Pacing a Toddler Storytime

You all know I have a soft spot in my heart for toddler storytime.  I encourage you to check out the posts on our storytime resources page to learn more about how I plan, what books I read, what felt stories work, what songs I sing, and how I incorporate props.  But recently something about how I do toddler storytime has changed and it has everything to do with pacing.

Awhile ago I read a book by Megan Dowd Lambert called Reading Picture Books with Kids. That link will take you to my review of the book and why I think every person doing storytime should read it.  It taught me how to read picture books with kids and the value of slowing down while reading. Over the past year I’ve taken that philosophy and applied it to toddler storytime in general. If there is one thing I could teach my former storytime self it would be to SLOW DOWN.

I think there is an unspoken pressure to try and cram as many components into a storytime as possible. Read three books! Sing 10 songs! Do two felt stories! Bust out the puppets and the egg shakers and the scarves! And don’t forget the bubbles! While all of those things are great to feature in storytime, we do our toddlers a disservice when our pace quickens in order to get it all in.  When you look at toddler brain development and language acquisition, you find that toddlers need:

  • Repetition: They learn through repeated singing and reading of the same songs, rhymes, and stories.
  • Time to Think Before Responding: When you ask a toddler a question you need to give them time to process the question and then form an answer. I like asking yes or no questions or questions with two choices in toddler storytime because those are the first types of questions toddlers learn to answer.  You may not get a chorus of yeses, but adding in an extra 10 seconds to your wait time will help you slow down.
  • Serve and Return Conversations and Sentence Elongation: Babies begin learning language through the conversations adults have with them. We ask a question, pause, listen to them gurgle and coo, and then respond back. This encourages them to keep making an effort at language. Toddlers also benefit from this serve and return model. You can add in sentence elognation to build their vocabulary. For example, if they point to something and say, “bird!” then you can say, “Yes, it’s a bird. A big blue bird.” This helps build their vocabulary and understanding of how language works.

I’ve found that these things can’t all occur when I’m jumping from one song to the next without hardly a breathe in between.  Sometimes it feels like the only way to control the chaos is to just keep plowing through the material. Not only does that have the potential to further lose the attention of the toddlers, it also makes it hard for any newcomers or ESL attendees to follow along.

I’ve had a few people ask me to film my storytimes so they could see what slowing down really looks like. Unfortunately I am unable to film due to the privacy of my storytime attendees at the library. But I can provide a toddler storytime outline that describes where I take moments to pause and engage.  I didn’t include any props besides puppets in this storytime.  These 10 things take us 30 minutes.  Of course, this is just one way to do a toddler storytime and I am by no means an expert! This is just what has worked for me.

  1. Welcome Songs
    I’ve got big storytimes (60+ people), so I usually come into the room, walk around and say hello to everyone, and then start singing “Well Hello Everybody, Can You Touch Your Nose?” as a gathering song. It signals to caregivers that it’s time to start and it gets the kids engaged. We do at least five verses: touch your nose, clap your hands, stomp your feet, jump up high, sit back down. A few of them are always action-oriented.  If people are still coming in the door I’ll add a few more verses. Once we’re finished I do my welcome message (a modified version of #2 in this blog post) every single week – you never know who is new! Then we sing Hello, Friends and end by turning to the person sitting next to us and introducing ourselves with our names. Before we sing Hello, Friends I go over the signs for hello and friends every single week. I don’t rush this part. Because we’re a big group and can’t do songs that use people’s names, I really want to build in a chance for people to get to know each other.  It also helps slow down the pace of the storytime and gives caregivers a chance to get settled if they came in a few minutes late.
  2. Roly Poly
    At this point I used to jump right into my first book and with smaller groups that still works. But when I’ve got a big group I find that caregivers are still coming in at this point.  It makes it really hard for the toddlers to focus on a story when people are trying to find a seat. I do not blame caregivers at all! In fact, I always smile and welcome them in. It just means I sneak in another song before reading the first book. One way to slow down the pace of your storytime is to break down a song before singing it. With Roly Poly, first I have everyone hold up their hands, then we squeeze our hands and make a fist, then we put one hand over the other, and then we roll our hands. Toddlers get really excited because they know we are about to sing their favourite song.  Adding this step scaffolds the song in a developmentally appropriate way that makes it more accessible for toddlers.  We sing it at least two times through.
  3. Read a Book
    Don’t know what to read at toddler storytime? I’ve got you covered. Here’s part 1 and part 2 of my favourite read alouds for toddler storytime.  Here’s where I try really hard to consciously make an effort to slow down. Before we read we look at the cover and talk about what we see. I say the author and illustrator’s name and say something like, “She wrote the words and she drew the pictures.” When reading I keep my pace slow and steady and ask only a few questions as  I read.  Toddlers are at a language acquisition stage where pointing and labeling is key. So I point and label a lot of the images in the book. It’s also a great chance to use sentence elognation. You can ask what they see and then expand on the word they provide.  My favourite part is getting everybody to say, “The End!” together when we finish the book. I also love to hug the book when I’m done and say something about how much I love stories.  A really easy way to incorporate an early literacy tip in storytime is simply telling caregivers why you picked the book to read.
  4. Song with Felt Pieces
    To help toddlers match words with objects I put up pictures or felt pieces that match the songs we sing.  There are so many to choose from. Some of my favourites are Baby SharkSlippery Fish, Bananas Unite, or Knife, Fork, Spoon Spatula.  Rather than jump right into singing, I’ll pull out one of the felt pieces and say, “We’re going to sing a song now. And it’s a song about a….shark!” When we do Baby Shark I then take a moment to put the shark on the felt board, ask what colour it is, ask if they like sharks, etc. Here’s where it’s important to build in that wait time when you ask questions.  Once the song has been introduced then we start singing. If it’s a longer song like Baby Shark I’ll probably only do it once through, but for shorter songs I do them 2-3 times. I repeat these songs every week because that’s how toddlers learn.
  5. Felt Story
    My preference is to do a felt story version of the book we read. I’ve written about how to do one story many ways before and believe it offers toddlers a chance to practice the language and internalize the story featured in the book. If I can’t find a felt story version of the book then I’ll try to pick something thematically related to the book. Again, just as a way to build the vocabulary around a certain topic.  As with reading a book, I’ve tried hard to slow down my pacing with felt stories. I try to pick ones that have audience participation elements or repetitive phrases caregivers can say with me. Here are my favourite felt stories to use: Part 1 and Part 2.
  6. Zoom, Zoom, Zoom
    At this point we need to get up and move!  I like doing Zoom, Zoom, Zoom for multiple reasons. Firstly, toddlers love it.  Secondly, you can do multiple verses that encourage caregivers to play with lyrics. I made a felt set that helps me slow down my pacing.  Before we start singing I pull out the rocketship felt and say, “Wow, what is this? It’s a rocketship!  Where should we go in our rocketship?”  Then I pull out the moon piece and say, “The moon! It’s a big, round, yellow moon. Let’s go to the moon. First we need to warm up our engines.”  Then we rub our hands together and start singing.  We go to the stars and the sun. Before going to the sun we put on sunblock and sometimes our spacesuit. Adding in these elements slows down the pace naturally and allows toddlers a chance to process the language before you sing.
  7. My Two Hands
    This is my go-to transition song. I like it because the first part still has lots of action in it.  I use this one every week and once the toddlers learn it they are so into it.
  8. Farm Animal Puppet Song
    At this point I sometimes pull out scarves or shakers, but most of the time I feature some puppets. Puppets grab a toddler’s attention unlike a song itself.  I try to stick with familiar tunes like Old MacDonald or The Cows on the Farm Go Moo, Moo, Moo (Tune: Wheels on the Bus).  Then I rotate through different animals. I like throwing in an oddball animal like an octopus because it’s fun and gets the kids to help me think of the sound. To slow down my pace, I’ll pause between each verse and do a reveal game. Try pulling the puppet’s leg or tail out of your bag and asking what animal it could be. They love to guess and it gets caregivers to help their toddler focus their attention.
  9. Rain is Falling Down
    At this point we are nearing the end of storytime and the focus is on calming and settling.  Any lullaby or gentle song will do. I like Rain is Falling Down because you can have caregivers move their fingers down their child’s back or arms and then play peek-a-boo on the second verse. I’ve added a third verse about snow which goes, “Snow is falling down, shhhh.” Before singing this song I’ll put up the felt pieces that match the song and we’ll talk about making rain with our hands. After the song I put my hand on my heart and say, “My body is feeling nice and calm now. I feel very peaceful. How do you feel?” Build in some wait time to see if toddlers will answer.
  10. Goodbye Song
    And that brings us to the end!  We sing Goodbye, Friends three times through and then the kids come up to get their stamp. We’ve got lots of ideas for goodbye songs though.  In an attempt to get to know the kids I’ll ask them to say their name when they get a stamp, but realistically this doesn’t always happen with such big groups. Of course I walk around afterwards and talk to kids and caregivers one-on-one. I like to take the book we read with me and ask them if they liked it or just point to the cover and say, “We read a book about dinosaurs today. Big, green dinosaurs!” I’m all about modeling to caregivers.

And that fills 30 minutes. Sometimes I can get a second short or singable book in there, but usually not. And that’s okay! The focus for me is on strategies that cater to a toddler’s language development, enjoyment of stories, and caregiver participation.  In terms of repetition I will switch out the book and felt story from week to week but I keep all the songs the same for an 8-10 week session.

How do you pace your toddler storytimes? Any tips for slowing down? Please leave a comment with any thoughts!

14 thoughts on “Pacing a Toddler Storytime

  1. I love this post. Thanks so much for sharing this!

    1. Thank you! I was afraid it was too text heavy (it probably is!), but we get a lot of emails asking about pacing so I thought I’d write it up.

  2. I’m going to do my own two person story time based on this!

    1. Now that Sophie’s older, Nora can be my new rhyme and song babytime tester 🙂

  3. So useful! I’m doing storytimes for half an hour in my schools with the tiny ones and I’ve had zero training or practice. I’ve struggled on for the last year or so using some fo your songs and whatnot from YouTube as well as some fo my favourite books but I knew there was more to do I just didn’t know how. This is SO useful and is exactly what I’ve been looking for for the last few years! Thank you so much!

    Incidentally, have you found the picturebook ‘Shh! We Have a Plan!’ by Chris Haughton (not sure if it’s made it across the Pond or not). Every time I’ve used it I’ve found that by the end of the book I’m not even saying the words, the kids are doing it all for me! It’s very simple but so effective and so much fun, if you’ve not come across it it’s one of my all time favourites and every class so far has loved it!

    1. Oh wow, this is the best kind of feedback to receive! I’m so glad you found the post useful. I have heard of that book but never tried it in a storytime. I’ve put a hold on it and can’t wait to test it out. Thanks for the recommendation – I love learning from others too 🙂

    2. I just put Shh! We Have a Plan! on hold. I’m always looking for great books to do in my toddler storytime.

  4. YES YES YES! I’m staggered every time I see story time outlines featuring four or five books or even more books in a half hour toddler (or even preschooler) program – I’m sure they’re great programs, but I could never do them. I much prefer to take my time, and encourage interaction, even if things do sometimes get a little crazy. My storytimes also feature a very high percentage of ELL families, so racing through the material is just going to leave everyone lost! I want caregivers to feel confident repeating my programs at home, and repetition and pacing are vital to that.

    Thanks so much for sharing this!

    1. You are so welcome! I have a high percentage of ELL families too and it benefits them as well. Great minds think alike 🙂

  5. Jbrary is a wonder and we are so fortunate that you two share so much of your wisdom with us! I so appreciate this post, giving clear examples of your storytime. I do a weekly birth to 36 month storytime and often have 60+ attending, and I also find that one book is just right for this age. Many others do 2-3 books, but for my crowd more songs and fingerplays work best. Thanks for sharing your tips for introductions and transitions…always so helpful! Thanks for all you do!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Leslie! It really makes it all worth it to get this kind of feedback 🙂

  6. Thanks for this! We have a super busy toddler time here that just feels like chaos all the time and I am trying to rework it to be less of a dizzying whirlwind that makes me lose my voice. When you do flannel stories, do you do the same book you read that day. Like read Brown Bear Brown Bear and then do a felt song and then do a felt story of Brown Bear Brown bear?


    1. Repeating the book as a felt story is great for toddler’s language acquisition and growing understanding of narrative structure. So when it’s possible (i.e. I have both the felt and book version) I do like going that route. Sometimes I will do the book one week, the felt version the next week, and a puppet version the third week. I link to a few of the resources I’ve created around this topic in the list above under #5. The more toddlers know a story the more engaged they are and more likely to participate. You definitely don’t hear them complain about getting bored with the same thing (unlike some preschoolers who are ready for more of a challenge) 🙂

      1. I have done repeating a book in different formats over a series of weeks before (Inspired by Transforming Preschool Storytime by Betsy Diamant-Cohen) but I haven’t tried doing the same story in more than one way in the same session. Thanks for the quick response!

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