One size fits all: storytime for under fives

Baby reading image

Having delivered several storytimes in my volunteer role at my local public library, recently I’ve been wondering how to engage all the children – pre-schoolers, toddlers AND babies – in the session. Unlike in America where it seems sessions are targeted to different age groups e.g.18months-3 years, in the UK most public libraries seem to offer a one size fits all session for under fives. This is in spite of the diverse needs of the children: a baby who wants to gaze at colours and shapes on a page, a toddler who really just wants to run around the library and a pre-schooler who is ready for a story with a beginning, middle and end. I’ve done a bit of thinking and had a look around the internet for ideas on how to tailor a session to cater to the needs of all children in the 0-5 age group, but I’d be really keen to hear from any pros out there who might also have some tips. 

 Manage expectations:

In her insightful article Secrets of Storytime: 10 Tips for Great Sessions from a 40-year Pro Nell Colburn suggests making it clear from the outset what is expected/not expected from both adult carers and the children during the session (btw Colburn’s article is full of other fantastic storytime tips – well worth a read). For example asking adults to turn their phones on silent and letting everyone know it is ok for toddlers to wander off during the stories. In a mixed age group storytime I think you could also remind everyone that you are catering to a range of ages and that you don’t expect each child to be engaged fully with every story. You could briefly explain the different needs of the age ranges e.g. that babies often like to look at contrasting colours and are interested in the facial expressions of the reader whilst older children enjoy rhymes and joining in with the story. Although it might seem obvious, not all adult carers will have considered the needs of children who are a different age to their own. By stating the reminder at the outset might this create a sense of co-operation and teamwork which would make the storytime more inclusive and ultimately more enjoyable? Thoughts anyone?

Book selection:

Reading books in order to appeal to each of the age ranges in turn seems like a good idea: start with a very simple board book for the babies; followed by a picture book with rhymes, an interactive element or a very simple story for the toddlers; and finally a more detailed longer story for the older children before going back to a baby book again. The difficulty is keeping the babies’ and toddlers’ attention for the longer stories and the pre-schoolers interested in the baby books. In my sessions I’ve included books with flaps and invited the children to come up one at a time to open a flap. The books are simple and colourful enough to keep the babies focussed and the interaction of flap-opening is perfect for retaining the interest of the older children. This Youth Services Librarianship wiki suggests speeding up or abridging a book if you are losing the interest of the children.  Perhaps this is a way to make the longer stories more appealing to the littler ones? Does anyone have any other suggestions?

Songs and rhymes:

Always a good idea for any storytime as songs and rhymes give the session structure and allow the children regular intervals to make noise and move about.  With regards a mixed group I think they are especially important: nursery rhymes usually appeal to all the under fives. But also by alternating a story with a song or rhyme they act as little signposts that a new story is on the way: in a mixed age session the new story would appeal directly to a different age group.

So those are my thoughts, for now. We’d love to hear from you.  Any tips you can share with us?!

Lyn Denny




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