Monday, January 6, 2014

Reflections on Library Service to Preschoolers

Traditionally, the age group most likely to be served by a library is the preschool set - roughly ages 3 to 5. When I was a kid, there was always preschool story time, even if there were no programs for toddlers or babies, and some smaller libraries still only offer preschool story time today. Preschool classes also make regular visits to libraries, which means librarians interact with them in large numbers on a monthly - or sometimes even weekly - basis. Here are some basic tips for serving preschoolers' needs at the library.
  • Ask preschoolers open-ended questions.
    The main difference I notice between preschoolers and toddlers is that preschoolers are much more interested in expressing their feelings and opinions. Whereas a toddler might want to tell me that her dress is blue, a preschooler will want to tell me where she bought the dress, and when she wore it, and which of her friends has the same one in pink. Sometimes it can be overwhelming when 25 preschoolers want to tell you something all at once, but I've also found that talking to preschoolers about the things that interest them is one of the most rewarding parts of children's librarianship. To get kids talking - and working on their narrative skills - ask open-ended questions, both about their lives, and about the books you share with them. When doing an art project with preschoolers, ask them to tell you the story behind their pictures, and if you can, write down what they tell you so they can share it with their parents and caregivers. Give preschoolers room to speak up for themselves and enjoy the great anecdotes you will hear as a result!
  • Explain to preschoolers how the library works.
    Preschoolers are curious about everything, and they love knowing how the library works. When I have a slow moment at the children's desk, I will sometimes let a child test out a stamp or scan a book and I will explain to him what I use these tools for. When I take a child to the shelf to find a book he has requested, I try to explain to him which section we're looking in and why, and sometimes even how I might find the book on that particular shelf. Not every child absorbs everything the first time they hear it, but taking a few extra moments to engage the child in the process of using the library is a helpful practice that encourages their curiosity to grow as they age.
  • Ask preschoolers for their input.
    One of the nicest things about preschool story time is that it can easily become an interactive experience. With babies and toddlers, I plan out the movements and verses for action songs ahead of time, knowing they will need me to guide them. With preschoolers, though, I can let them make decisions about which animal they want to act like, or which part of their body they want to move next. I never make anyone participate who doesn't want to, but I do offer a turn to everyone and most of the time, every child in the room wants to share an idea before we move onto the next activity. Sometimes I might also let the kids vote on which book they'd like to hear next, thereby giving them even more of a reason to buy into story time.
  • Don't force music onto preschoolers.
    I don't know if the preschoolers I know are just unusual, but I've noticed that many of  them hate it when we sing at story time. Unless the song is funny, or allows them to play musical instruments, they often groan and beg to read another book instead of singing a song. I have never gone an entire preschool story time with no singing, because we always do a hello song, but with groups that I know are particularly against singing, I will throw in just one action rhyme in the middle of the story time and otherwise stick to reading. Obviously some preschoolers like to sing, but if they truly hate it, and tell you so, there's no harm in sticking to books and rhymes.
  • Never ask a group of preschoolers if they have a dog.
    This last piece of advice is somewhat facetious, but if you've never worked with preschoolers before, you might be surprised at how quickly a 30 minute story time gets away from you when the discussion of pets comes up. All it takes is one child to tell you he has a bulldog, and the next 22 kids have to tell you about bulldogs they have known, seen, or imagined. I have fallen into this trap a few times, particularly when we read a picture book about a cat or a dog, but there are ways out. Simply tell the kids you don't have time to hear about everyone's pet, so you'd like to get onto the story before you run out of time. You can also head the kids off by asking them to raise quiet hands if they do or do not have a dog. This way, everyone can quickly share, but you don't lose your entire story time to a discussion of  the time Grandma's dog ran away. When all else fails, distract them with an action song - preferably one with a lot of complicated moves. 
Preschoolers are just beginning to form their opinions about the world. By providing them with lots of opportunities for discussion and age-appropriate information about topics that interest them you not only help them learn to better express their thoughts, but you also help them form a positive opinion of libraries which will keep them coming back throughout childhood - and into adulthood, too!
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