Self-Directed Library Programs

Truth: I read and respond to 99% of comments left on this blog. That’s time out of your day you spent giving me feedback (for better or for worse!) and I value hearing from diverse perspectives.

I recently received a comment asking to update our Passive Programs Throw Down because most of the links are broken. The link graveyard is full, y’all. In this updated post I’m sharing self-directed activities for kids and families at the library. To narrow the scope I’ve chosen activities that feature a literacy element. A huge shout-out to all the library staff who allowed me to highlight their amazing ideas!

Paths and Obstacle Courses

You can set these up inside or outside, make them long or short, and infuse them with literary references. Can you flap like the Pigeon, anyone? Here’s two examples:

The Crown Point Community Library created this interactive obstacle course that fit their Tails and Tales summer reading theme. Shout out to Youth Services super star Elizabeth Barnes for bringing this to life! I love how it gives families the sense of play associated with the children’s area even while many of those spaces are limited in nature due to the pandemic. You could even scatter these paths around the entire library!

Youth Services Department Head Amanda Fack says they printed it on adhesive paper using a large format printer and secured it with water-resistant removable vinyl. You can get the full 75-page PDF right here!

Kelly and Marsha from the Northwest Regional Library in the Lee County Library System in Florida created similar foot paths chock full of literacy and numeracy. The affirmations at the beginning are the cherry on top. Check out these videos to follow along the back-to-school adventure!

You can download back-to-school path files here. They also created a Choose Your Own Adventure path with counting, alphabet, and animal routes. Click the links to watch each path:

Susana Lewis, children’s librarian at the San Luis Obispo Library in California used coloured masking tape and painter’s tape to create this tape maze. A super simple way to get kids exploring parts of the library they have never seen before!


There are so many interactive display ideas out there. I did this book character guessing game a few years ago and I’ve seen many new iterations shared on Pinterest over the years. In particular I like that it holds the possibility of exposing kids to new stories and piquing their interest in an unknown character.

Another easy-to-create display is I Spy. Sarah Shaw Almond, the former children’s librarian at Roland Public Library in Iowa created this bulletin board from old magazines, stickers, and leftover craft supplies. Each week she posted a a clue and kids could submit the answer for a prize. You could up the literacy element by giving clues that relate to letter sounds or rhymes.

And if you want to take your I Spy game to the next level, try creating a 3D version. Nicole Ozanich, Youth Services Librarian from the Portage County Public Library shared in the comments below how her library turned a front facing display window into an interactive display that families loved! What a great way to make use of the toys and furniture that have been gathering dust during the pandemic.

Scavenger Hunts

Let kids hunt around the library for themed pictures or objects. There are so many options out there! Here’s a few:

Spring Bunny Scavenger Hunt

Book Character Silhouette Scavenger Hunt

The Day the Crayons Quit Scavenger Hunt

The Great Character Book Hunt by The Lion is a Bookworm

Here’s a few more creative ideas for children’s librarians:

Writing Centres

Finding places where kids of all ages can stretch those finger muscles helps build kids’ identities as writers. I encourage libraries to find ways of showing off the writing kids do.

The youth services staff of the Clark County Public Library in Kentucky made this amazing Where the Wild Things Are colouring table. Book-based and collaborative – double win!

Over on Mel’s Desk you can find this Write Your Own Poetry activity. My favourite part is the writing is scaffolded by providing pre-cut words so kids with varying levels of literacy can participate. Bonus: you can immediately display the poems as part of the display.

Lastly, check out this post office station set up by Sturdy for Common Things. She included a question of the week, but kids could really take this as far as they want. I did something similar at my library one summer and we exchanged the “mailed” letters with another branch. In this post office activity from the Lexington Park Library Amanda Roberson shares how they took it up a notch by creating mail boxes belonging to book characters, set them up around the library, and allowed the kids to write letters AND deliver them. What a great way to add an element of imaginative play!

Do you have an amazing asynchronous activity kids and teens enjoy at your library? Please share your ideas in the comments!

26 thoughts on “Self-Directed Library Programs

  1. I love these ideas! Thank-you for sharing! We have done book character silhouettes in the past during summer reading and the kids had a lot of fun guessing them. I especially like the bunny scavenger hunt and think I will adapt it to use pumpkins for our October Spooktacular reading challenge.

    Something we have done for several years, well that is up until the pandemic, is hide our children’s department mascot in various places during the summer reading program. It’s a small stuffed chipmunk (remember Beanie Babies?) to go with the woodland theme of our decor. He moves once a week and each week when the kids find him and tell me his whereabouts they get a sticker. It’s fun to watch them hunt. Siblings tend to take one of two tracks. Either they will work together to find him, each taking a different area in which to search, or else it’s every man for himself and the first one to find him gives no hints. I will play along if someone is having a hard time finding him, telling them if they are hot or cold.

    1. I’ve done a pumpkin scavenger hunt too and I used the templates shared on Thrive After Three:

      Love the mascot idea! We do something similar during the summer with our Summer Reading mascot except we print a picture of it and attach a code word. The code word changes every week so kids can participate all summer. When they find the mascot they write down the code word and submit it to enter a free book prize. I like the beanie babies idea – what a great way to make it more realistic and find a new use for those collector items πŸ™‚

  2. Thanks for gathering together these ideas! I’ve seen families have a lot of fun with similar passive programs, especially early literacy stations and scavenger hunts.

    I once put together an interactive map for a walk and bike to the library display. Families could place a large dot on a map to show the general area they had come from. It was super cool to see how many families used alternate transit over the time period the display was up.

    Lately, I have been thinking about obstacle courses, so it was very helpful to read about the specific materials Amanda Fack used at Crown Point. Thank you!

    1. Halifax Public Libraries had a similar interactive map when I visited them a few years ago. You can add a pushpin to your hometown. They must get a lot of out-of-town visitors because the whole map was filled. I especially love how your display could be tied to green initiatives and maybe even a bookmobile that travels around the city. Thanks for sharing!

  3. These are fantastic! I’ve been musing what to do with the ends of my shelves, it seems like prime programming space that I want to utilize!

    1. One of my dream ideas for the end of a bookshelf is to create giant magnet Mr./Mrs. Potato Head pieces and let kids go to town. I saw it on Pinterest a few years ago and can’t stop thinking about it, haha!

      1. Oh my goodness, DO IT. That sounds like so much fun!!! I wish I had just a smidge of artistic talent, ha. My post it wall has been pretty popular, so that’s an easy and fun thing to do!

      2. Ooh, we tried this a few years ago and it was a FUN idea—but didn’t really work. Our shelves must have a coating so even the strongest magnets didn’t stick well, and we ended up having to pick body parts up off the floor continuously. But I’d love to know if anyone else got it to work. I had such high hopes.

  4. We were short-staffed this summer so I got creative with outdoor self-directed programming. Every Thursday in July we had an activity outside near the children’s room that patrons could drop by and try from 12p-5p. The first week I put out giant bubble wands and several buckets of bubble liquid. Over five hours 42 people participated. I made a big poster with instructions, left the supplies out, when I saw someone through the window I went outside and asked what questions they had then left them to have fun. It worked out incredibly well. The prep was minimal, clean up took a little longer, but it was well worth it while I was on desk alone.

    1. Props to you for continuing to engage your community with a fun summer activity while short staffed. That must have been a tough summer for many reasons. I used to have a bubble machine I would use at the end of babytimes, and I feel like bubbles never go out of style. I’ve always wanted to play with giant bubble wands myself!

  5. We have a mascot who usually hides around the department every summer too! But this year, Monty the Mouse had a tent made for him by a colleague. It was SO CUTE! I couldn’t bring myself to have Monty move away from the tent. So we printed and laminated six pieces of camping equipment that “Monty lost” to hide around the department. Every week, they move around.
    As a prize/passive program, we’d give out activity kits whenever a child finished the scavenger hunt. (Or, made a good effort, at least.) Each kit had a theme, ranging from Butterfly Science, to Dinosaurs, to ‘I Spy’, and on…
    Now that summer’s over, we’re thinking that Monty will have to ‘lose’ his school supplies…

    1. I like the idea of the tent and the camping equipment. The first year that we used Chipper, our chipmunk mascot, he proved to be so popular during summer reading that we did the same thing during our October Spooktacular reading program, only this time he wore a Halloween costume. File this under things that seemed like a good idea at the time. Now the kids don’t like him to be naked, so he always has to have some sort of a seasonal or theme costume, depending on what program is coming up, usually devised by me. He has a wooly hat and scarf for winter (that was easy), a construction vest and hard hat for Touch A Truck (not so easy), usually something to go along with the summer reading theme, etc. Have you ever tried to dress a creature who is all of six inches long and three inches tall with stationary limbs? Sometimes his costume is just a hat and the kids seem okay with that. Currently he’s sitting on the corner of the staff desk in the kids’ room wearing a Covid mask. It’s fun and I enjoy seeing the kids make a fuss over him. Whatever makes them happy to come to the library!

      1. Lina, this comment has me ROFL!! File “dressing 3 inch tall puppets” to other job duties as assigned.

      2. We have a plush hamster named Spike (we did a patron name submission vote–Spike identifies as female, by the way) and she wore a mask for most of last year, too!

        1. We have a 4′ tall stuffed black bear that is our mascot. The kids love to hug him and he works his way into many of our summer reading program themes. He wears seasonal bandanas that a co-worker sewed for us.

    2. I just watched a webinar yesterday on using puppets with young children and one of my big take aways was to have a home for the puppet. The webinar was aimed at ECEs who have classroom spaces, but I think we can adapt it for the library. Looks like that’s exactly what you did with the tent and expanded to include a super awesome scavenger hunt. I love the creativity! You should totally keep it up throughout the year and have Monty lose all sorts of things related to the season.

  6. Thanks so much for compiling and sharing! We took the I Spy display a step further this summer and did it in 3D. We are lucky to have a large window display that faces outside along our downtown sidewalks, and we filled the space with toys and furniture that have been out of commission in the pandemic. Every two weeks we changed the list of items to find . Families went crazy for it – much more than I expected! We now plan to do a miniature version of this in a display case inside our building with small toys and LEGO creations, and will return to the large, outdoor I Spy display for our winter and spring breaks. Jbrary is the best! πŸ™‚

    1. I Spy to the Next Level!! That is so creative and I’m not surprised your families loved it. If you happen to have a picture of the display I would love to add it to this blog post. Feel free to email me at Thank you so much for sharing and for your kind words!

  7. I always look to Jbrary for lots of ideas for songs and fingerplays. And love your book recommendations too (especially appreciate the commentaries). But this post was so for me!!! Thank you for all the great ideas! I have found that families like to come to the library and DO something, aside from reading and picking out books. I have done I SPY hunts (like the ones above) for pictures of turkeys, leprechauns, dinosaurs and fictionary characters. Then this summer a young patron who loved treasure hunts inspired me to do one that led the kids around and even outside the library (complete with treasure map). They had to follow the map to find letters that spelled out a word. That was a big hit, which I altered every month with a new path to find new letters and a new word. Kids were then rewarded with a treasure from the treasure chest (a rock or a shark’s tooth). Taking a break from that to return to a pumpkin hunt in October. Looking for ideas for rewards. I’m trying to stay away from candy. Any suggestions? We have a sticker box, so that is unfortunately out.

    1. I love treasure hunts! So glad this post was just what you needed. As for rewards my library has transitioned to literacy-based options. So things like pencils, erasers, little notebooks, coloring supplies, and of course free books!

    2. We have a stash of leftover tchotchkes from past summer reading programs. We put an assortment of these in a plastic pumpkin and the kids can choose a prize. We’ll also include some some Halloween items (stickers, tattoos, small puzzle books). Parents appreciate that it’s not candy.

    3. That word search does sound fabulous!
      We’ve been sticking to literacy/activity based items as prizes over the summer. Science activities, pencils, etc.
      For Hallowe’en, we’re printing out a “Spooky Memory” game on cardstock, and cutting the squares out. They fit really nicely into an origami envelope that we’re going to make out of seasonal paper.
      If you don’t have a source, they’re really easy to make – have 8 or more images that you print out in a grid, with some sort of pattern on the back. Make sure you have two of each image, cut out the grid, and you’re good to go! Cheap, fun, recyclable.

  8. Thank you SO much, Lindsey! I can’t wait to try these fantastic ideas!

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