“Where are all these babies even coming from?”: Handling storytimes with giant crowds

Direct quote from a co-worker.

Originally, I didn’t even want to do storytime.

As a library aide (some places call this position a page), I wanted to put books away and generally be left alone. But my manager approached me and gave me the hard sell to go to storytime training. He claimed to believe I would be good at it – but what ultimately convinced me was his selling point that these would be extra paid hours, and if I hated it, we could leave it at that.

Sailor Moon No GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
You: Storytime will be fun! Me, an intellectual:

I did hate it. We did not leave it at that.

Next, he convinced me to shadow our children’s librarian for a few storytimes. Then, staffing issues meant there was no one else to do it – was it possible I could just cover this one? These two?

A sneaky, sneaky man, that manager. Also a great one.

Over time, I overcame my shyness and fear of public embarrassment, and now, in my eighth year as a storytimer (storytimist? storyometer?), I routinely have storytimes that reach 150-200 people at a time.

Halloween Storytime is An Ordeal at my library that usually tops 300 patrons.

When I started doing storytime regularly, I canvassed the internet for strategies on dealing with my increasingly unwieldy crowds, but didn’t find much. I found intricate storytime plans with matching crafts (or better, process art!), early learning stations, and songs that used every child’s name in alphabetical order. I got frustrated that I couldn’t find much for situations like mine.

If you, like me, have struggled to work with super-sized storytimes, read on! Unsurprisingly, I’ve got a lot to stay.

But first, a disclaimer.

How do you get such large attendance at your storytimes?

Sesame Street Idk GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I don’t know. I’m sorry. It just happens. I’m always excited for the rare day my attendance drops, because it means I can bust out the parachute. If you’re looking for advice on how to increase attendance, I am not your gal, because I do literally nothing. I don’t even advertise storytime anymore, because too many patrons were coming.

If you have strategies for boosting attendance, share them in the comments below! Help your fellow librarians out!

How big can a storytime get?

I’ve heard a few people express the opinion that a storytime can’t really be a genuinely enriching literacy activity if it’s over X number of patrons (solve for X! I’ve seen people set X to 10 patrons, or 30, or 60, so the math there is clearly still a work in progress).

At my current library, our storytime room has a fire-safety maximum of 263, so that’s what I limit my storytimes to (only on rare occasions do we get over 200. Please do not ask me about Halloween).

Why don’t you just offer more, smaller storytimes?

Listen. I’m only one Chelsey. My branch currently offers 6 weekly storytimes. I literally do not know how it would be humanly possible for us to offer more. Additionally, so far adding more storytimes has not made our crowds smaller, it’s just made our regular patrons happy to see us more often! Adding storytimes might thin out your crowds, but it didn’t work for me.

Can you really deliver quality early literacy programming to a group of 200?

Yes. If you currently sprinkle early literacy lessons in to your group of 10 kiddos and 10 caregivers, you might have to change your strategies, but it’s certainly possible.

With a large group, your number one method of teaching is modeling. Model good early literacy behavior, with an aside that explains it in very few words. This is not the time to use the words “phonological awareness.”

Girl What GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
I know what it means, and you know what it means, but does that mean it’s the best phrase for reaching out to caregivers in the moment?

I would argue that the most important lesson that storytime can teach a caregiver is that the caregiver is the child’s first teacher, and that the child only learns from them if the caregiver is engaged and present. Which is why I say this at every single storytime – so much so that most of my caregivers can say it with me 🙂

I might mention that a song’s movements helps to build strong bodies – and I’ll save the explanation about “crossing the midline” for a one-on-one conversation with an interested caregiver after storytime. I might say that we’re going to sing a slightly different version of the alphabet song to make it easier for kids to hear the letters, and then go into more detail with a local preschool teacher who follows up after.

If you model best practices, like asking engaging questions as you read, or repeating songs with slow, drawn out syllables, caregivers will bring home those practices because they see you do them, not because they understand the scientific research behind them. If you’ve ever had even a small group of caregivers tune out when you explain “print awareness” but perk up when you comically start to read a book upside-down, you know that not everything is best delivered as a lecture.

How do I make the best of my huge storytimes?

Step One: Let it go!

Let It Go GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Listen, this is never going to stop being a useful reference, okay?

First and foremost, you must be willing to ditch any of your preconceived notions of what a storytime “must” have and be, and be willing to experiment. Those hello songs where you use each child’s name are adorable, but impossible with large groups. Do you want to keep the song, and only ask for a couple of names before you start? Maybe, or maybe it’s time to try a new hello song.

Do you long to theme crafts to each storytime? It may not be possible or even practical with your large group. Ask yourself: what was this activity delivering to my patrons, and how can I deliver it another way? Crafts that focus on replicating an adult’s model aren’t strong educational or creative experiences anyway, so perhaps you won’t be losing much if you transition to a different activity, like an after-storytime play group that requires less set-up and specific materials but allows for more attendance and pro-social activity.

We still do art at my library, just not at storytime. I’m not a monster.

Step Two: Safety, safety, safety

I let in as many patrons as possible, because turning away large numbers of your patrons is not a good experience for anyone involved. That said, if your room can only safely hold a certain number of people (according to you, your manager, or your friendly local fire department) then that is your first priority.

Think about safety concerns with your big groups that you wouldn’t necessarily have with a small one, and get a consult from your fire chief or other expert if you have concerns. Do you need to mark down clear aisles in case of an emergency? Are strollers becoming a safety hazard? Is the room still ADA-friendly? How many exits do you have, and are they immediately visible, or should you point them out before storytime begins?

Hey Arnold Nicksplat GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Safety first. And second.

Especially if we have toddler storytimes in an uncontained space, I will ask all the grown-ups to keep an eye on anyone under three feet tall who’s about to become a runner, and to do their neighbor a solid and gently intervene until the caregiver can get across the crowded room. Our storytime room has a hallway that feeds straight to the front doors, and anyone with a toddler knows they can go from zero to parking lot in .3 seconds.

Step Three: Embrace your inner theater kid

If you are shy and soft of heart and gentle of demeanor, this might be the hardest to swing, but a big crowd can demand a certain amount of theatricality. Get up from your chair and be prepared to walk around the room with your book. Practice the words so you can deliver them with vigor. Look for books that let you do a little acting out – even if voices aren’t your thing, you might find yourself developing different gestures for a certain character or refrain. Prioritize books that let you, but also your patrons, do motions, make noises, and interact with the story.

Go on a Youtube deep dive for professional storytellers and children’s musicians. Take notes. Steal bits and pieces you like from their styles. These performers are eye-catching because of the way they alter their voice, move around a room, and make eye-contact throughout the audience. I am not so much an original storytimist as I am an amalgamation of everyone I’ve recklessly impersonated.

I love Clare Murphy and watched this story obsessively when I was learning to storytell without a book.

Step Four: We’re gonna need bigger props

Having a crowd of 200 means you have to work even harder to keep the audience attentive and engaged. I love to use props in my storytime – puppets, flannel boards, scarves, shakers, bells. They engage young and old and pull grown-ups out of those naughty side conversations that can interrupt your flow.

However, a lot of props that work great for a small storytime won’t translate to a crowded group. Are your flannel pieces actually big enough to be seen from the back? It’s probably time to retire the monkey mitt and it’s tiny finger puppets. And if you’ve been handing out props to kids one by one – delivering scarves or shakers or what have you – know that it’s going to take much, much longer to both hand out and collect these pieces than with a small group. I leave scarves and shakers at the entrance and let kids hold onto them the entire time – and if they’re egg-shakering the entire storytime, then so be it! Anything truly disruptive – like our hand bells – I save for the end of storytime so I only have to distribute, and not clean up.

Sesame Street Fainting GIF by moodman - Find & Share on GIPHY
Toddlers when I break out the puppets for Old MacDonald be like…

Step Five: Get a microphone.

Seriously. You need a microphone. No matter how well you think you project. In fact, you need a microphone for smaller storytimes, as well. Using a mic system allows your patrons who are hard-of-hearing a chance to get the same experience as your hearing patrons – and you might not always know who is who. My current library has a build-in mic system I use, but you can also pick up a portable mic and speaker on something like Amazon for around $100.

Step Six: Once More, With Feeling

Very little changes in my storytimes from week-to-week. In my toddler and preschool storytimes, we sing the same songs every week, except for one new song we learn each month. We cycle through three sets of props over three weeks (scarves, bells, shakers) but each prop has its own routine that we repeat. Only the books are new from week-to-week, and I’m a big repeater of favorite titles.

In baby storytime, I have a tight program that repeats every week – we always do welcome songs, a bilingual song, a book, more movement songs, a flannel, a puppet song, three lap bounces, and then prop songs and good-bye. Once a month, I rotate in and out a few songs – a new bilingual song, a new lap bounce – and every week, we read a new book, but largely we are doing the same thing, every single week.

I’ve never had a patron complain about the repetitiveness, though I expect I will at some point. I do hear from patrons all the time that their kiddos are picking up and repeating the songs at home, which shows me that they’re truly learning. We have a lot of ESL families in my community, and the repetition helps them as well, as they grapple with songs they didn’t grow up with in a language they’re still learning.

Steve Seriously GIF by Stranger Things - Find & Share on GIPHY
Join me for my Stranger Things storytime! It is not at all child-appropriate.

Repetition also increases the number of grown-ups in the crowd who know a song well and will join in. 200 people can be hard to keep together, but as soon as the first notes of Old MacDonald begin, almost everyone drops their side conversations and sings along.

Anytime I have a hard time keeping a crowd’s attention, I drop a book and sing more songs – well-loved, well-know songs, like The Wheels on the Bus, not librarian favorites, like Zoom Zoom Zoom (though I include these, too, at other times).

Step Seven: Can you play an instrument, though?

Seriously, can you? Playing it poorly is okay. Bang on a drum. Hit a triangle. Finally learn to play three chords on that ukulele in your closet (just two will work, even). Nothing brings a crowd together like an instrument.

Being a terrible ukulele player is the first step to becoming a slightly less embarrassing ukulele player.

Step Eight: Let it go (some more)

How do I get that one caregiver to stop talking during storytime (texting during storytime? Making calls during storytime? Shilling their multi-level marketing scheme during storytime?

I know this is a big concern among librarians – we want to be polite, we don’t like instigating confrontation, we want people to feel welcomed, but we also want them to shut the front door and pay attention!

My advice to you, if you have a storytime crowd over 40 or so, is to let it go. Give up. Grown-ups are going to talk during storytime. Oh well! Their loss. You can glare at them pointedly, you can talk to them afterwards, (please don’t make their kids shush them, that’s putting the kiddo in an unfair position of parenting their parent), but you’re probably never going to resolve the situation to your satisfaction. Like the hydra, once you cut off one chatty, cell-phone wielding head, another three appear.

Hail Hydra GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

You cannot force everyone to engage the way you want them to. If they’re disrupting the patrons around them, trust that your patrons will do what library patrons love to do, and let them shush each other. Remind yourself that you don’t know what is going on in your patrons’ lives – maybe they’re in the middle of a really rough teething patch, no one in the house is sleeping, and they need those three minutes to commiserate with a fellow grown-up during Itsy Bitsy Spider. With a big crowd, it is just not worth it to police every side conversation, every little piece of not ideal behavior. You will make yourself crazy trying to do so.

I make one statement at the beginning of every storytime: “Your child learns to engage with storytime if you’re engaging too. If you’re clapping and singing, they’re learning the songs and stories. If you’re on your cell phone, that’s what they’re learning.” And I leave it at that. It works.

What are your concerns about big storytimes?

Tell me in the comments!

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