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Storytime Toolbox

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Storytime Toolbox

by Ellen Norton

*This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Kids & Books.*

Storytime is a library staple, one of our most important. Storytimes give parents and children an excellent venue to learn and practice early literacy skills, bond with one another, and have fun. With so many important aspects to the program -- including staying up-to-date on best practices and keeping programs fun -- planning storytime can seem overwhelming. While it may seem like a lot, don’t worry! Storytime should be enjoyable for the participants and the programmer. Try these storytime toolbox tips to keep your program stress-free.


I lead weekly storytimes for 2-3-year-olds, a particularly wiggly age group. I usually start by shaking our wiggles out, followed by some counting to get kids in the zone for a book. I begin with my longest story, (attention spans are longest near the beginning of storytime). I include three books and break up each book with a fingerplay or action rhyme and also have the kids dance to at least one song per session. I plan extra fingerplays and action rhymes, because some days my crowd will not sit still while on other days, everyone is quiet and calm and fingerplays are a better fit for the mood. I stay flexible and use my plan more as a guideline than a hard/fast rule.

Choosing Books

There are many ways to organize storytime. I use a theme: for example, one week will be dogs, one week the color blue, etc. Themes help me to organize my thoughts and narrow down my book choices, but knowing that I can break the theme, (and nobody will care) is helpful.

More About Book Choices

Diverse books matter.  I try to choose gender-neutral titles and books with characters from diverse backgrounds. I want storytime to be a mirror and a window. Showing kids pictures of kids who look just like them is great, but showing different-looking kids is important too. 

The story is key. I read every book before I decide whether I want to use it for my storytime; some books are too long, or don’t flow well. 

Think of your audience. Choose your books based on the age group you’re presenting to. Five-year-olds are much more likely to enjoy a longer title like When Dinosaurs Came with Everything while two-year-olds hit their breaking point around the length of Rhyming Dust Bunnies.

Readability matters. I read my potential picks aloud to make sure the cadence works and the rhymes aren’t forced. Another way to judge readability is to try a book on a wiggly storytime group, and see if it holds their attention.

Music and Movement

Parents sometimes forget that singing, dancing, and playing are just as essential to early literacy as reading books. Working these fun practices into storytime creates teachable moments for parents.

I love to dance so I include dancing into every storytime. At the beginning of every song I tell everyone to stand up, and I encourage parents to participate, too: “Parents, let’s see you shake your sillies out too!” Sometimes I ask the kids to grab their grown-up for a song. My favorite songs are ones that explain what to do, like Jim Gill’s “Silly Dance Contest” and Greg and Steve’s “The Freeze,” but I also like to work in songs that parents might recognize, like “The Locomotion” or “The Twist.”

Fingerplays are another great way to work movement into storytime. Using old favorite fingerplays, like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” encourages parent participation. I display the words to the songs I use on a foam board so that parents can sing/play along. You'll find fingerplays online and can also uncover both new and old favorites through a quick search of Pinterest.

Let’s Get Ready to Read

ALA's Every Child Ready to Read 2 is the early literacy initiative used in libraries' storytimes nationwide. While ECRR2 may be a foreign acronym to parents, the concepts themselves (Singing, Talking, Reading, Writing and Playing) are simple and accessible, and storytime is a great place to show parents how easy literacy can be.

Singing. We sing songs at every session. We begin and end every session with a trusty favorite song, and if we learn a new song, we sing along with a cd. Singing helps kids to learn rhythm and beat and encourages language development by making it fun.

Talking. We talk a lot at storytime. Whenever I come across a word I think kids don’t know, I pause and ask them if they know what it means. Letting them express themselves gives them the opportunity to develop self-confidence and oral language practice that directly correlates to reading.

Reading. Those who do storytime are reading books, modeling reading, and encouraging a love of reading.  To further model the breakdown of language that kids will be doing as they learn to read, I display the word or letter that we are focusing on in large print on our felt board. I break the word down or talk about the letter’s sounds during the introduction.

Writing. Crafts are a great way to work writing in. No matter what craft I choose to do, I ask the kids to write their name.   With younger children who don’t yet know how to write, I encourage their caregiver to help them, or write the letters so the children can trace them. Even persuading children to hold a crayon is empowering them and working towards writing.

Playing. Imaginative play is not only a good time for everyone, but also a great way for children to develop social skills and gain the knowledge base they will need to understand stories when they begin to read independently. I work in play both during storytime, by using action rhymes such as “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” and by getting out books and toys to allow children to make new friends and play in the space once stories are finished.

STEM is the New Black

The components in the education initiative, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), can seem overwhelming to work into storytime but with a few tweaks it’s easy.

Science. One effective way to incorporate STEM is to use nonfiction titles. My storytime kids are enthralled with “real” pictures, and the factual information is a bonus. With the huge push to include STEM and nonfiction, it is easier than ever to find nonfiction titles that have a fun, interesting story arc, making these stories a natural storytime choice

Technology. I’m lucky to have access to iPads, so I work apps into my sessions. Some of my favorites include Felt Board, Animal Sounds, and Don’t Let the Pigeon Run this App. With large groups I hook the iPad up to my projector, but with smaller groups I display the app on the iPad screen and even allow kids to interact with it. However, if technology is not available, work around it. Try doing a “telephone” storytime, talking about different types of phones, how phones have changed, and playing the old-fashioned "Telephone" whisper game to incorporate technology.

Engineering. Engineering is something libraries already do. Blocks and Legos encourage children to build and create, and by challenging them to build a taller tower or a car that can roll further, you are highlighting engineering skills. Kids also loved using toothpicks and marshmallows to build giant towers and big squares, and eating the marshmallows was also popular!

Math. Counting is an excellent way to include mathematics in storytime with any age group. Before every storytime I count items with my group. I point to each object we are counting, and explain that we will first count forward, and we will all count together. Then we will count backwards together. If we are counting by twos, I explain that, we'll only count every other number and then we will all count together. We add items by counting each group, then counting the groups together to get a total. Talking about shapes is another great way to work in math, and tangram-style art projects give kids free reign to imagine while putting their math and engineering skills to use.

Keeping it Fresh

One of my favorite ways to do this is online, through following sites/blogs. Some of my personal favorites are “Storytime Katie,” “Jbrary,” “Mel’s Desk,” and “Awesome Storytime." Reading about what other librarians are doing helps me to try new ideas and use new materials.

Adding a “Stay and Play” program directly after storytime has also helped keep my storytime session fresh. I keep it simple: just pull out a bunch of toys. It’s great for kids to get to play with educational toys and build friendships with their peers and also gives parents a chance to socialize.

We noticed that after “Stay and Play” parents were not checking out books because their children were tired and hungry and they had already been at the library for over an hour. In response, we put together bags with 5 books per bag for parents to check out and take home. The bags allowed them to quickly check out books without having to sift through the collection. It is also a great way to expose patrons to different titles.

Storytime is meant to be an entertaining outlet for you and the kids in your community. Standards and requirements are helpful but the best part is when everyone has an enjoyable experience. If you’re having fun they most likely will, too!

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Ellen Norton is a children's librarian at the Naperville Public Library. She enjoys going on adventures, both in life and in books.