Monday, December 23, 2013

Reflections on Library Service to Toddlers

I have been working with toddlers almost my entire adult life, but never in such great numbers or in such an unstructured environment as in the public library. For the purposes of this post, I am defining toddlers as children who walk but who have not yet passed their third birthday, because this is how I separated toddlers from babies and preschoolers when I asked folks to register for toddler story time. Below are some general lessons I have learned from interacting with toddlers both in and out of the story time room.

  • Toddler Tip #1: Communicate behavior expectations to parents and caregivers.
    Toddlers are just beginning to learn about boundaries, and their grown-ups are often just learning how to enforce them. While the rules of the library might seem like second nature to those of us who are in the library all day, that might not be the case for parents of toddlers. Instead of waiting for a rule to be broken before broaching the subject, the best thing to do is to make your behavior guidelines as clear and conspicuous as possible. A great way to do this is with signs, handouts, and story time announcements. And remember not to just focus on the negative. We do want to discourage running, removing shoes, and climbing shelves, but we also want to encourage enthusiastic story time participation and socializing with other kids during story time sessions. By letting the adults know what is and is not okay, we empower them to help their kids learn to follow those rules.
  • Toddler Tip #2: Don’t contribute to a meltdown.
    Being a toddler can be tough! Communication is still tricky for kids in this age range, and life is full of frustrations. Because of this, toddlers often have tantrums and meltdowns right in the library. While this is sometimes unavoidable, I have found that it is best for a librarian to make sure she is not contributing to the situation. I have always worked in libraries where eating has not been allowed. Not everyone knows this, though, so I have often been faced with the delicate situation of having to let a mom know her daughter isn't supposed to have that slice of banana she just handed her. I have worked with some staff members whose zero tolerance approach to eating would demand that Mom take that banana away from her child. I tend to be more lenient, telling the parent that she doesn't have to take the food away from the child right now, but that next time, she should be aware that food isn't allowed. Parents appreciate a little understanding, and that kind of goodwill gesture often makes them more likely to comply with rules in the future. (I also think it is sometimes easier to clean smooshed banana out of the carpet than it is to listen to the child scream for 30 minutes!)
  •  Toddler Tip #3: Provide opportunities for movement.
    Toddlers are busy people with loads of energy and short attention spans. One way to engage them is to put yourself in motion. Toddler story times are chaotic by definition, but movement activities provide a little method for the madness. Try repeating the same familiar action rhymes and songs at each session, using basic movements - clapping, stomping, tapping knees, nodding head, waving -  that most kids can learn to imitate fairly easily. Whereas in preschool story time, you might use movement activities to calm kids between books, in toddler story time, movement should be the main focus. Acting out books, dancing with scarves or other props, and generally keeping things high-energy keeps the kids focused and eases your frustrations when the kids just won't sit still for a book.
  • Toddler Tip #4: Bring enough for everyone.
    Toddlers love to handle things like puppets, crayons, flannel board pieces, and other story time and library props. To truly get them excited, provide individual copies of things for the kids to handle. In my toddler story times, there is always one segment where every child gets to hold onto a prop as we dance and sing. The kids don't tend to be too particular about what they get to hold, as long as everyone gets one. I have used various foam shapes, homemade shaker eggs, hand puppets, and even paper snowflakes. To ensure that everything comes back to you with minimal fuss, turn cleaning up into a game and make it a routine part of story time. We always sing a clean-up song then applaud loudly when everything is put away. (But remember - meltdowns happen easily, so if one child wants to hang onto his foam star a little bit longer, it's usually best to just let him do that until story time is over.)
  • Toddler Tip #5: Go with the flow.
    Toddlers are the least predictable library patrons, with the possible exception of teens and the mentally ill. Planning toddler programming can seem like a headache, especially if you expect your plan to come off without a hitch. The best way to interact with toddlers is to follow their lead. If it's a sleepy kind of day, play quieter games and read a few cozy books. If everyone's climbing the walls, it might be a day to save the books and instead take out shakers, the parachute, or some bubbles. 
By having lots of toddler-friendly activities in your arsenal, and being prepared to let a few things go to keep the peace, your library will be a place where toddlers are free to explore, learn, and be themselves, and where they will gain a love of reading that will far outlast their tricky toddler years.
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