Sensory Storytime (for Librarians)

One of the things I am really interested in related to early childhood literacy is the topic of learning differences. I have had the tremendously enriching experience of working with children of varying ability levels and watching them in a classroom setting, where children with a wide range of behaviors and learning styles interact with the lesson and with one another. I have just grown to love and enjoy several of our littles who learn differently in one way or another, and I have watched them struggle and succeed in their own ways. So I have always wanted to think about how, in the library, we can accommodate our little friends who might have special needs in the behavioral/learning/sensory realm and make our early literacy activities more accessible and relevant to their learning styles.

I want to share with you today some things I am learning about accommodating children with these types of needs in our library programming.

First: I want to point out that I am referring to a very broad category of learner and that we must be aware that children with behavioral, learning, and sensory differences have different capabilities and will learn in different ways. I have heard it said many times: “If you know one child with autism, then you know one child with autism.” This holds true for all the various needs represented under this big umbrella. But this I believe: children with these kinds of differences can learn, and that will look different for each child, and it is a gift (not a burden) to go the extra mile to support learning for children with all kinds of needs.

So let’s talk about storytime. It is good to welcome all types of learners into our regular storytimes. But if we have the ability to provide sensory friendly storytime activities, we may find that it makes the parents of children with differences in these areas feel that we have taken the time to be aware of their needs. We can host more intimate storytimes that involve caregivers and help us establish relationships to meet the needs of parents and children. Sensory-friendly storytime can be inclusive of all children, but designed to meet the varying needs of our friends with special needs.

Here are some tips for sensory storytime that may help our participants with special needs engage with storytime.

  • Less “stuff” in the room to be distracting – bring the essentials
  • Opportunities to move around – more moving, less sitting
  • A sensory balance beam or wiggly sit-upon may help a child with kinetic needs; tag toys, fidgets, or other things to distract the hands may help a child seeking sensory input
  • A visual schedule which we explore at the beginning of storytime can help children know what to expect at every step of the way
  • More interaction, less be still and listen
  • Consider the goal to be participation, not mastery.

(These tips are from a conference handout by Esther Moberg of the Seaside Public Library.)

These special storytimes – whose goals and strategies might vary from those of traditional library storytimes – have several opportunities in store for us. We have an opportunity to meet the needs of people and families who sometimes feel excluded from the activities that more neurotypical kids do. Serving our neurodiverse population gives us a chance to be a safe and productive place to go for families who need resources. This is an opportunity for us to take our storytime goals and early literacy practices and shift them just a bit so that children have an opportunity to engage, and we should consider a child’s participation to be a win.

But additionally, we have an opportunity to engage families where they are – at the specific developmental stage of their particular child – so that we can support and enter in with their needs and struggles. This is at the core of the Touchpoints model of childhood development and early childhood services, and it is so relevant to our families with special needs. Some families don’t know how to do early literacy activities with a child who can’t sit still or seem to engage an activity for more than a minute or two at a time. We can show them that it’s okay and we can demonstrate exactly how you go about engaging their child in early literacy activities right where they are – and sometimes right where they are is rolling on the floor or walking on the sensory beam.

A little understanding will go a long way.

Here are some videos related to sensory storytime. I found them incredibly instructive and hope you will enjoy them too!

Sensory Story Time: A program for families of children with autism

Rhythm and Rhyme: A storytime for children with special needs and their families



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