Storytime: Why I Don’t Use Themes

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have noticed that I don’t theme my regular weekly storytimes. I do theme Saturday Special Storytimes, often around a popular book or television character–but you aren’t often going to find a unifying theme during my regular weekly programs.

I get asked about this fairly frequently–it is the question I receive most often via email after wanting editable program files. How do I plan without a theme to ground the program? Why don’t I theme? My thoughts are below.

Storytime History

Everyone has a different storytime back story. Some great storytime bloggers and amazing librarians have been creating storytimes for much longer than I’ve been working in librarians. Themes work for many of them, and themes may work for you too–this isn’t a lesson in why you shouldn’t theme, just an explanation of what works for me.

To give some perspective on my point of view, pre-covid, I almost exclusively presented baby storytimes for ages 0-2. Many long-time storytime presenters will admit that theming baby storytimes is particularly tough. There are a limited number of books for that age range that work in a storytime setting, especially when I had large crowds that made board books impossible. There also aren’t too many songs that limit motions in a way that work for babies that may not yet be walking (while anything can be adapted, turning around, jumping, and running are actions often used in songs that aren’t traditionally motions babies can do, even with lots of adult help). Babies don’t have the attention span for many flannels. Repetition is key, and these storytimes are filled with bounces and tickles. For my in-person baby storytimes, I focused on repetition and structure instead of themes.

Also pre-covid, I filled in for other storytimes on occasion, picking up an outreach visit or substituting for a toddler or preschool storytime only once every few months. I started theming these–I had quite elaborate outreach visits planned often themed around an animal species. These were okay, but I quickly saw that my participants responded best to stuff they knew or stuff they could easily follow. Particularly when substituting, kids were already a little uncomfortable because I wasn’t their regular storytime presenter. Soon, I started to curate the material that received the best participant response, that I genuinely enjoyed, and that connected to early literacy skills appropriate for that age range. That core set of material didn’t necessarily go together–a book about dinosaurs followed by a retelling with a dog and puppet animals and a song about shaking in between. There was no overall message, but I could use this storytime at a 15-minute notice if needed, and I knew it would work well.

Enter covid times: suddenly I’m presenting storytime for all ages (virtually) once, twice, or on the very rare occasion, three times in one week. I could have used this time to create a core collection of themes for different ages with a list of content for each theme–but I chose to prioritize my time differently. While I started out with that content that was familiar to me and our patrons, I used this time to expand my storytime repertoire while also focusing on finding materials that worked well virtually, that I genuinely enjoyed, and that developed those early literacy skills that I knew would start to drop off during these very unusual times. For me, focusing my time on early literacy skills, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and diversity in content was more important than focusing on teaching (or forcing) a unified theme.

Why I Find Themes Limiting

There are plenty of great articles on this topic already, and I want to highlight a few of those first:

There are plenty of great reasons to theme your storytimes. Vocabulary development is a big one that I have to consciously think about adding into my not-themed storytimes, as it doesn’t flow into the conversation quite as well.

Another perk can be limiting the amount of content out there and helping you organize your plans as a presenter, though I am not a fan of using this as a reason to stay with themes. If you are on a cycle where you have the same kids week to week, it can be helpful to call back to something the week prior to make a connection rather than spending one week on dogs and the next on turtles. But, I’d also suggest thinking about narrowing down the large amount of storytime content differently. Rather than limiting the amount of content in the universe by selecting a theme, look at the content and yourself as a presenter. Do you flourish when you do a puppet activity? Does the group respond really well when you bring out a flannel set? Or do you secretly, absolutely, hate flannels? (That is okay too!)

I’m not trying to convince you to stop theming your storytimes, but I would like to convince every one of you to stop doing storytime activities that you genuinely don’t enjoy. It shows. If you hate flannels, that is fine. It doesn’t make you a bad librarian; in fact, you will be a stronger librarian for recognizing that and finding other ways to share that kind of content. If you aren’t comfortable with something, it shows. If you aren’t enjoying something, it shows. Even if your demeanor is just as chipper, your body language will reflect your frustration, and kids are experts at picking up at social cues. They will notice that their presenter isn’t fully engaged and doesn’t like the program, and they won’t want to come back.

A big exception that I want to note: generally, pick activities you are comfortable presenting. However, there are some topics that need to be discussed that may make you uncomfortable, but you need to discuss them anyway. Talk about topics like race in your storytimes. Be an example for caregivers about how they can talk to their kids about subjects that might make caregivers uncomfortable. Some great resources to get you started are Jessica Bratt’s Guest Post: Talking to Kids About Race in Storytime and the Let’s Talk About Race Toolkit and the toolkit itself. There are certain topics you need to be discussing in your programs, and that may mean pushing beyond your own personal “comfort zone.” Save your energy for the really important things instead of memorizing a three-page rhyme about a traffic light that can’t stop changing colors just because your theme of the week is traffic.

Back when I initially started theming my storytimes, music was my biggest enemy. I quickly gave up on the idea of having every single part of my storytime (except the opening and closing song) connect to my theme. I am not a person who enjoys free dancing or making up my own motions. Personally, I like having clear instructions to follow, and I like how following instructions teaches toddlers and preschoolers important skills. Some themes work better than others, but if I themed everything, all the time, when would I use Jump With Me by Bobs and Lolo again? Can I only use The Goldfish Song by Laurie Berkner twice a year, when I present a fish or ocean themed storytime?

Recently, I’ve been making an effort to diversity my storytime playlist. Promoting the voices of artists from marginalized communities is a higher priority for me than having my movement song connect to the book that I just read.

That word–“priority”–is the key to how you should plan your storytimes. Look at all of the different factors that you consider when creating your storytimes and prioritize them. You can keep your decisions personal but make a choice. Everything isn’t equal in storytime planning because every time you pick one thing over another, you are prioritizing the activity you chose. Some things that might be important to your storytime plans include:

  • Overall theme
  • Structure (what stays the same week to week)
  • Sharing voices from marginalized communities
  • Developmental appropriateness of content
  • Early literacy skills
  • Meeting state standards for early childhood development
  • Concept learning, such as a focus on the alphabet
  • Ready for Kindergarten skills
  • Audience enjoyment and engagement
  • What works best for your crowd size (very large, very small)
  • What works best with Your supplies
  • What works best virtually
  • What you have time to prep for
  • What you genuinely enjoy presenting
  • …what other factors affect your storytime planning?

Storytime Structure, Skills, Literacy Tips, and More

So how do I plan my storytimes? Well, my first step is a consistent structure. Generally, my storytime structure looks something like this:

This stays fairly consistent virtually when I am not getting participant feedback. In person, there is a bit more flexibility than this chart implies. Even with that flexibility, the core structure of my storytime is the same week to week, without fail. Virtual Toddler Storytime almost always looks like:

  • Welcome, Announcements
  • Opening Song
  • Early Literacy Conversation
  • Book
  • Movement Song
  • Rhyme or Fingerplay (most likely activity to drop)
  • Book Retelling with Props
  • Action Rhyme
  • Flannel
  • Closing Song

There is some variance, but that more often depends on the length of time those activities take up, or I will trade out an activity for a full month (instead of a flannel, we will end with a manipulative each week).

Storytime themers, I hear you! You can definitely theme and have a consistent structure each week. But, personally, I find this a little more difficult. I like that my storytime is that much more accessible by keeping this structure fairly rigid. Families know what kind of activity is coming next. If their child doesn’t like book retellings, turn the computer off after that week’s song. If they enter storytime late and we are dancing, today’s book was already read. It builds structure into the program that can be harder to stick with if I am trying to make a theme work. Maybe this theme has a particularly great flannel activity, but this month I am focusing on manipulatives instead of flannels. Or what if I just can’t come up with a great book to retell for my theme of choice? Sure, I can change my structure but that can throw off families who rely on that consistency. So, for me, consistent structure is a priority over theme.

But how do I sort my programming ideas? Enter my powerpoint. In person, I projected my storytime content onto slides behind me. Virtually, I don’t do that, but I have continued to make a powerpoint for each program so that I can keep track of what I did in a storytime and what I would like to share in the future.

My powerpoint for this week’s toddler storytime looks like this:

And my Toddler Storytime powerpoint that holds all of my content looks like this:

Slides are sorted by storytime element (early literacy tip, book, song, etc.). Each slide has the dates it was last used in the notes field (visible on the Bark George slide two images up).

Since we currently rotate storytime presenters each month, I start planning storytimes about 2-3 weeks before the new month begins. Typically this starts with a book for each week, since I make an effort to try new books at each program. Then, I start to look at what we cover in the books I selected. Are we identifying body parts? Practicing animal sounds? Completing certain large or small motions? What is already included and what hasn’t been covered yet in a particular program or in a full month?

Once I have an idea of what I want to add to my program–new fingerplays that don’t focus on counting to 5 or 10? a retelling featuring animal sounds? rhymes that focus on moving our upper body?–I look around the internet for new content, most often (lately) by watching random virtual storytime videos from other libraries. I use a combination of new material and old favorites depending what my commitments for each week look like (how much time I can dedicate to learning something new). I always focus on content that I genuinely enjoy using and learning. Do I find this rhyme fun? Then I’ll use it. Do I keep tripping over the words because I can’t get the rhythm right? Leave it behind.

Once I’ve laid out my storytimes for the month, I go back and look at each week and ask myself a few questions:

  • Does my storytime include elements of read, write, sing, talk, and play?
  • How many early literacy skills are included? (Vocabulary, Print Motivation, Print Awareness, Letter Knowledge, Phonological Awareness, Narrative Skills)
  • Have I included at least one voice from a marginalized community via a book character, book author, book illustrator, or musician?
  • Are we moving our whole bodies and practicing gross motor development?
  • What about fine motor skills? Do we practice small motions?
  • Is at least one other kindergarten readiness skill covered somewhere?

I don’t end up with a perfect storytime every week, and I’m not trying to check off every box on some large checklist. I give myself flexibility week of and day of too–I may have planned for a certain book, but morning of I really need something with a different tone. That may mean I’m not going to have the vocabulary development I was hoping for that week, but that is okay–don’t think of any of this as a reason to be hard on yourself for not covering everything in every storytime.

So, for me, the final product is a storytime where we shake our sillies out, read a book about monsters, jump with The Wiggles, identify animals eaten by one silly dog, and then roll down a hill with penguins. I’m not planning to start theming my storytimes soon–though I know many people love and thrive with themed programs. What is your preference? To theme or not to theme? Let me know in the comments below!

4 Comments

  1. Ooooh, I am always looking out for insights into the planning process of fellow “flow” storytimers! Thanks for sharing. Although themes give us the option to dive deeply into content area background knowledge and vocabulary, I think flow storytimes allow for more connections, which is also an important reading skill! And like you said, flow storytimes give you more flexibility and allows you to more easily incorporate the content that matters most to you (e.g. diverse books).

    I am on a quest to find the perfect flow storytime planning tool. I was having great success with Mindly and blogged about it here: https://storytimeinthestacks.com/2019/05/23/thursday-thoughts-planning-tools-for-plotters/. BUT then my phone died and Mindly doesn’t backup your data (all the storage is local) and I lost all my precious plans! *sob*

    Jessica

  2. Katherine says:

    Thank you for this and for all the information you share. I am not a librarian, but I lead virtual “playgroups” as part of my job as a parent/child advocate for Early Head Start. When we are in person, we must do two socialization gatherings each month for families in our home-based program. Due to Covid restrictions, we are doing these virtually. We follow a storytime type of model. I have struggled to plan them because themes for babies and toddlers often don’t make sense to them but are loved by adults. I appreciate reading why you don’t use themes and your thoughts resonate with me. I also am grateful for your focus on diversity and all the links you shared for other resources. We serve an incredibly diverse population, with families from many other countries and cultures. I am always looking for books that embody that, and, sadly, it isn’t easy. Your library is lucky to have you!

    • Thank you so much Katherine! Your playgroups sound fantastic. Themes definitely work great for some presenters–but they aren’t for everyone (especially me!), and I’m happy to find some other folks that feel the same way. For me, focusing on diversity and elevating marginalized voices has been where I’ve chosen to focus my energy, rather than trying to build a repertoire of themes. It is definitely possible to do both, but I like the freedom that a structure approach provides that allows me to more easily incorporate more unique offerings. Good luck with your programs, and please reach out if you ever want to chat!

  3. Pingback: Stuck on Storytime: Tips to Plan for Fall - ALSC Blog

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