Ask a Storytime Ninja: Disengaged Storytime Audience

Have you ever had a storytime where you feel like you’re the only one actually listening? What would you do with a consistent disengaged storytime audience? Our ninjas gave some great advice! Stick in their Question Asker, it will get better!


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The Question: 

I’ve just recently started delivering storytime at the library where I work as a reference assistant. I am a pretty nervous public speaker and I was a nervous-wreck before my first session of the six week toddler series. But I practiced like crazy so that I would know my stuff. It wasn’t nearly as nerve-wrecking as I expected.


However, I didn’t feel anyone was too engaged. There were about 10 of the 15 children registered who showed up, plus a few siblings and of course the parents. A few were very interested, they sat close and responded to my questions about the books and rhymes.


The next week, less than half of the children showed up. I was so disappointed! To make matters worse, just one of the children was interacting and responding. The parents didn’t express any interest and weren’t much engaged (during week one or two).


I don’t know what I am doing wrong. But it really has bothered me. I feel really detached from the children and parents despite the fact that I really love working with children. Maybe it is just because I am so new to this. Usually, I work with the children during big events or assisting with activities and generally with slightly older kids. But I really want to excel at storytime!


Please, any suggestions would mean so much!


The Answers


Shelley says:

I make a few announcements before we start class. Parents can use phones, but they must turn off ringers. I advise caregivers to participate so that the children will get more out of our time together since these caregivers are their major role models. Lastly, if the kids are upset, they should feel free to step out for a minute and come back.

Building a relationship with your class takes time. It may be that you need to retool the program a bit. Pick books that are participatory to get them involved. For example when I read the book Wolf’s Coming by Joe Kulka, we ring bells every time I read, “wolf’s coming!!!” in the story. It is really important to keep things moving to keep up with their attention spans. Changing one song that is too long or having back up stories that you know well in case things aren’t flowing may help. Read other librarian’s blogs to see what is working for them, it will spark ideas for your classes.
As far as attendance sometimes patrons take our free programs for granted which has nothing to do with your abilities, but can be utterly frustrating. I send an email to all caregivers who register telling them the dates, how to contact me, and what to expect from our classes. I also advise them that if they miss 2 classes without contact, we will give their spot to another child on the waitlist. From your question it shows you really want to succeed and you have heart so don’t give up.



Valerie says:

If you are new to working with children, I think the best piece of advice I can offer is this: children can seem completely disengaged when in fact they are absorbing everything around them. The ages that we normally work with in story time programs have usually not been to school yet, and so are not used to sitting still and paying attention as we know the concept. Don’t be discouraged!


What has worked wonders for me is scanning my books and projecting them onto a big screen. Kids love seeing the pictures in books, and this ensures everyone can see the pictures. It also offers a great opportunity to interact with the kids, asking questions like: “How many fish are on this page?” and circling them with the mouse as you count them. This can help with nerves too as the kids are looking at the screen/pictures more than at you.


Lisa says:

I went through the same thing long ago—we’d had a librarian who did incredible programs, right down to playing the guitar, and she left, leaving me as the sole programmer! I was petrified! I went in the first week and said—“I’m sorry I can’t play the guitar like Miss B, but I bet you don’t do that at home. Neither do I.” I kept one or two elements of her program—opening and closing things mostly—and then started doing things on my own. And I learned that I loved doing that age group and that I could do it well. Not the same program as “Miss B”, but my own special thing.
Odds are, people coming or not coming has little to do with your program. My programs are very popular locally, but some weeks everyone comes down with the same flu bug, or a new playgroup starts, or people are out of town. It happens. Don’t take it personally.
Building an audience takes time. You’re the new girl on the block. Give people a chance to find you. If word gets out that you are running a fun program, your audience will grow. And grow. And grow…


Two year olds are NOT toddlers, and there is a vast difference between a 24 month old, a 30 month old, and a 35 month old. But even that 24 month old is old enough to interact with their parents/caregivers and with you. They can sit and listen a bit, but they generally still have short attention spans, especially if they’re not involved in what you’re doing. A fly in the room will distract them. The kid who comes running up front to grab your book will inspire others to try the same. You can plan & practice, but things will happen!


So pick simple books without fussy illustrations. You want bold, clear pictures and uncomplicated plots. Twos love books about real things—farm animals, vehicles, stuff like that. As Shelley said, audience involvement is key. I’m not talking about “asking questions”—unless it’s part of the plot– but rather by having the kids react to things that are in the book. Think of the chorus “Bear Snores On,” or, “But he was STILL hungry!” in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I personally love books with songs. But don’t pick a book YOU don’t love—you are selling this book to your audience, and if you don’t like it, it won’t work.


Pack your programs with songs, action rhymes and movement. Books are vital, but a lot of twos get too much time sitting down in “classes”—and that includes library programs. More & more studies show the connection between large muscle and brain development. Get them up and moving and blowing off steam!


When you do this age group, you have to play to the parents/nannies as much as the kids. Look for ways they can participate actively—and ask them to do so. They are the role models for their kids–when the kids are up and moving, they need to be at least standing up.


Above all, roll with what happens. Expect the unexpected. This is the age group where things will seldom go just as you plan them—but that can be a fun thing, believe it or not!

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