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All About Adaptive Storytimes

by Christen Higgins

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

Many libraries have storytime programs for children of all ages. There are, however, children for whom the traditional storytime environment isn’t a good fit. For these children, an adaptive storytime could be just right. Charlotte Mecklenburg Library took into consideration the city’s large special needs population -- and the lack of library programming for them -- and determined there was a definite need for specialized programs for this populace.

What are adaptive storytimes?

Adaptive storytimes are storytimes that are modified to accommodate patrons with developmental disabilities or sensory integration issues. These storytimes make sure to consider the special needs of the patrons and provide a fun and safe environment for them to enjoy storytime with their caregivers. These storytimes are not just for children. Separate adaptive storytimes have also been a great resource for adults with developmental disabilities. These programs require prior registration, an effective way to ensure adequate space and resources for participants.

How to Structure

Create a soothing atmosphere. Ensure the children's safety with a smaller, contained space. Keep music and voices are at a lower volume because many of the attendees have sensory integration issues, especially with loud and sudden noises. Limit the audience number to a lower number than a typical storytime, which is usually around 25 children. Having a smaller number of attendees, around 10, gives the program a cozy, intimate atmosphere that is soothing to the participants.

Flexibility is key. When doing an adaptive storytime, it’s important to bring a big selection of books, songs, and activities since you’re not always sure what will work best for your audience that day. Be prepared to abandon anything that isn’t working and move on to the next activity or book. Try repeating the same tale with books and songs. Jane Cabrera makes some lovely book versions of popular rhymes/songs so you can first sing a song and then read through it.

Communicate what's going to happen. Add a visual schedule to a dry erase board or portable flannel board. Laminated squares with activity words and pictures such as “Hello,” “Book,” “Song,” and “Goodbye” can let your audience know what to expect during their time with you.  While the stories themselves may be a little shorter than average, the actual duration of the adaptive storytime is usually the same as typical storytimes. Reference remaining activities throughout the storytime to remind the children what comes next.

Choosing Books: Include the Familiar

When choosing books for your adaptive storytime, look for tried-and-true classics that the children likely already know. Having familiarity with a subject or story is comforting for children with special needs. Use an anchor story or song every week, or read one story from the last session to chain together the experiences in the children’s mind. Monthly themes can also be a great way to give consistency to your storytime experiences. I like to use books that build on popular concepts like colors, numbers, and sounds.

My top five books for adaptive storytime are:

  • Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss -- Repetition and rhyming with some great opportunities to get audience participation
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. -- Predictable narration with the bonus of animals and colors
  • Today is Monday by Eric Carle --  Days of the week, with a fun rhythm
  • Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. -- Letters of the alphabet coupled with fun actions
  • The Seals on the Bus by Lenny Hort -- A fun twist on a classic song with animal sounds galore

Wordless picture books (such as Color Zoo by Lois Ehlert) can also be used effectively during your storytime. The vibrant pictures capture children's attention, allowing you to really focus on describing what you see and sharing it with your audience.

Integrate Music and Movement

Music always makes a great addition to storytime, and adaptive storytimes are no different. Make sure to choose songs that aren’t too loud, fast, or strenuous, since your goal is to get participants to move but not to over-stimulate them. Try to find songs that contain the same words or subjects as your books. If you read On Top of Spaghetti by Paul Brett Johnson, play Tom Glazer’s edition of the song and let the kids sing along. Repetition builds familiarity and gives the kids time to practice the lyrics or movements, so try to include songs that repeat important phrases.

My top five songs for adaptive storytime are:

  • "The Wheels on the Bus"-- Raffi (Rise and Shine)
  • "Itsy Bitsy Spider" -- Mr. Eric and Mr. Michael (Yummy Yellow)
  • "My Dog Rags" -- Bob McGrath (Sing Along with Bob #1)
  • "Walk and Walk and Walk and You Stop!"-- Rainbow Songs (When You Are One!)
  • "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" -- Cedermont Kids (100 Singalong Songs for Kids)

Incorporate Manipulatives and Technology

I have a small puppet or other item (such as bean bags) available for audience members to hold during longer stories. I also try to use scarves or ribbons along with music. An iPad can add an extra dimension to your stories. I love using Keezy to easily record sounds on the fly. This works well for Old MacDonald’s animal sounds or the swishy sounds for "Going on a Bear Hunt.” Board book versions of your books will give your audience a tactile way to participate in the story and are sturdy enough to pass around the audience.

Once your storytime concludes, caregivers often enjoy being able to spend some time chatting while their charges play. The ImaginOn branch consistently schedules extra time at the end of their storytime to incorporate this socializing time and puts out manipulative and literacy toys specifically for this purpose.

Adaptive storytimes are a wonderful way to open storytime up to both children and adults with special needs and are a valuable addition to the program offerings of any library system. You may only attract a small following, but these attendees and their caretakers will be a loyal and consistent audience. Charlotte Mecklenburg Library provides multiple opportunities to attend an adaptive storytime at branches throughout the system. These programs are currently offered during the school year and are planned to continue each year. This is also a great way to expand outreach programs. Our library has partnered with the Parks and Recreation Department and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to offer students on the autism spectrum a library experience in their school classes and summer camps.

Programs are currently listed as Sensory Storytimes and Adaptive Storytimes on the library website.  The programs are advertised on flyers in the branches, occasionally showcased on social media, and also brought to the attention of local support and advocacy organizations that serve the special needs population of Mecklenburg County.


To find potential titles for singing along in storytime, cut/paste this search string into the NoveList search bar:

GN Songs AND (AP "Big and Bold" OR AP "Colorful" OR RV "read-aloud") AND RL 8

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Christen Higgins worked for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library as a programming library service specialist for more than 5 years before transitioning to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as a media specialist. She considers herself the Willy Wonka of library services because she believes libraries are like a factory full of treats. (She’s also slightly crazy and loves top hats.)