I run two storytimes on Wednesday mornings: Preschool Storytime (3.5-5 y.o.) at 10 am, and Toddler Time (20 mo-3.5 y.o. with a parent) at 11:30. In my library, Preschool Storytime is a big step up from Toddler Time. 1) Toddler storytime is about 25-30 minutes of storytime and 30-40 minutes of open play (we bring out tons of special toys and let them have at it). Preschool storytime is longer anywhere between 35-50 minutes of stories, songs, and rhymes. 2) Preschoolers are encouraged to leave their parents outside the storytime room.
In my experience, most parents don’t realize this is watershed moment in their child’s life: for many preschool storytimers this is their first group-learning environment without a familiar 1-on-1 caregiver. Sometimes kids who have been coming to storytime with their parents for a long time, get a little freaked out when they see the door shut, with Mommy outside the room. And since their emotional equilibrium is delicate at this age, one child’s anxiety can snowball into mass hysteria pretty quickly.
This can result a wide variety emotional responses. I divide them into three major categories:
Category A: Nutzo Preschool Antics
For the most part these are silly, hilarious kid stuff. They can be funny, and they’re always interesting. But when they’re all happening at once, and you’re the only grown-up in a room, they get pretty overwhelming. Here’s what I mean. Last session there was one girl (let’s call her Matilda**) who insisted on standing in front of every picture book I read, and pointing at the picture yelling the words she knows in English (whether or not they were relavant to the story): “Pancakes!” “Purple!” “Poo-Poo!”. I must have said, “Matilda, can you sit down on your bottom, please?” at least 20 times per storytime. Another kid, played musical chairs (substituting other children for the “chairs”). Another child tried to hide in storytime room cabinets. Once the other kids saw him do it, they all wanted to squeeze in. And of course, my all-time favorite was the obsession they developed with sitting in my chair. It got so bad that at some point every time I stood up, they would jump up make a beeline for my chair. The result looked like a pileup tackle on the gridiron.
Category B: The Emotional Roller Coaster
Last session, one of my former Toddler Timers was excited to transition into Preschool Storytime. His mom said that if his potty-training was successful, he could start coming to “big boy storytime with Miss Cate”. He talked about it for weeks. And on the first day, he came bouncing into the room, and immediately showed me his Buzz Lightyear underpants. But when the door shut I could see he was nervous.
He was a trooper though, and sat very quietly with his hands in his lap. This particular child isn’t the sit-quietly type; he always participates very enthusiastically. I could see he was struggling a little, but I didn’t want to put pressure on him or overwhelm him. I didn’t call him up or put demands on him.
About half-way through the storytime (precisely when the Toddler Time toys make their appearance) he came up to me, and with a quivering lip, ask, “Miss Cate, what about the toys?” My heart squinked painfully in my chest. I put my arm around him, and said, “Oh, buddy, the toys are for Toddler Time, we don’t use them in Preschool Storytime.” I turned my head away for just a moment, and when I turned back, these huge spring rain-sized tears were running down his cheeks. I gave him a big hug, and let him mourn for a second. Luckily his mom (who I know very well) was right outside the door. She came right in, I quietly said, “I don’t think he understood there wouldn’t be any toys in this storytime.” She got it right away, and took him out of the room to let him cry it out. Towards the end, he came back in the room, and finished storytime on a positive note.
Category 3: Fight or Flight
The most disruptive habit, however, occurs when a child decides they want to leave the room. Whether they need a potty break, drink of water, or they just miss Mom, I can’t just let them wander out on their own. I need to make sure there is a parent there to take them to the bathroom, and bring them back. If I’m the only adult in the room, then I have to stop the storytime to find the child’s parent. What’s more, if one child decides s/he wants to leave, they all get the urge to flee. This is no way to run a storytime.
Solutions: The Multi-Pronged Approach
This year, I am experimenting with different ways to managing preschooler craziness.
#1: Rules of the Room
First, I borrowed an idea from Miss Mary Liberry that she called described in an August blog post Storytime Norms: Now With Picture Cues. This was an excellent way to introduce “rules of conduct” as a concept. The first day, we discussed what rules mean, and why they are important. I made sure to have the sign on hand every week so that if kids were acting up, I could just say, “Matilda, what does this mean?” Each week we would go over the rules at the beginning of storytime, and do silly motions to go along with them.storytime rules
#2 Always Have a Wingman (or in this case Wing-librarian)
Whenever possible, I ask a co-worker to join us in for storytime. When things are running smoothly, she models storytime behavior, and participates in activities. But when things get out of hand, she can help put out fires: she can be a parent-fetcher when a child needs to leave the storytime room and/or when a child’s behavior is becoming disruptive. This year, we are very lucky to have an awesome intern, Ms Holly. One of her priorities is to learn the ropes of running a storytime. She has been a huge help, and has been a great “2nd adult” in the room. When she isn’t available the lovely Ms. Shelley has filled in.
#3 My New Preschool Storytime handout for parents
Finally, I wanted to communicate to parents that preschool storytime is a major transition for their children. This means that even if their child is excited about the prospect of preschool storytime, the adjustment can be difficult.
In preparation for the new session, I rewrote the handout I give to parents on the first day. My goal is let them know that I don’t expect perfection. I also want to communicate that, even though they aren’t required to be in the room, they’re not dropping their child off at daycare. I wanted to address the issues that are particular to library storytimes for this age group.
Preschool is a wonderful time. The children are so smart, imaginative, and ready for fun. Again there’s no way sure-fire way to make sure every storytime run smoothly. Chaos is a given!!! It keeps me on my toes. Everyday is a new opportunity to share my love of reading, singing, and silly dancing with a group of delight little rascals.
**All names have been changed to protect the privacy of storytimers