Practical Tips for Starting a Preschool Story Time Program at Your Library
This topic describes the basics of setting up a children's story hour in your community. I will share tips on how to organize your program and build successful relationships with your library, church, or school staff to make sure you get the help you need. This topic is relevant to any one who wants to start a regular story time program, regardless of where you meet.
Why We Need Preschool Story Time
I LOVE Story Time! When I moved to a small town in western Arizona, I offered my services as my community's story time presenter. I was inspired by the high-quality program offered by a certain children's librarian in Texas named Doreen, who had a loyal story time following of over 30 kids and their caregivers. I saw the difference she made in those children's lives, and what a great democratic (free and available to anyone) educational experience a quality story time program can offer, sharing children's picture books, music, and movement activities in any community-no matter what it's make up.
As families, teachers, and their communities spend a little more time and resources educating preschool-aged children, significantly fewer older elementary-aged children need education-related interventions. A high-quality story hour can set the tone for a child's educational experience, and even inspire positive lifelong attitudes about learning, and enhance reading skills in early primary grades while modelling positive common values.
This article includes some practical tips for you as you start up a program. I hope sharing what I learned as a story time presenter can benefit you as you start up a program in your own community.
Find a Host For Your Story Hour
Chances are that you have already identified a need in your community for a children's story hour. A local library (either a public library or school library) is the obvious organization to host it, but there are other choices too.
Your local library is the ideal host for your storytime program, because most libraries offer resources and internet access on site. Even poorly-funded libraries usually have access to interlibrary loan, so with proper planning, you can usually access the materials you need to make your program shine. Libraries are also neutral public places where people from all walks of life can meet.
City or Town Community Centers
Many cities' community development departments host children's classes in community centers or recreation rooms. Our town regularly offers classes through their community center at a local park, especially during the summer when children are out of school. Our town is on the lookout for quality children's programs, which they advertise at the library, the town hall, and the local newspaper. In our area, city-sponsored events are usually advertised quarterly, so plan and prepare accordingly. Call your city or town's government office to learn more.
Community and Civic Organizations
A variety of community organizations may also make great hosts for your story time program. Consider the following:
- Clubs. A Mother of Preschoolers (MOPS) chapter or similar organization could host your story time program as a direct outreach to mothers in their nursery during their scheduled monthly meetings, or as a regularly scheduled special event. MOPS groups focus on parent education, so the parents are very receptive to the message of early childhood literacy.
- Churches. If you live in an area where church-sponsored preschools are common, you might consider hosting a story hour at a church.
- Hospitals. Many hospitals have trusted volunteers who bring programming to ill children there. Other hospitals provide outreach events to their communities. I was surprised once when I visited a friend in a hospital to discover a local group was giving away children's books in the lobby.
- Preschools and Head Starts. Our local Head Start teacher invited me to read to the children in their classroom. This arrangement allowed the children there to have a storytime experience without bussing them or walking them over to the library, which wasn't big enough to accommodate them.
- YMCA's. YMCA's and Big Brothers, Big Sisters can act as a community hub, with extensive quality programming for children.
- Shelters. Women's and homeless shelters are another potential place to host a storytime. Keep in mind that these children have many additional special needs, so you would need to work closely with the expert at your sponsoring location.
Some Logistical Considerations
Schedule a Spacious Room
Your location is a key factor to your success. If you have the luxury of choosing where you will meet, look for a spacious room with a nearby restroom that will allow your small audience and their parents ease of movement. Many mothers bring their young toddlers to story time in strollers, so imagine what your room will look like with 12 strollers parked in it. Other mothers will have babies in addition to their toddlers, so it is nice to provide them a place to sit near the action.
If you add a craft to your story hour, you will need access to children's craft tables and flooring that you can easily clean up. It is a plus to be able to store your craft supplies in a closet or cabinet near your meeting room. You will probably need to ask for a dedicated space for these things, unless you plan to tote them from home every single week, which I do not recommend.
Your library may have restrictions about using food or other types of craft items. Make sure to find out if the room you are using is shared with another group. You will probably need to arrange with your hosting library to make sure this room will always be available during the time you set. Our library had one room that they used for public meetings, so we had to be scheduled on a special calendar, even though the story time program was a regular part of the library's programming.
Things to consider when choosing a time to meet
If your story hour is geared to an audience under age 5, you should consider having the story time during school hours, with breaks that are consistent with local school holidays.
If you wish to outreach to working families, a Saturday or evening meeting time may work better. Keep in mind that most young children have very early bedtimes, and nap during the afternoon. Our scheduled time was Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m.-not too early, not too late, and not too close to lunch time. Maybe my advice at this level seems a bit inane, but it speaks directly to whether or not your children will actually show up!
A Sample List of Themes for Fall
Plan a Calendar of Story Hour Themes
Plan your calendar of story themes at least one to two months in advance. You need this advance time to plan special guest readers and storytellers, and to ensure you can get the books you want to read. Pull your holiday-themed books from circulation about two weeks before your story time program is scheduled so that they will be available during reading times. Usually you will need a bit of time to select high-quality books that complement your theme, or to select a theme that complements the high-quality books you want to read to children. I usually tried to plan about 4 times a year. This gave me a forward-looking plan and plenty of time to find appropriate books to read. You will want to post this calendar in a visible location at the library. You may find it useful to group your themes each month. For example, since March is Read Across America month, you might want to make all of your themes related to some of the great Dr. Seuss books out there.
Build Some Easy Projects into Your Craft Schedule
If you choose to include a craft time in your story hour, careful planning and expectation setting can save you a lot of headaches. Most children under age 5 have limited cutting, gluing, and coloring skills. And most children and their accompanying adults don't listen very closely to complicated directions. If your story hour meets weekly and you have 25 children who regularly attend, you need to pace yourself, because story time crafts can take on a life of their own. Don't stress yourself out. Most parents don't let their children play with Play Doh at home. Having a steady supply of play dough and tools to squish, roll, and imprint it will provide lots of fun to your preschool-aged crowd, and takes very little preparation and clean up. I suggest that you have a Play Doh week, a coloring week, and perhaps two crafting weeks. Keep crafts really simple. If your library has a die-cut machine, use it. And remember that most of the crafts kids make don't make it out of their cars or diaper bags.
Leverage Your Volunteer Relationships
If you are creating a story time program within an organization as a volunteer, you will need to know and understand your sponsoring organization's volunteer policies. As a story time presenter, you will be representing your library, hospital, or school to the public, AND interacting with very young children in a supervised situation.
Nowadays, public organizations routinely run background checks when volunteers are going to be in a position of trust. Expect to fill out a form identifying information about your background. Some places also ask for personal references. Don't be too surprised, it is standard practice, especially in larger organizations.
It is an important show of respect, as well as just plain smart, to ask your sponsoring library if they have volunteer guidelines.
Questions to ask your library representative
- What resources in the library may I use?
- Is the area I use for story time going to be shared with other groups meeting in the same place?
- Where will I store my craft supplies?
- Will I have a budget?
- If I need to be reimbursed for materials, what is the process?
- Are there any restrictions I should be aware of, such as bringing in food?
- Who in your organization would you like me to work most closely with?
- Do you have a photocopier I may use? Are there usage limits?
Enlist Helpers and Experts for Your New Story Time Program
No man (or woman) is an island. Find a strongly supportive group of people to act as your story time team. If this is a volunteer job, (or even if it isn't), having help will increase the quality of your program and decrease your time commitment to the process. It is very easy to burn out without any help. If your story hour includes a craft, keep in mind that you will be preparing for a group of children each week. Unless crafting is your bliss, it is a great idea to have a partner who will manage this part of the program. Even very simple crafts require preparation.
Become friends with the staff where you present your story hour. Your ally on the staff may spend some extra time advising you on special books in the collection, or be able to provide resources you might not find on your own. If you build a rapport with the staff, they will also be more willing to place special purchase orders for books you want to use, or use the inter-library loan. Keep in mind that most librarians, like teachers, are overworked and underpaid. Try to be courteous and remember their time is limited.
If you are filling the position of a volunteer who has recently left, they may become a great mentor. In my situation, I had to stop volunteering because I had a baby and started a job. But I still believe strongly in the program and would have been happy to assist in some way.
Are you uncomfortable singing but would like to include music as part of your story time program? Ask for another bubbly volunteer to be the song leader. In our church's nursery, we have one person who just sings with the children. She effectively magnifies her position by using props.
A partnership between you and your local school is a strong win/win. Talk to kindergarten and first grade teachers at a local school who may be willing to share information with you. Our local elementary school is a Reading First school, so the staff there has had extensive training in teaching reading skills. They offer classes to parents of children at their school, and are eager to share their efforts with anyone who will listen. After all, the children who come to your story time program will be more prepared to learn in a teacher's classroom.
Finally, don't be afraid to ask the parents to help supervise craft sessions. If your group isn't economically distressed, most young parents are eager to get involved in any way that benefits their children, including bringing in craft supplies such as cotton balls, baby jars, paper cups, crayons, glue sticks, etc.
Advertise Your Story Hour
Before you know it, you really won't need advertising. But when you first begin a new story time program, it's a great idea to put the word out. Here are a few places to consider:
Ask for a Bulletin Board In The Library
Ask if you can have a bulletin board or a portion of the bulletin board in the children's area of your local library, or near the room where you meet. Use the board to post a schedule of planned story themes, book jackets, or anything else you can imagine that will draw attention to your program. One particularly fun bulletin board I made had matching felt mittens in a big jumble on a blue background. I saved the mittens for three years and used them each year.
Post on Community Announcement Boards
Make a flier to circulate on bulletin boards within your community in the form of an invitation. Laundromats, grocery stores, churches, preschools, and other public community areas are great places to post information.
Submit Articles to the Newspaper
Send a press release or a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, informing them about changes to your program and special events, such as guest visitors. With a well-written press release, you might get the paper to do a feature story on your program promoting reading. Consider sending press releases especially in March, which is the month when Read-Across-America promotes early childhood literacy, or during the beginning of your school district's summer vacation, when newspapers highlight summer programming for children. Our local newspaper also has a local clubs section which lists meeting times and events regularly for all kinds of organizations such as gardening clubs, Alcoholics Anonymous Groups, and yes, even Story Times. If your newspaper has a similar section, see that your program is added.
Ask your local elementary school principal if you can send home fliers about your story time program, or at least include information about your program in the lobby or library at the elementary.
Parent Teacher Associations
The national Parent Teacher Association (PTA) has a specific mandate to promote literacy, so most local PTA chapters would be happy to announce your program to their members. PTA members are usually parents or grandparents AND TEACHERS of school-aged children, who often have younger brothers and sisters at home.
Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS)
Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) is a national organization with chapters all over the country that promotes education for parents of preschoolers. Your local chapter would probably be thrilled to share a flier or to announce your program in its newsletter.
Put the Word Out
Talk it up. Tell as many people as you can that you are beginning a story time program for preschool children under age 5 at the library on Wednesdays at 10:30, for example. And ask your friends and neighbors to pass the information on to anyone who they think would benefit from your program. As parents begin to bring their children to the library, end your storytimes with an invitation to bring a friend.