Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Lessons Learned from Baby Storytime

When I started as a brand, spanking-new librarian, fresh out of my MLIS program, I inherited the baby storytime (for children under 2). No one, I got the feeling, particularly enjoyed doing it, so I volunteered to take it over. I did it for two sessions (summer and fall). To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing in the summer and sort of faked my way through it, but I had pretty lofty ambitions for the fall session.  I made weekly handouts with early literacy tips, book suggestions, and words to the rhymes and fingerplays I was doing. We did lots of nursery rhymes for their early literacy value. We ended every session with bubbles. And we had a small but dedicated group of attendees.

In the winter session, we switched up our staffing and I inherited the preschool storytime. Another librarian took the baby storytime and really moved it into a wonderful new direction. The program is just so much more successful now, by any measure: the attendance has exploded and the attendees are clearly having a great time.  I have given the program using the new outline about four times now, when schedule changes required me to cover the program, and I've learned a lot about what I was doing wrong (and yes, right) before.

1. Get your parents to advertise for you. 

Part of the explosion in attendance is due to a large group of moms who clearly know each other from outside the storytime. They all show up for storytime and then hang out and play together in the children's room afterwards. What I suspect is that one or two of them started to attend the program and then recruited other friends to join them, turning it into a weekly social event.

Ask parents to tell their friends with similar-aged children about the program. Perhaps even host a "Bring a Friend to Storytime" day. You can also reach out to your local mothers' club. Most communities have one, and they're always looking for events to put on their calendar. You might offer to host a special storytime for their group at the library as a one-time event and encourage those who show up to start attending your regular storytimes.

2. Channel your inner cartoon character (or You Can Never Be Too Animated)

Of course, I read with a lot of expression in my preschool storytime, but I realize that I often go for a sort of deadpan humor. It goes over great with the preschoolers, but it's way too subtle for babies. After hearing another librarian read a book to the babies at storytime, I realized that, duh, I need to read the stories to the babies in the same high-pitched, sing-songy voice that I used to talk to my kids when they were babies (watch any TV show aimed at very young children if you don't know what I'm talking about).

Now when I read books to this crowds, I do it in a much higher register, with so much expression it seems over-the-top. I also get up and walk around the room a lot, holding the book and showing the pictures to the  children.  I'll get my whole body into it -- if the word "swooping" is on the page, I'll literally swoop the book. The kids are much more engaged and can really pay attention to me this way.

3. Interactive elements are key.

Kids this age are not going to be able to sit there and listen to you read stories and do flannel stories for 30 minutes. They're just not developmentally able to do that yet. I know some libraries limit their baby storytimes to 20 minutes, but I found that for our customers, 20 minutes was just too short. I know firsthand that it can be difficult to get out of the house with a baby, and our patrons made it clear that for them, it wasn't really worth the effort to do so for a 20-minute program. They were looking for sometime a little longer and more substantive.  So to stretch it out for 30 minutes, you're going to have to have a box of tricks.

We now incorporate maracas and egg shakers into just about every baby storytime. We do a variety of things with them. Sometimes we shake them in time to songs, sometimes I'll go to each child and shake the number of syllables in their name, and sometimes we practice vocabulary (shaking fast, slow on top of our heads, behind our backs, high, and low). The kids really look forward to this, and so far, there are been few tears when we've had to put them away. There were a few times when the noise from all the shakers was too much for our smallest attendees, and if I noticed an infant or two getting fussy, I'd cut the shaker session short.

We have also incorporated props like a parachute into the storytime. The kids really do enjoy these, and I think they motivate parents to keep coming back. And you can never go wrong with bubbles.  Scarves would be another great one to try.

4. Repetition is key, but you don't need to overdo it

When I did the program, we did a lot of repetition. We did pretty much every rhyme, fingerplay, and song twice in a row, to the point where it felt stilted and scripted. After all, repetition is key for this age group, right? Babies learn best by hearing things multiple times.  Well, I did it to the point of insanity. The babies might have enjoyed it, but it was way too much for their caregivers. I could feel the energy lag whenever we repeated something.

Now, there's still a lot of repetition, but it feels more organic.  We use the same song to open and close the storytime each week, "Wiggles and Giggles" off the Diaper Gym CD. The song repeats itself twice, so in effect, the parents are hearing the same thing four times every week, week after week.  Now this level of repetition is great. They all know the song and activities by heart, so they can really jump in and participate.

The song we use to introduce the bubbles also has a lot of internal repetition, and I usually have them sing that two or three times because it's so short. It builds anticipation for the bubbles, there are natural motions that go along with it, and the caregivers are comfortable singing it and doing the motions without me leading it, which leaves my hands free to prepare my bubble machine for blowing.

We also have a relatively small number of songs and fingerplays that we draw from every week, so they're repeated often throughout the session, but we no longer repeat absolutely everything twice within the storytime itself.

5. Have fun!

The best advice I ever received about leading storytimes was not to do something just because other people enjoyed doing it: you should only do the things that you yourself enjoy doing, because if it's clear you don't like it, your audience won't like it either. There are a lot of great librarians and bloggers out there who do their storytime a certain way because it's what they enjoy and what showcases their strengths as a performer. But just because it works for them, doesn't mean that you have to do the same thing.

For instance, I tried to make nursery rhymes happen with the baby storytime. I believe in their importance for early literacy, I really, really do... but the audience was not really that into it, at least the way I was presenting them (which was mainly via flannel board that previous librarians had created). But to be honest, I didn't think they were very fun, I just thought it was important to do them. I didn't get the sense that the kids or caregivers loved them, probably because I didn't love presenting them that way.

If I were to incorporate more nursery rhymes into the baby storytime again, I'd find some other way to do it. We often shake our shakers to simple songs like "Baa Baa Black Sheep," but we could also do them to short nursery rhymes.  We could also turn them into opportunities for some gross motor activity.  I love the way that Jason from the Webster Public Library does "Jack Be Nimble" (in fact, I think I may start doing a gross motor nursery rhyme with my preschool storytime every week):

These lessons may already have been familiar to you, but I guess I had to learn them the hard way. I'd love to know, though: what are some of your hard-earned storytime lessons? What did you start out doing that you no longer do?

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