Essential Elements of Storytime: Knowing Your Material

All professions have tools, and one mark of expertise is knowing how to choose the best tools for the job, and knowing how to use them well. For storytime providers, our tools include the books, songs, rhymes, and activities that we use in storytime. Selecting age-appropriate materials that work well for a group audience, and becoming thoroughly familiar with them, is a critical aspect of successful storytimes.

Know What Is Appropriate

To craft a storytime that is enjoyable and effective, we need to be aware of the characteristics of books, songs, and rhymes that make them developmentally appropriate for different ages of children.

I remember when I was just starting out with storytimes, and I wanted to share one of my favorite books with the group for a Food storytime. But “Bread and Jam for Frances” was just too long for the young preschoolers I had, and we were all drooping by the time I made it to the end of the story! Nowadays I save Frances for Kindergarten groups and choose stories like “All for Pie and Pie for All,” by David Martin for the younger kids.

I had a hard time writing this post, because there’s just so MUCH to say about selecting age-appropriate materials, and ultimately I can’t squeeze it all in to this post. But learning how long of a story a 1 year old group can sit through, versus a 3 year old group, versus a 5 year old group, is part of this process. We need to experiment, too, to find the right combination of stories for an all-ages or family storytime. And spending some time reading about what gross motor and fine motor skills a typical baby, toddler, or preschooler is likely to have mastered will help us choose fingerplays and action rhymes that will be enjoyable challenges and not frustrating experiences.

We also need to become familiar, through trial and error, with the kinds of materials that work well in a group setting. I love “Each Peach Pear Plum” by the Ahlbergs, but it’s too tricky for a large group–they can’t all get close enough to see the details and “spy” the characters the text is asking them to look for. Inviting one child to do all the motions in “From Head to Toe,” by Eric Carle, is a lot of fun–but when 20 kids are kicking like a donkey it’s a completely different situation!

So knowing our materials well and building an expertise for how they will work in a group helps create a successful storytime, but there’s another aspect of “knowing the material” that’s critical as well.

Memorize It

I know not everyone feels the same I as I do on this one, but I believe that the best presenters are the ones who do not have to look at their notes extensively or read song lyrics or rhymes off of cue cards. They know all the verses to the the songs they are going to sing. They’ve practiced all the motions to the fingerplays. They have read their books at least a couple times before storytime–possibly dozens of times if it’s an old favorite.

It takes more effort and preparation to become this familiar with the material, but when we are, it helps us give better storytimes. This is because it frees us up to pay closer attention to the audience, and gauge their reactions and their engagement. We can make better eye contact with the children who are listening to us, which helps them stay focused. I also think when we have our songs and rhymes memorized, it’s easier for us to invest the words we say with more expression and give them a more dynamic reading…something else that helps keep young children’s attention on us. Last but not least, when we KNOW we know what we’re doing, we feel more confident, and that confidence translates to a more effective presentation (which is another one of my essential elements).

So knowing our stuff, is, I think, an essential element of successful storytimes. What are your thoughts? Let us know! And come back next week to find out what else is on my list!

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4 Responses to Essential Elements of Storytime: Knowing Your Material

  1. Lisa says:

    Why do you keep writing the posts I want to write, and doing it so much better than I would do them? 😀

    Well done, as always!!

  2. Melissa says:

    Thank you Lisa! That’s high praise coming from someone with as much experience as you have. 🙂

  3. Tracey says:

    The elements posts have been wonderful! So thoughtful and eloquent.
    On memorization: I wish I could do without my notes in storytime. However, even after many, many years of presenting storytimes, I have difficulty memorizing many rhymes/songs, due to a memory disorder. So, while I so feel it’s rather unprofessional, out of necessity I keep my notes and a list of what comes next handy, though hopefully just as prompts or in case of an emergency. Years ago, I began to sing head, shoulders, knees and toes and forgot the words! So to this day, I go though the body parts first before I sing (“show me your head, your shoulders, etc), as a prompt for myself, not so much for the kids, although of course, they don’t need to know that. 🙂

  4. Melissa says:

    Tracey, thanks for sharing…this is an important reminder that all of this stuff I am talking about is meaningless until it goes through our own personal filters. We all approach things in different ways and for different reasons, and have different priorities and goals. I love how you are adapting to your own needs by keeping your notes handy and by coming up with methods that help both you and the kids. I’ve forgotten words to songs too…more often I’ll totally space the tune I wanted to use, so I’ve learned to sing the first couple of lines of every song just before storytime starts. You know, this is totally another blog post…given that NONE of us are going to remember absolutely everything, what techniques do we use to keep ourselves on track unobtrusively?

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