Structuring Programs for Kids

Can we talk a little about program structure? I've read countless professional reference books about storytime and most of them recommend structuring your storytime so that the longest book is read first. That's a good plan if your idea of a good storytime is one where the kids sit quietly and you read. It's advice that has been less successful for me.

Remember my storytime philosophy?
I like interactive stories. But people of all ages, kids and adults, often need to be coaxed into participating. We don't do storytime registrations at my library, so I always have a different group at each program. Even if you require registration for your storytimes and the same people come each week, their moods will be different. Kids can be shy one minute and climbing all over you the next. 

I wanted to show you a little bit about how I decided to structure my shadow puppet program that I am doing over the winter school break this year. I'll be posting more about the stories from this program on the blog later, so stay tuned for that. The typical advice to start long and get progressively shorter as the kids' attention spans fade would leave me with a "set list" looking like this: 
  1. Mother Mother I Feel Sick Send for the Doctor Quick Quick Quick
  2. Arthur's Nose upcoming
  3. The Ant and The Grasshopper upcoming
  4. "My Shadow" from Shout! Little Poems that Roar
  5. "The Dog and His Bone" (patterns from Judy Sierra's Fantastic Theater: Puppets and Plays for Young Performers--amazing book!)
  6. "Shadow Wash" upcoming
I am dissatisfied with this approach for a few reasons:
  1. Always someone comes into my programs late and misses the beginning (and thus, the plot setup). That is a huge problem with a story many kids won't know already like Mother Mother. 
  2. Several of the stories rely on audience participation and you really need to prime the audience for that gradually. 
I decided to order the stories in a way that would allow people who do not come in on time to not miss the most important parts and so that people would gradually "warm up" to me as a storyteller and participate more.*

Another consideration was that I wanted to end with Arthur's Nose, as we have a tradition of letting the kids come up and play with the puppets after the show. I wanted them to be able to do that without breaking our overhead projector. So I needed to be able to wheel that out of the way before chaos broke lose. 

Here's what the set list looks like now: 
  1. "My Shadow" 
  2. "The Dog and His Bone"
  3. "Ant and the Grasshopper" 
  4. "Shadow Wash"
  5. Mother Mother I Feel Sick Send for the Doctor Quick Quick Quick
  6. Arthur's Nose
*I also use this trick with my recurring storytime pieces that I start each storytime with. "Open, Shut Them" has people simply moving their hands, "Little Mouse, Little Mouse" has the kids guessing colors, and finally they are ready to participate fully making animal noises and movements in "Let's Hear You Roar Like a Lion," the last lines of which prime them to settle down like mice.  

Now I'm curious: How do you structure your programs? What other factors come into play in putting together a "set list"? 


  1. I try to make sure that plenty of activity is interspersed throughout the program.
    We always start with the "Hello" song, so if people wander in then, that's fine. And then I gauge the kids. If I've got major wigglers, we IMMEDIATELY start with "Shake Your Sillies" or some such action song. If they're set to sit and listen, we'll start with a story.
    And if things are getting wiggly later on, I'll throw in more action and adjust the rest of the program accordingly.I write down the stories/songs/whatever I want to do before programs, but I tend to work on my feet and let the flow echo what I am getting off my audience.

    I think this is the sort of stuff that drives Type A personalities wild and I can't see how many of them can be happy children's librarians. :D

  2. I am all about adjusting as you go, too! I know some Type A people and now I'm picturing them as children's librarians, and in my head, it is not going too well for them. Ha.

  3. I have a very specific storytime plan, starting with wiggling, followed by a naming song, then a long story, more movement, nonfiction, movement, two short stories. I tape it to the board, see who shows up, and do what works for that day. Often we don't read the last story. Sometimes I'll abridge the nonfiction and longer books. Sometimes I'll throw in extra movement. Basically, I plan the heck out of my programs then go with the flow. Flexibility within structure.

  4. I pick a topic, choose some books I really love and some extension activities that require a lot of bouncing around, then put them into what seems like a logical progression. So, sometimes I might end with an action song, and sometimes I might end with a quiet book and some soft music. I do tend to put the longer books at the front of the program, but that's not because I think they'll be quietest at the beginning. It's because the longer books often give me the most room for coming up with questions to ask the kids, and we have a nice discussion time while we read the story. We might end up talking about a topic or character from the story, or I might ask a question and randomly get a story about how one little boy saw a really cool truck on the way to the library instead of a related answer. Either way, I make sure to listen and respond seriously, and the kids really respond to being taken seriously. They trust you more if they know you think their voices are important, and that helps them want to play along with the wacky songs and sound effects later. I *almost* always end with a craft. Today I had the kids start off with the craft, homemade kazoos, so they'd have kazoos to blow during our stories, which were all about music.

  5. I work with toddlers each week, a very active group :). I start off with a warm up stretch where we say good morning to our feet and hands. I enjoy the motion rhyme Criss Cross Applesauce next since the toddler needs to sit in front of the parent for this activity. We then read one or two board books together where each child gets a copy (I have up to 25 toddlers at each storytime) If we are still calm after this I will read a book. Then we are off to an activity, such as Lummi sticks or Hap Palmer's Teddy Bear Playtime. I try to fit in a flannel board or a puppet story before we end, and then we wiggle our sillies out to end storytime. In the spring I bring out a bubble gun, and toddlers play in the bubbles for 3 or 4 minutes. It is amazing how each storytime will feel so different, even though I use a formula. I’ve heard of toddler storytimes where there are 50 to 75 toddlers. I wouldn’t even know where to start ;).

  6. We also have no registration, no age restrictions, and no regulations as to whether parents stay or go. This leaves me with a constantly revolving group of kids and adults (I've realized that I like it that way!) that range from babies to four and occasionally five-year-olds. The energy levels and attention spans constantly are I plan for anything:). In general, I open with a song followed by a playful, rhyming stretch and then I typically ask questions relating to the theme about their lives and experiences. (Late comers straggle in...). Then we only share 3 books, starting from the most complicated to the least. Between each book we enjoy (usually) some combination of two songs, fingerplays, "wigglers" (rhymes or songs with our whole bodies), games, or activities relating to the book. Finally, we wrap it all up with a felt board story (everybody seems to be able to re-focus for these!) and a closing rhyme (I love Rob Reid's Wave Goodbye poem for this!) I short, I come prepared with a definite agenda in mind, and then fly by the seat of my pants as we inevitably change it up according to the mood, energy, and whim of the group. We are always a silly, highly interactive, book-loving bunch.


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