I'd like to kick off a new series for you all featuring storytime themes that I use in my programs at the library. I thought it'd first be great to share with you how I plan and do my storytimes.
For those who don't know, I work as a Youth Services Librarian, so I've built up a repertoire of children's books, songs, activities, crafts, etc. that I use in my early literacy programs. Over the years I've found many things that do and don't work with young children, and I'd like to share my knowledge with you! This series will be really helpful to preschool teachers and librarians who put together themed lesson plans and units, or parents who homeschool or whose kids are only interested in a specific topic at the moment (e.g. going through a dinosaur phase). These are geared toward children ages 2-5, but of course, any age can enjoy a good picture book.
I have a general routine that I follow for each of my storytimes. We start out with the song If You're Happy And You Know It as our welcome song. It gives the kids a chance to get their wiggles out and sets the tone for this being a fun and engaging program. Next, we go over the word of the day. This is what the theme will be, or something closely related. I have a sheet of paper with a picture of the word and the word written in both lowercase and uppercase letters. You could laminate this and stick velcro on the back to use on a felt board, or stick it up on a whiteboard with magnets. I ask the kids if they can tell me what the picture is, and then what letter our word of the day starts with.
Next, I pull out vocabulary cards with pictures that all start with the same letter as the word of the day. I show them the picture and ask if they know what it is. I don't bother with raised hands, but if you're in a classroom setting, this may be more appropriate. I usually do 5-8 vocab words and put them in order of difficulty from easiest to hardest. A quick Google search will give you lots of ideas for vocab words for this age group. If we read a story that features our word of the day or one of the vocab words, I always try to point it out too.
After our vocab words, we sit down for our first story. All my stories for the program will follow the theme that goes with our word of the day. I pull up a chair and sit and welcome the kids to come up to the front by me to see the pictures if they'd like. Some do and some like to stay in their parent's lap, either way is fine. I ask the kids to stay seated on their bottom during the story and to shhh so we can all hear the story (that goes for parents too!) Depending on how long the book is and the interest level of the children, I will do 1 or 2 stories right now. I try to make sure the second story is shorter or has some kind of participation element (like a counting book where I ask them to count along with me, a color book where I ask what each color is on the page, or even just ask them to tell me what animal is on each page) so the kid's attention doesn't stray too far off topic and they stay engaged.
Next, we take a break to shake our sillies out. You can only expect kids to sit still for usually two stories max before you have to take a break and do something else. Asking them to sit still and quiet any longer than that doesn't always work. Some kids could do it, but it only takes one disruptive kid to distract everyone else. I pass out shaker eggs and bells to the kids and play Shake Your Sillies Out by Raffi two times in a row. I keep the eggs and bells in 2 baskets and set them down on the ground so the kids can pick which one they'd like. Anyone with toddlers knows that giving them a choice is always a big deal (even if it's just the illusion of choice). If the group I have that day skews older, I will sometimes then play Shake Your Body Down by The Laurie Berkner Band, which is a great follow along action song. Then I collect all the shakers and if we did both songs I go to the next book or activity, but if I only did Shake Your Sillies Out, I will then play Wheels On the Bus. During our songs, I always fully do all the movements and participate. You can't expect the kids to want to sing and jump around if you don't do it yourself.
After our song break, I either read another book or do an activity. These are usually tied some way into early literacy, like learning about our numbers, colors, shapes, letters, etc. I always try to do something where I have enough pieces to hand out to all the kids because if god forbid a child doesn't get a piece, be prepared for crying or a tantrum. When I hand out pieces for an activity, I usually don't take requests. The kids get a choice with the shaker eggs and bells, but this time the lesson is that sometimes in life you just get what you get, because if I tried to accommodate giving every child their choice of which piece they wanted, we'd be there all day and a fight would probably break out over 2 kids wanting the same piece. So I distribute the pieces as quickly as possible to minimize disruptions and keep the flow of the program going.
My go-to activity is the ABC's. We do it near the end of most programs because the kids love it and it's a good way to kill time at the end when you have to reach that half hour mark and there's still 5-10 minutes left. I like to use magnetic ABC's and a rolling whiteboard we have. I start by passing out the letters and then ask everyone to join me in singing the alphabet so we know what order the letters go in. After that, I usually use the book Alphaprints to introduce each letter. Each page features an animal for that letter (ant, bear, cat, etc.) and has a little rhyme describing it. I have the book memorized at this point (lol) and the animals are common enough that some of them may be our word of the day. If I can find a good ABC book about the theme for that day, I'll use that instead. We go through each letter, and the child with that letter gets to come put it up on the board during their turn. Yes, you will get kids that come put their stuff up out of turn and you can tell them not to do that til your face turns blue, but it's still going to happen. I will hand it back to them and if they keep doing it, I'll just keep it and set it off to the side until it's time for that letter.
Depending on the theme, I will also sometimes do other activities involving numbers, colors, or shapes. It involves extra time and effort to make these games, but it's always fun for the kids. For numbers, you could do something like making ladybugs with different numbers of spots and the kids have to bring up the ladybugs in order. If you have a good number of kids, you can also pass out cards with just the number on it. So as we go through number one, one kid will bring me up a ladybug to stick on the board and another will bring me a card that has the number 1 on it. For colors, you can make outlines/silhouettes of whatever that day's theme is either in felt or laminated cardstock to stick on the board. So if our theme is dinosaurs, I would make dinosaurs in different colors to pass out, then ask for all the kids with blue dinosaurs to come bring them up to the board, then red, green, etc. Same idea for shapes, pass out different shapes you've made then ask all the triangles to come up, then squares, circles, etc. You could also ask for specific colors and shapes only (i.e. I need a green rectangle). I will also have us build objects like a house where I would need a big square for the home and big triangle for the roof. Then smaller squares and rectangles for the doors, windows, etc. I use felt for these since felt can stick on top of each other easily.
If there is time left, I may read another book but by this time kids are usually pretty done and not paying attention anymore. We will sing If You're Happy And You Know It one more time, and then we're done! I let parents know about any upcoming programs we have and remind them that the books I put up on display for the theme are available for checkout. Congratulations, you just survived storytime!
Some other tips for you all:
Try not to let misbehaving kids distract you or ruin your mood. Kids this age are just not wired to sit down quietly for 30 minutes and listen to you. That's why it's important to take song and activity breaks, but sometimes there is just a kid that will not stop when you're trying to read or do an activity. I usually ignore it up to a point, then ask them nicely to stop and pay attention to what we're doing. Redirection is a big part of getting kids to focus. If the child still persists to the point that it's completely interrupting what I'm trying to do, I'll try to make eye contact with the parent and ask if they can get them.
Parents, it is ok to step outside of the room for a moment for your child to calm down and then come back in. I think a lot of parents get really embarrassed or feel like all eyes are on them if their child is acting up and then they may leave and never come back. But storytime is not only a place of learning early literacy, but also learning other things like following directions and socialization skills. And a child learns those things by seeing the correct behavior modeled by the other kids that may have been attending the program for a while, and by also having you correct their behavior as it happens. Now, every situation is different, but just remember that these kids are probably not maliciously trying to sabotage storytime (although it can feel like that sometimes haha). Try to be empathetic to the child and remember that you are here to teach them, so use this time as an opportunity to show them the proper way to behave. You must have endless amounts of patience for this job! Always try to keep your cool in front of the kids and parents, even though you may be inwardly seething lol.
Another seemingly simple tip is to make sure you have read the stories you have chosen aloud before the program begins. What seemed like a really cute rhyming story when reading it to yourself now becomes an absolute tongue twister when trying to say it aloud. Make sure the story sounds good when speaking it and you can get through it with no problems.
What if you have a story that is just a little too long or has 1 or 2 pages that you don't like even though it's otherwise a great book? You clip those pages together! I paperclip pages together all the time in my stories so I can easily skip right past them. Just make sure the story still makes sense if part of the story is omitted. Remember too that it's ok to change the words a little when you're reading it aloud if you don't like a certain word or line; the kids won't know the difference anyway.
I hope this post was a help to any of you are struggling with how to create or perform a storytime. I remember when I first started this position and felt like I had no clue what I was doing. I was obsessively researching on the internet ideas of what other people did (as I often do with all sorts of topics), and just feeling really inexperienced. Part of it is feeling prepared by researching the theme you've chosen for that day. What books, songs, games, activities, or crafts could you do that would be fun while also promoting early literacy? Part of it is just time, you have to keep practicing and doing storytimes in order to get better at it. You'll start to learn how to get a feel for the crowd that day, what kinds of books work better for different age groups, and what your style of storytime is. I have colleagues that use puppets or sing a capella, and it works great for them, but I wouldn't feel comfortable doing it myself. Make your storytime your own. Do what you feel comfortable doing, find the songs that you like, and the kinds of books that you like reading. If you are not an outgoing person, you probably don't want to read books that require really exaggerated and dramatic readings of it. And on the flip side, if you are an exuberant and peppy person, then sweet rhyming lullaby books may not be the best book choice for you. Do what you like. When it's obvious that you are enjoying storytime, then it will make it a much more relaxed and fun atmosphere for the kids.
My favorite storytime tools: