Why I Use Themes for Baby Storytime

I know many people advise against having a theme for baby storytimes, on the grounds that “the babies don’t care,” and it’s easier to plan without one.

I’ve been planning and giving a weekly baby storytime for over 2 years now, and I’ve decided whether or not the babies have an opinion, *I* do! I continue to plan themes for my baby storytimes for a few reasons.

1) Working with a theme helps me make decisions about which of the hundreds of rhymes and songs I might do that day. Yes, this reason is for my benefit! But storytime is just one of the many things I do every week, and anything I can do to streamline my process is a good thing. I know there are storytime providers who find the exact opposite is true for them! If there’s no theme, they can just grab whatever they want and be ready to go. All I can tell you is, when I have that much leeway, it slows me down. There are too many choices to consider! When I start with a theme, I’m looking at a smaller subset of materials and it helps me plan faster.

2) Using a theme offers opportunities for repetition within that day’s storytime. Repetition is great for babies’ cognitive development. If we’re talking about Farm Animals, then we might have several chances to use the word “horse” over the course of the storytime. Hearing the same word in different contexts is one of the ways babies learn new vocabulary. So they might hear about a horse in “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” see a picture and hear the word again in the book Moo, Baa, La La La, and pretend to ride a horse when we play “Trot Trot to Boston.”

3) Here’s my favorite reason: having a theme makes it really easy for me to transition verbally from one activity to another, and model “baby conversational skills” to the caregivers. When I do storytime, I’m very conscious that I’m “on stage” giving a performance. I’d like that performance to be as smooth as possible. Without a theme, I personally wind up saying the same phrases as transitions over and over: “OK, that was great! Now let’s do a song/rhyme/bounce/book.” Over time, this starts to feel a little disjointed to me. When I use a theme, it’s easier for me to build little bridges from one activity to the next. For instance, after Moo, Baa, La La La, which ends with the words, “What do YOU say?” I might repeat that question, then refer back to one of the animals in the book and say, “What does a cow say?” After we’ve all said Moo! together, I’d say, “That was great! Let’s sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and we’ll listen to what some other animals say, too.” To me, this type of transition feels very smooth and keeps my storytime moving along at a steady pace.

Themed transitions like this also give me opportunities to model “how to talk to babies” to the caregivers. After singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” with a few puppets, I might get out the sheep puppet again and ask, “We just sang about this animal. Do you remember what it is?” Obviously most of the little ones aren’t going to answer! But I’m showing parents that you can ask them questions anyway. I ask a question, then pause (during which usually the grownups answer, which is great! They are modeling to their kids too!) Then I say, “Good job! It IS a sheep! A sheep grows soft wool to keep it warm.” This shows how caregivers can expand on short answers and provide their kids with even more vocabulary and language. Then I might keep the sheep in my lap and say, “Let’s sing a song about a sheep and some wool. Let’s sing “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

I don’t believe that this is the only way to do storytime, and I totally believe that you can plan efficiently and offer repetition and do smooth transitions and model how to build language skills without using a theme for baby storytimes. But it’s much easier for me if I do!

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12 Responses to Why I Use Themes for Baby Storytime

  1. Brianna says:

    This was very helpful for me! Thanks so much for the great ideas… I tend to be one of those that say the “that was great! Now let’s…” between stories and songs, so your transitions sound fantastic. I’m going to try that next week! 🙂

  2. Janet says:

    I have been doing an Infant Story Time for 1 year now and I do for 8 weeks the same songs. My Infant Story Time is full and the babies love it! (so do the moms) The last 15 min I do either the parachute, dancing and this summer I’d like to try scarves. The repition every week helps them to really learn the songs. By the end of the 8 weeks many of them can sing most of the songs with me. It’s truly awesome to see these babies grow and learn!

  3. Melissa says:

    Yes! I just had a mom today say about her 15-month-old: “He never seems like he’s paying attention & he walks all over the place, but he’s starting to do the motions of the songs at home!” I like your idea of repeating for a certain length of time–it’s a great way to get that repetition in and keep it fresh for you and the grown-ups. Yay!

  4. Dee says:

    Thank yuou for sharing your point of view on this, Melissa.

    As a parent, I now more fully understand some of the intricacies of Ms Krystal’s storytimes. I can see how valuable her choices are for me and my kids!

    She also does themes like you and her transitions are always soooo smooth and help make the program much more enjoyable. We leave storytime feeling as if we have actually spent the day on the farm or at the pond hunting for frogs. She always includes so many preschool literacy and math skills but she does it effortlessly through her book, song, fingerplay, and creative movement choices as well as her crafts.

    After reading your thoughts, I am even more impressed with this lady we are so lucky to have as our librarian! It sounds like your patrons are very lucky to have you, too! Where do you live?

    We sometimes attend other storytimes by other people and we haven’t enjoyed their programs as much. 🙁 I never really knew why we didn’t enjoy them but now I see that it’s because the programs were disjointed and choppy. They didn’t use a theme and their choices of songs and fingerplays just never really seemed “put together”. As a mom, I like the theme idea!

  5. Melissa says:

    Dee, thanks for visiting the site! I’m thrilled you have a storytime provider that you love and excited that you see just how much learning for your children is packed into every storytime they attend. We all have preferences for the type of storytime that works for us and for our families. I try to be careful to stress to the families I talk with that all storytime providers have different strengths and that there is no single best way to do storytime. For those of us who like themes, a storytime without one can feel, as you said, disjointed and choppy. However, for other families, sticking to a theme might feel too rigid and inflexible, and another type of storytime might feel more comfortable to them. Luckily, there are lots of different storytimes for lots of different families! I’m glad that this post helped clarify your thinking as to what works for your family!

  6. Carolyn says:

    I am so glad to read your reasons for theme-based Baby Storytime. I am in complete agreement. I am in my 11th year of providing Baby Storytime. I have always created each program based on a theme. Having been a preschool teacher first I am all about smooth transitions. Thanks for your blog. It’s a good read.

  7. Melissa says:

    Thanks for the kind words! I know this way works for me, and seems to work for my story time families; but I also know there’s more than one way to present great story times. I am impressed by your 11 years of baby story times & wish you the enthusiasm for many more!

  8. aime says:

    I also do babytime at a public library and the begining and the end are always the same, using a combination of rhymes and motions that I feel that the babies can learn over time by repetition. The middle is where I change the theme weekly, chickens, ducks, colors, hats, etc…. I just came across your website today. can’t wait to see what you have done too. I have been doing it for a couple of years, I have anywhere from 15-20 babies + moms and caregivers. aime’

  9. Melissa says:

    Hi Aimé! Sounds like you have a really nice group for baby storytimes at your library! I haven’t been posting too many new baby storytimes this winter, but you can check the Baby Storytime category tag for some older plans. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Library Lady says:

    Interesting thoughts on this.

    I have been doing “Mother Goose Time” for the toddler set (I don’t do stuff for the under 1s) for about 14 or 15 years and I don’t use books or flannel boards.

    I’ve just seen too many “story times” where the librarian is earnestly trying to read a book to a group of ones and they just mill about, touching the book, examining the contents of other peoples diaper bags, everything EXCEPT following the story. And usually while they’re doing so, the parents/nannies are chatting among themselves and NOT interacting with the kids. Not my idea of fun at all.

    So my program is a circle time with the focus on parents/nannies interacting with their children, and my goal is to get them to GO HOME AND DO IT THERE–just as I did with my own girls. As I tell the parents–the program is the icing–THEY are the cake!

    I don’t do themes per se. There are basic opening and closing rhymes, and I have to do the animal puppets and “Wheels on the Bus” every week. But the other games/rhymes change with the seasons, and we repeat a lot from week to week. It’s fun watching the kids catch on to their favorites.

    (And I often hear that kids who sit quietly on their parent/nanny’s lap during the program are the ones who want to sing ALL the songs at home. That’s why they go home with song sheets periodically…)

  11. Melissa says:

    Thanks, Library Lady for your thoughtful response! I meant to respond to you sooner!

    Absolutely I agree that baby storytime is for the grownups, to help them learn rhymes and songs they can do with their kids at home during the entire rest of the week they are not in storytime!

    I know what you mean about the babies and toddlers not following the story and being distracted. It’s a good point. In my storytime, I am super fortunate to have a really engaged group of parents–so even if the little ones are paying attention to something else momentarily, the grown ups are still paying attention, to me and to their kids.

    Because I know they are attentive, and because I consider them my main audience, I like to include books in my storytime for a few reasons: I like showing the parents what are good books for this age (and I have 0-24months so it’s quite a spread), and if the kids are REALLY not tuned in, I like modeling how to skip pages or end the book early, both of which I do regularly. I also like modeling how to ask open ended questions, even of young toddlers and babies who won’t yet respond verbally.

    So I always have one or two books in storytime for those reasons, and fill the rest of my 20 minutes with rhymes and songs and bounces.

    Wish I could see one of your storytimes! It sounds like they are super and I know I’d learn a lot!

  12. Francine Joy Allen says:

    Thank you, Melissa and everyone else for your insights on engaging babies and their caregivers. I’m a youth services librarian who is about to embark on a series of baby-toddler times, and I know I will find your advice useful.

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