—but when it comes to the wellbeing of kids, it never hurts to get it looked at, if you can. Costs may make this difficult, but check with your local organizations to see what community programs are available to address child developmental issues in your area if you have concerns.
…But If Today’s Not the Day, That’s Okay
Furthermore, another part of a successful storytime is knowing when it’s time to go. Sometimes, it’s just not the kid’s day, and that’s okay. Whether you need to step out and take a brief break to manage a tantrum or decide Kiddo’s just had enough for the day, there’s no shame in removing a child from storytime.
This demonstrates that you respect their limits and the enjoyment of others in the space. It can also help teach the child that actions have consequences, in the case that they’re deliberately being disruptive (which, I’ll add, is rare—there’s usually something more going on than just deliberate disruptiveness, so don’t jump to the assumption that a kid needs to be taught a lesson in these circumstances). Maybe they’re hungry, maybe they didn’t sleep well, maybe a lot of things.
While the benefits of storytime are big, missing one session isn’t a big deal! There’s always next week. And, chances are, if your child is having a hard time, they aren’t getting anything out of storytime, anyway. Go for a walk, get a snack, or take a nap and try again next week. That’s how to get the most out of storytime—not by forcing the experience.
The developmental benefits kids get from storytime don’t end at the library door when you leave. Try reinforcing the storytime experience with these ideas.
First, the librarian is almost definitely using books from the library’s collection during storytime. Take note of the titles or ask to check them out after storytime. Even if those particular copies can’t be checked out (some libraries have in-house storytime collections meant just for storytime use), there’s a good chance there are additional copies available. If you can’t check it out day-of, you can always put a hold on it or take note of it and look for it another day. Repetition, you’ll recall, is a key learning strategy. Even if a child isn’t picking up on the same material with each interaction with a given book, there’s still value in revisiting it. Consider how often you’ve noticed new things in a movie you’ve seen a dozen times and how it enriches your experience with the movie, and indeed, sometimes even the world around you and yourself. The same applies to reading the books your child is introduced to at storytime, later.
Second, keep singing! Singing is a great way to develop language skills, even for the youngest of kids. In my storytimes, I do most songs and rhymes a couple of times unless they have naturally repetitive elements, like “Old MacDonald.” When I repeat songs, like “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” I try to do it a little differently each time. “Itsy Bitsy” gets a “regular” treatment sung the traditional way, an “eensy weensy” treatment with a high-pitched voice (“the eensy weensy spider…”) and a “big fat” treatment with a low-pitched voice ( “the big fat spider…”). The small changes keep things interesting and help to illustrate the meaning of the words we’re singing while we still get the benefit of repetition. The more you practice these songs outside of storytime, the better ingrained they will be in the child’s memory. Many storytime leaders can easily provide printouts of lyrics, should you need them, and can even refer you to resources like Jbrary for more songs.
Third, use the concepts and subjects discussed in storytime outside of storytime. This means if your storytime leader reads a book about city transportation, take the time to point out a bus next time you see it. This is useful even if your child isn’t yet developing verbal language. It helps to show what these things are like in the real world and gives them concrete examples to build the language upon. For older kids, add dimension. You can always ask questions like, “The librarian read a book about a red bus today. What color is that bus?” Or, “In the story, we saw a city bus. This is a school bus—where do you think the school bus goes?” Generate conversation around the material and your child will gain a much richer understanding of it while reinforcing the material itself.
Use the Librarian or Storytime Leader as a Model
There’s probably a lot more going on during storytime from the leader’s perspective than you realize. Generally, we’re good at picking up when it’s time to get the wiggles out, when it’s time for a calm down song, and how to redirect kids who are having a tough time. For example, I recently did a storytime where a kid I knew well and who typically is very engaged in storytime was struggling. I wasn’t sure what he was upset about, but I remembered that he responded especially well to a particular rhyme I like to do, “Pizza Pizza Hot” (also known as “Pease Porridge Hot”). It’s a short rhyme, so I did it three times—by the second time, the kid was back on track and ready to participate with no fuss. This is something you can use in your day to day life with your child. I like this positive way of redirecting and find it’s typically more effective than trying to explain to a kid why they should be calm or hushing them, and this is just one thing I’ve tried to subtly model for the adults.
But that’s just the beginning. Watch how your storytime leader uses inflection, whether in their reading or just speaking with the children. Watch how they structure the flow of storytime (I model my storytimes largely on the Mother Goose on the Loose program, and always sure to start with a hello song and end with a calming song, like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and a final goodbye song after that. Routine is huge with kids, and this makes transitions in and out of storytime much easier! Consider how you might apply this in everyday life: a special song before bath time may make that routine that much easier on you and less jarring for your child.). Watch how they read books to the kids—chances are, they aren’t just reading the words on the page, but asking developmentally appropriate questions to the group.
Some storytime leaders will take time to point out pieces of exactly what they’re doing. I’ve tried this in the past but found it hasn’t worked well with my group—and that’s okay. If you’re someone who wants some of these tips spelled out to you, don’t be shy about approaching the storytime leader after the program is over and asking about it. While some of them may not be as intentional about it as others and may have to think about what it is that they do that goes beyond just reading a book or singing a song, chances are they’ve got something you can use in your own time with your child.
There are so many pieces to storytime, including socializing that happens before, during, and after the event, that can nurture child development. But it only works if it’s a consistent presence in the child’s life. Just as drinking a glass of milk once won’t give you a lifetime supply of vitamin D, so won’t one storytime session set your child up for their complete development. It takes repetition.
You may find that much of the content of storytime stays the same week to week, too. Personally, I keep about 85% of my content the same and switch out pieces here and there. Part of this, frankly, is for my own convenience. If I had to learn a whole new half-hour’s worth of songs and books every week, I’d have to quit my job because it would just be too much. But, just as importantly, we know this repetition is useful to learning in children. After all, how many times did you have to hear Ariana Grande’s latest before you knew all the lyrics?
Ultimately, how to get the most out of storytime comes down to this: keep coming. Storytime leaders can’t dictate how much of storytime you bring home and can only guide your behavior at storytime to such an extent. But as long as you keep coming and we keep providing, the kids will continue to benefit from it. Just like exercising, showing up may be the hardest part—and trust me, I see attendance numbers go down when it’s raining—but it’s also the most important part.