How do you start storytime?
Do your families hear a cheerful tune as they enter the room? Do you have a puppet that plays hide and seek in the windows before the kids come in? Do you shake your sillies out before settling down to read? Do you let families know your expectations for the next half hour together?
Do you say thank you?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the evolution of my storytime practice. Tomorrow I’ll lead my first solo storytime at my new library and, even though I’ve done hundreds of storytimes, I’ve still got those first day jitters. What will we read? What will we sing? What will I say?
Why Set Expectations?
Being the newbie has reminded me how uncomfortable it can be not knowing what to do or what to expect. Letting families know what storytime with you will be like and how it works is a kindness! Every library and every performer is so different. Even if you have experienced storytimers in your group, repetition and reinforcement come in handy. I like how Jill Burket Ragase phrased it in a recent webinar I took about behavior management in storytime:
Kids are in the business of learning the expectations of every situation they encounter! It’s our job to teach them about the situation.
Taking some time to set expectations helps EVERYONE get the most out of the experience!
Here’s an opening message from early in my practice:
“Thank you so much for coming today! I’m so happy to see you this morning. I’m so happy I’ve just got to sing!”
Sing: If You’re Happy and You Know It
Here’s a message from the middle of my practice:
“Good morning everyone! Thank you so much for coming to Toddler Storytime for twos and threes. I’m so happy to see you! My name is Miss Jessica, and there are 3 things I’m going to ask for your help with to make sure we have a great storytime today.”
“Everyone show me number 1! Our first storytime rule is for the grown-ups because grown-ups, you are your child’s FIRST and VERY BEST teachers! Please participate with us as much as you can this morning and model storytime behavior. This is toddler storytime, so we’re going to move and groove a lot – I know I’ll definitely need your help singing when I run out of breath!”
“Everyone show me number 2 with your fingers! Can you spread them far apart? Can you put them close together? Can you point to this [rug or line]? The second thing thing I need help with is making sure everyone stays back from the [line or rug]. That way everyone can see and I don’t step on anyone’s toes!
“Everyone show me 3 fingers! Can you wiggle them? Can you hide them behind your back? The last thing I want to ask is to please save cell phones and snacks for later. That way no one gets distracted or exposed to any food allergens. Thank you!”
“Can you show me all of your fingers? How many do you have? 10! Let’s dance our fingers up…”
Rhyme: Dance Your Fingers Up
And here’s a sample recent message:
Sing: Clap Everybody and Say Hello
“Welcome to Family Storytime for all ages! My name is Miss Jessica. Thank you so much for being here this chilly morning. Storytime is the most important and absolute favorite part of my day, and I’m so glad you made it a part of your day, too! You know, every time I babysit my niece I’m reminded of how hard it is to get little ones dressed and moving. And yet here you are at the library, first thing in the morning, and everyone is dressed and everyone’s shoes are on the right feet and you even got your children to wear coats and hats! You are amazing!”
Sing: Roll the Ball
“Grown-ups, can you help us sit in a circle for this song? We’re going to read books and sing songs and move around a lot today, and I’d really appreciate your help modeling what to do. Your children learn to love stories and songs from you!”
Sing: If You’re Ready for a Story…
“Can everyone see the book? Can everyone see this red rug? Your rug is your space, and this red rug is my space. Staying in your space helps everyone see the story.”
My middle message came about after coming onto Melissa Depper’s Storytime Specialist team. For the first time, I was encouraged and empowered to positively set expectations for storytime, and so were my teammates. It was a part of our library culture. Families were familiar with the routine and even thanked us for making it clear that storytime was a special, important space.
I was also regularly scheduled to a specific storytime for at least a trimester, and so I was able to rely upon establishing group norms. I didn’t often have to run through the whole spiel. The only times I would ever say my message in its entirety would be if I was welcoming many newcomers or if we were having a particular issue (e.g. with snacks or participation). Here’s the bare bones of what I always made sure to include in a message:
- Thank you
- My name
- Storytime age range
- Establish visual do not cross space (e.g. rug or tape line)
- Rationale (why I’m asking for a specific behavior)
This message worked well for me for a long time. Then a new trimester came along and I switched branches and started a new storytime at a brand new time… and to be honest, my tried and true old storytime messages totally flopped!
First of all, there was hardly anyone there to hear them! Although this branch was within the same library system, the community was completely different. My new storytimes started small, often with only one or two families. More families trickled in throughout the rest of storytime. I met families who had never been to storytime before. Sometimes it was their very first visit to a library! I served families from many different backgrounds and cultures and languages and parenting styles. Several families thought I was a teacher and would either drop their children off or shush them for speaking during storytime. Although I asked for adult participation, I was often the only adult singing or dancing in the room – and yet my quiet caregivers were very attentive and respectful.
I realized that messages from earlier in my practice were based on the assumption that my audience was familiar with storytime. I assumed everyone knew what I meant by “participation” and what “storytime behavior” looked like and were comfortable with the concept of being their child’s “first and best teacher.” My opening messages were very much about me and what I needed to run my show.
First, I needed to make storytimes more inviting. I wanted caregivers to feel welcome and know that this time and space was for them, not just their children. I took a page from my coworker Steffen’s book and started having adults make name tags, too.
I started setting aside 20-30 minutes before and after storytime to engage with families in the children’s area outside the storytime room. At first there weren’t many early birds, but gradually more and more families came earlier as our group bonded.
Most importantly, I thought about how I wanted families to feel in the storytime room. I hoped they would feel not just welcome, but wanted and valued. I thought about the tremendous courage it takes to move somewhere new, and go someplace you’ve never been before, and follow a stranger with your child into a room, and be surrounded by stories and songs in a language you might not even know. I thought about the tremendous amount of effort it takes to wake up children in general, and feed them breakfast, and get them dressed, and load a stroller, and come all the way to the library… on the weekend! I rarely change out of my pajamas on my day off! I wanted to center that acknowledgement and gratitude in my message. When I said thank you, I wanted my families to know I really, really meant it.
So I put that gratitude front and center and spent time with it before getting into behavior expectations. Because I did still have families arriving at a variety of times, I also spread out those behavior expectations. Instead of laying them out all at once, I interspersed them between music and movement.
Speaking of music, I wondered how I could encourage more participation from my grown-ups? I wanted caregivers to feel empowered and comfortable doing storytime songs and rhymes with their children. We started singing “Clap Everybody and Say Hello” in many languages. We sat in a circle and learned each others’ names as we rolled a ball. In addition to inviting audience participation by asking for words and animal sounds in other languages, I used many of the same songs and rhymes week to week so we could get familiar with them as a group.
Eventually we established a regular group and, like before, I didn’t need to set expectations about ALL the things ALL the time… but I never skipped starting with gratitude.
If it sounds easy, it wasn’t. I worried about spending so much time setting the stage and not enough time reading books. I have a hearing impairment and worried constantly about mishearing and mispronouncing names. I spent hours listening to native speakers pronounce greetings and names on Youtube. I’ll never forget one extremely awkward faux pas when I offended a father by trying to shake his hand before storytime one morning. Learning how to listen to and watch for and follow social cues from cultures that weren’t my own was hard work – and so very, very worth it.
Here’s some additional resources that have helped me craft my opening messages over the years:
How do you start storytime and encourage caregiver engagement? I’d love to learn more in the comments below!