Inclusive Storytime

Early Childhood Expertise for Inclusive Library Environments and Programs: Space and Behavior Management

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

This article shows how children’s librarians can transform Storytime programs and other group activities in their library Children’s Rooms and make them accessible to everyone.

Inclusive Environment and Storytime

When a library system decides to work inclusively with young patrons age three to eight who may have experienced trauma or are challenging to others because of their behavior, all children’s librarians need to do before starting a new program is build confidence in the environment they create.

The physical and emotional sense of belonging to a specific space, to a group of people, and to a story is fundamental for many young patrons.

Stimuli and Storytime

Children in the digital age are exposed to chaotic overstimulation.
While slight stimuli trigger curiosity and moderate stimuli develop it, stronger stimuli often inhibit such development and, ultimately, excessive stimuli can destroy it.

The safest environment for an inclusive Storytime avoids strong or excessive stimuli, invites discovery and enjoyment of slight and moderate stimuli.

NYPL children’s librarians experience different stimuli physically and emotionally

Body, Form, Behavior, and Storytime

In general, before reading, everyone needs to prepare their safe environment, physically and emotionally.

Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room.
[…] Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally. Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find. In the old days, they used to read standing up, at a lectern. People were accustomed to standing on their feet, without moving. They rested like that when they were tired of horseback riding.
[…] With your feet in the stirrups, you should feel quite comfortable for reading; having your feet up is the first condition for enjoying a read. Well, what are you waiting for? Stretch your legs, go ahead and put your feet on a cushion, on two cushions, on the arms of the sofa, on the wings of the chair, on the coffee table, on the desk, on the piano, on the globe. Take your shoes off first. If you want to, put your feet up; if not, put them back. Now don’t stand there with your shoes in one hand and the book in the other. Adjust the light so you won’t strain your eyes. Do it now, because once you’re absorbed in reading there will be no budging you. Make sure the page isn’t in shadow, a clotting of black letters on a gray background, uniform as a pack of mice; but be careful that the light cast on it isn’t too strong, doesn’t glare on the cruel white of the paper, gnawing at the shadows of the letters as in a southern noonday. Try to foresee now everything that might make you interrupt your reading. Cigarettes within reach, if you smoke, and the ashtray. Anything else? Do you have to pee? All right, you know best.
[…] Now. Yes, you are in your room, calm; you open the book to page one, no, to the last page, first you want to see how long it is. It’s not too long, fortunately.
[…] You turn the book over in your hands, you scan the sentences on the back of the jacket, generic phrases that don’t say a great deal. So much the better, there is no message that indiscreetly outshouts the message that the book itself must communicate directly, that you must extract from the book, however much or little it may be. Of course, this circling of the book, too, this reading around it before reading inside it, is a part of the pleasure in a new book, but like all preliminary pleasures, it has its optimal duration if you want it to serve as a thrust toward the more substantial pleasure of the consummation of the act, namely the reading of the book. So here you are now, ready to attack the first lines of the first page.

In If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979) introductory chapter, Italo Calvino shares habits of human behavior that can help you, a children’s librarian, to envision the incredible variety of approaches to the reading experience of your library patrons.
Think of your audience now, then go back to Calvino’s quote: how many times have you seen young patrons curled up or lying flat? How many times have you thought “If I had a cushion, two cushions,” or “If they only could take their shoes off!” Certainly, “the ideal position for reading is something you can never find,” but everyone deserves to get as close as possible to a form that makes reading, reading out loud, or “listening to Storytime” very comfortable, in particular the young patrons we, you, and your library system, want to support in their physical and social-emotional development.

Feeling Comfortable During Storytime: Acknowledging Transitions

Every person’s body has a unique way of feeling comfortable. Physical comfort is often also emotional comfort. Before Storytime begins, every young patron along with their caregivers — in particular those who are new to a program — experience a series of transitions that may influence their behavior.
Transitions are also a part of the environment children’s librarians need to be aware of.

NYPL children’s librarian Andrea Grassi works on possible Storytime environments

Entering an unknown building; taking an elevator or climbing stairs; meeting new children and adults; managing the excitement of their caregiver; trying to make sense of the situation and the space; following some new rules; listening to too many suggestions or commands voiced by the adults. Children in libraries are exposed to these and many more transitions. Clearly, after all these events, young patrons need some time to rest, reflect, and get organized, autonomously.

Therefore, the time before Storytime is when the success of your program begins. Make sure children at the library enjoy some physical and emotional rest as soon as they arrive. Don’t pressure them with over-excited greetings and cheering. Give them time to join you and your environment.

Opening Storytime Rituals and Body Language

Try to welcome families and caregivers first as they arrive at the children’s section: the little ones may be already overwhelmed at that point. Families and chaperons make Storytime a successful event simply by coming to the library with their kids. They deserve your attention and warm welcome. When accompanied children see this, they will sense an open, friendly librarian; they will appreciate hearing and seeing hosts being warm and kind to their caregivers.

Many children who are generally anxious, or act in an oppositional mood, or seem withdrawn need to feel safe in the environment by knowing who else is sharing the library with them. Adults belong to the audience too and need to support you and their children in creating a safe environment.
Every upcoming step in this article pays attention to the active presence of adult patrons attending a program with their children.

This is how your program may start; instead of asking for attention by clapping hands loudly, or acting confusedly, use eye contact and gentle, simple, clear body language to invite the adults to form a large circle on the ground — or on a carpet, on pillows, or stools. Children can gather afterward and build an inner circle while sitting, curling up, or lying flat in front of their caregiver. This way every participant can look at everyone and acknowledge who belongs to the group. It’s not necessary that every young patron joins the circle before you start talking to your audience. Those who need more time will join when they feel ready. Make sure their caregivers stay in the circle without feeling embarrassed, and avoid calling the missing child loudly, or beginning a disruptive chase.

By following these steps you will also test your confidence in the environment and measure your emotional pressure in performance situations. Time is on your side, everybody is on your side. You are the host, director, and manager of a beautiful event.

Storytime Materials and Props that Help

Based on the moods and the needs of your audience, there are a few techniques you could use to make the opening even smoother and enhance curiosity.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

You can gather your audience by filling the space with a very soft, warm, and delicate sound like that of a tuning fork.

Whistling or humming a melody while preparing your books and props and happily looking at your audience will also quietly attract your patrons to join the magic.

How to Use Sensory Bags in Storytime

Depending on the size of the group, age, and needs of your patrons, you may decide to use sensory bags in your opening, or/and also in the transition between two stories.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

You can distribute one small size fabric bag to each adult patron while they are forming a circle. Following your act, your audience can use the empty bag as a puppet and also as a brush. The bag is an object that enhances imagination, strengthens relationships, enables calming-down or self-regulatory rituals. Adults can handle the bag and massage their little ones, but children are also allowed to oversee the operation and interact with their caregivers. By using the physical space of each body and connecting people through a narrative structure or a story, this experience helps you to check if the environment you’ve created fits with the upcoming reading time.

You can prepare the Storytime environment by spreading bags which have a soft cloth or scarf inside them all over the rug. This experience focuses on building a stronger bond between you and the young patrons. In this case, it’s not necessary to build a circle in advance. While acting, as you are the narrator and facilitator, invite children to discover the content of the lying bags by leaving them on the ground and just inserting fingers and freeing fine motor skills.
All this can also be guided by using body language only. Please, avoid talking in an instructive tone.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Pull out the bag content gently. Then, slowly, reveal the cloth by exaggerating simple tactile gestures. Calmly and happily, walk your audience to the climax — the most intense and exciting point — of this experience.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Throw the cloth towards the ceiling. By doing this, you won’t need to change the volume of your voice. Flying cloths/scarfs will fill the space with your patrons’ emotions. This experience helps you to measure the social and emotional ability of each young patron to act within a group and collaborate with others.

After the children have had enough time to play throwing scarfs in the air, it’s time to experience how to relax and rest. Lightly drop the cloth to the ground and begin with massaging it as shown in the picture below.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Describe what you are doing by whispering simple words. Once the cloth has “rested,” only if the audience seems to need more rest, you can use it to massage yourself.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Then, fold the cloth gently, put it back in the bag, and put the bag on the ground in front of you. Now the bag has turned into a place card: move forward to sit on it. Look at your patrons. Smile.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Belonging to a defined place — one’s own place, the right place — and being sure of having completed a task before transitioning to the next activity is crucial for many young patrons.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

I owe the idea of working with cloths to NYPL children’s librarian Amy Chang who, after a series of professional development sessions I hosted for over thirty New York Public Library branches, sent me this feedback:

Last October, I did a Storytime for a group of preschoolers. It was their first visit of the school year and I had never met these kids before. My storytimes are usually high energy with lots of movement and songs. I remember you asked me why I needed so much energy in my storytimes and I confessed that I felt inadequate without.
This group of kids were super energetic and getting crazier and crazier. And I was getting more and more tired. Then I remembered what you said about calming overstimulated kids with their senses and using stories outside of books.
So I gave everyone a colorful scarf and told them that their scarf was tired from all the fun activities. I asked them to lay the scarf open on their outstretched lap and help their scarf fall asleep. I told everyone to pet the scarf gently and feel the scratchy fabric and to speak quietly to their scarves. I could not believe how well it worked!! The kids calmed down immediately and were focused on touching the fabric of their scarves.
I ended the storytime quietly and the class went back to school, calmly and quietly. Considering how energetic they were earlier, this was a miracle.
I definitely feel like your workshop helped me in my moment of chaos. Thank you so much for all that you do and I’m slowly looking for more way to incorporate your style of storytelling into my activities.

Read Also: Embodied Learning, Four Months with the New York Public Library Children’s Librarians

Pace, Environment, and Transitions in Storytime

Now it’s time to begin your story. The past experience has shown you how important the alternation of climaxes and quiet moments of rest is. Often, stories for children are written by following this alternation. The rhythm of the story, a sort of narrative breathing, may inspire the pace of your whole program.

When you prepare a Storytime session make sure to follow a model like this:

As you see, ace, and g are quiet moments and bd, and f are climaxes.

By using the examples I have given you in this article, let’s say that “a” is the calm welcoming ritual to the library, “b” is the moment when the scarfs fly in the air, “c” is the time when you and your audience are massaging the cloth on the ground and sitting on it. “D” will be the most exciting point of the first story you read and “e” will be the end of the story. “F” is a movement related activity between the first and the second story, “g” is the time when you rest from that activity and restart the reading.
The transitions between climaxes and quiet moments of rest — and vice versa — during a Storytime program may be the hardest times for some children.

Be careful with the clarity of your message, make sure that everything which happens between the opening ritual and story, between story and activity, and, again, between activity and second story is simple, and has both a well-defined beginning and end. No young patron should be left in an unclear or abrupt situation where they may start wondering — or worrying — what’s going to happen next, or why a specific action or activity had to be interrupted even if it was a lot of fun.

Between Stories

While visiting many Storytime sessions in library branches in different library systems nationwide, I’ve noticed that many librarians use a parachute as final activity. When I asked why they play “parachute” at the end of Storytime the large majority told me that a few children get disruptive while using that item and it’s hard to keep the environment safe and manage the rest of Storytime if the activity is placed in the middle of the program.

Considering the importance of movement, collaboration, interaction, self-regulation, and relationship for inclusive Storytime, you may like a no-cost new type of parachute you can build with your audience and use anytime during your program. It’s made of recyclable material: newspapers.

Building a newspaper “parachute” — Pennsylvania Library Association Children’s Librarians Conference 2018

Build your new parachute directly during Storytime. Invite your audience to form a big circle. With their help lay as many sheets as necessary to cover the area within the circle on the ground. Connect the sheets using tape and make sure to leave some open spots in the texture. When this “big blanket with holes” is built, welcome every participant to gently grab the edge and lift it lightly.

Experiencing the levity of a newspaper made “parachute” — PALA Children’s Librarians Conference 2018

Patrons will definitely need time to handle the fragility of the material and get confident with the new experience. It feels very different from playing with a regular parachute. Instead of pulling and leaning back vigorously, this item can “fly” by holding and waving it very gently. Once your audience looks ready to move forward, you can invite some children and adults to crawl under the big paper blanket and enjoy the giant newspaper wave from below. After this step, you can release a few small-size balls on the surface and let them run across the big newspaper body.

Pennsylvania Library Association Children’s Librarians Conference, Hershey, 2018

Those who hold and move the blanket will start making sure that the balls keep moving; those who are lying or sitting under the newspaper blanket will start collecting the balls that fall into the open spots and, most likely, will throw them back on top of the “parachute” through the same spots.

Pennsylvania Library Association Children’s Librarians Conference, Hershey, 2018

You can end this game by calmly collecting the balls, one after the other, by inviting people under the blanket to rejoin the crowd who is holding the edges of the blanket, and by guiding everyone to lay the giant newspaper on the ground. In doing so, the construction easily turns into a newspaper carpet patrons can sit on to continue enjoying Storytime.

This is the most complete way to foster participation, dialogue, movement, and sensory learning based on mutual trust, spatial organization, and social competence in groups.

If you are looking for one on one activities to set up in smaller groups and in particular to strengthen the relationship between child and caregiver, you may want to implement the Body Xylophone.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

The original instrument I designed is made of light wood of different sizes and two mullets built using twigs and old squash balls.

Body Xylophone and relationship. Houston, TX, The Parish School. Photo: Amanda Arnold

The first target groups were children whose behavior seemed withdrawn and isolated or children who may have experienced sensory processing disorder. The idea was to foster enjoyment through percussion and pleasure in perceiving the whole body through oscillations.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Many librarians asked me to develop a less “dangerous” body xylophone considering the liability rules a public library system has to follow. We solved the issue by using parts of cardboard boxes folded in a shape that mimics a double harmonic box.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

The Body Xylophone is a fantastically interactive instrument that offers multiple creative and useful ideas in an environment designed for growing early literacy experiences. Sound and vibration, in relation to the coordination and dialogue of different parts of the body, are at the core of the process of discovering one’s own voice and vocabulary.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Read Also: Embodied Learning, No Cost Learning Environments for Young Children in Libraries

When a Story Pops Out of a Book

I’d love to share two ideas for those who are looking for more inclusive, interactive, and effective alternatives to the easel, which provide a more experiential Storytime.

How a Story is built
If you think that your audience would appreciate more guidance through the narration of a story, you can always add building blocks as a visible and tangible tool that beats the time of the events scattered across the book’s pages.
While reading, when you’re about to turn the first page, grab a large size building block that you put next to you or you’ve hidden behind you in advance and place it on the ground between you and your audience.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Then turn the page and continue reading. The next time you have to turn page, grab a medium size building block and add it on top of the large size one.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Repeat this operation every time you turn pages by using smaller blocks time after time.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

At the end of the story, you’ll have built a tower that shows the structure of the whole story.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Alternatively, you can look for stories whose illustrations match or are reminiscent of your blocks and use these also as characters. My favorite is Pezzettino by Leo Lionni.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Early Literacy in Plexiglass
In the infinite variations of how to tell or read a story during inclusive Storytime, you can add this version with plexiglass tiles.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

It’s all about selecting story elements you want to build into the narration, paint them on plexiglass, and use these transparent, combinable layers to invent or play a story.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

This is a great way to invite children to relax and invent their own stories while lying comfortably on the ground, fostering their senses, coordination, and creativity. Transparency helps the storyteller — you during Storytime, children once you decide to leave the plexiglass props in your Children’s Room — to connect with the audience, to interact calmly, and to enjoy the freedom of changing a story following imaginative or more rational pathways.

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Share your Storytime experiences with Embodied Learning!

Send me your feedback or questions about the implementation of these ideas.