Storytime Themes vs. Storytime Flow

The question of whether or not to do storytime themes is not new. Seven years ago Katie posed the question on the ALSC blog and I’ve seen people discuss it on list-serves, Facebook groups, and Twitter since then.  The conversation has probably been going on long before then too! This post is not about telling people what to do. I’m not here to declare that themes are a terrible idea, nor am I here to tell you that theme-less is the way to go.  I’m here to describe my journey with storytime themes and why I’ve transitioned to prioritizing what I call storytime flow.

When I first started as a children’s librarian I did themes for all my weekly storytimes. We have some of them featured here on the blog – check the bottom of our Storytime Resources page. I tried diligently to choose books, songs, rhymes, felt stories, and other extension activities that all fit in the same category. At the time, this helped me focus and search.  I know a lot of people who still like themes for this reason – it helps them narrow the possibilities of what to do at storytime. I also liked that I could introduce concept vocabulary around a theme and give caregivers early literacy tips that related specifically to the topic of the day.  Themes worked for me in the beginning and I am so grateful to everyone who has blogged about their thematic storytime ideas. I still get asked to do a themed storytime occasionally by a preschool and it’s great to have those blog posts filled with ideas.

I’ve been doing storytime for a few years and have built up a knowledge of good storytime books and songs. For my weekly storytimes, I’ve found that themes work less and less for me. Even in the beginning I found them to be limiting sometimes. This happened particularly when I chose a theme and then struggled to find good books that fit the theme. I would sometimes choose a mediocre picture book just because it fit the theme. Doing themed storytimes also meant that I wasn’t doing a lot of repetition in terms of songs and rhymes because I felt like I had to make every song about the theme. This led to less participation from kids and caregivers and was harder on me as I spent so much time trying to memorize new material.  Oof. Looking back I wish I had been less strict about the themes and more willing to do what I knew would work best for the group.

Unless a preschool or daycare specifically requests a certain theme, nowadays I don’t do them. Instead, I prioritize storytime flow.  Storytime flow means that each element of a storytime transitions into the next in a way that makes sense to kids. I try to make a connection between the books and songs which can look like mini-themes throughout a storytime. Storytime flow has a lot to do with transitioning between activities. I spend less time choosing material and more time planning on how I can transition from one topic or activity to another.  I think good transitions can help keep your audience engaged and feel like the storytime sticks together in a way that is cohesive. There is no one right way to do this.

Here’s an example of a portion of a recent family storytime where the storytime flow worked excellently.

Song: Put Your Hands Up High

Tune: Do Your Ears Hang Low

Put your hands up high,
Put your hands down low,
Put your hands in the middle and wiggle just so.
Put your elbows in front,
Put your elbows in back
Put your elbows to the side and quack, quack, quack!

Transition: Oh my goodness, are we ducks?! I didn’t know there were little duckies in this room. What sound do duckies make? Quack! Quack! Duckies can do all sorts of things. Let’s look at this book. What are the duckies doing? That’s right they are Firefighter Duckies!

Book: Firefighter Duckies by Frank W. Dormer

Transition: Those duckies sure helped a lot of different creatures. I love to help people too. Let’s pretend we’re firefighters just like the duckies. We can go put out a fire! Can you get in your fire truck? We’re going to go really fast, ready?

Song: Hurry, Hurry Drive the Fire Truck


Hurry, hurry, drive the fire truck
Hurry, hurry, drive the fire truck
Hurry, hurry, drive the fire truck
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!
Verses: Turn the corner, Put the Ladder up, Spray the Fire Hose

Transition: We put out the fire, yay! I love to play pretend. Hmm, what else can we pretend to be?  (Ask kids for suggestions. If time, act out some of them).  How about we pretend to be astronauts? Let’s take a trip to the moon. Okay, everybody rub your hands together; we need to warm up the engines.

Song: Zoom, Zoom, Zoom

I put up my felt pieces one at a time when I do this.


Zoom, zoom, zoom
We’re going to the moon.
Zoom, zoom, zoom
We’re going to the moon.
If you want to take a trip climb aboard my rocket ship.
Zoom, zoom, zoom We’re going to the moon. In 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Blast off!

We always do the extra verses too.

Transition:  What a journey. We went to the moon, and the stars, and the sun! Now we’re going to listen to a story about other things that are in the sky. When you look up in the sky what are some things that you see?

Felt Story: It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles G. Shaw

Check out Early Literacy Connection for the felt story template.

Transition: Caregivers, when you go outside today take a moment and look up at the sky and ask your little one what shapes or animals they see.  If there aren’t any clouds out, see if you can spot a bird.  You can do this rhyme about birds too that has lots of extra silly verses.

Rhyme: Two Little Blackbirds


Two little blackbirds sitting on a hill.
One named Jack and one named Jill.
Fly away Jack, flay away Jill.
Come back Jack, come back Jill.

I made felt pieces that I use to do the extra silly verses.

Transition: Those were some silly birds.  Can you see what’s on the cover of this book? That’s right – lots of different types of birds. Cardinals, flamingos, swallows. In this book we get to pretend to be a bird and do all the things a bird does.

Book: Hooray for Birds! by Lucy Cousins

hooray for birds


And that’s what storytime flow looks like for me! Do you use storytime themes? How do you make your storytime flow? I’d love to discuss in the comments!

43 thoughts on “Storytime Themes vs. Storytime Flow

  1. I’m still more theme than not theme, but I’d definitely say my “flow” has improved greatly as I’ve gotten more comfortable as a storytime presenter, so the themes have gotten a little less specific/expected. I’ve done a “why?” themed one and a “taking risks” storytime before, for example. I don’t know about CA, but in my state in the US I’m noticing an emphasis at the elementary schools on connections (teachers here even use the ASL for connect with younger students) between pieces of information. So the thoughtful transitions you describe are yet another element of storytime that contributes to school readiness.

    1. Connections are huge here too! I’ve also seen teachers use the ASL sign during my Summer Reading Club presentations when a kid makes a connection. Never thought about the transitions as a school readiness skill but I love it!

  2. I agree, themes are a great starting point but can be very limiting! I love how you describe your planning process in terms of “flow” verses “themeless”. What an “ah ha!” moment. I think this storytime example you have here is perfect. It really shows how you can focus more on quality books and songs and stop stressing about trying to find an “okay” book to fit the theme. Thoughtful transitions are such an important element of storytime that can easily get overlooked.

  3. Do you have any recommendations about crafts and doing them for these mixed story times? My group has come to expect at least one craft and one STEAM related activity for my story time. I love the idea of just reading good books and linking them together without a theme but the craft ideas seem easier to come up with for themes.

    1. That’s a really great question and one I’m not completely qualified to answer as we don’t offer crafts at our weekly storytimes. I think you could still pick a craft that fits with one of the books though. Something that helps extend the conversation around the story or helps kids practice the vocabulary featured in the book. For example, I read Freight Train by Donald Crews at my ASL Storytime and then we made shape trains. That was only one element of the storytime (which wasn’t themed) but it was the one I chose to highlight in the craft activity. I also love process art and could see that working with lots of different books.

        1. I’ve tried to go with easy crafts for me to get ready, yet are an early literacy component too. For example I used (Bingo) dotters on paper, stickers, playdough day, stampers, tracing, stringing. Once you acquire the basics of the supplies for these you are general set. I use small paper plates, old envelopes and sometimes a printed thing to let them stamp or sticker or just plain color. We even use glitter and glue sometimes, since more parents don’t allow their children to use glitter (too messy) at home. All of these help with fine motor skills and allow individual creativity to happen. One in a blue moon I prepared a more traditional craft where I do cut out things to have them glue back together, but I try to avoid those – a time waster on my part.

  4. Lindsey, this is such a fantastic post! (And that’s saying a lot because I think all of your blog posts are solid.) Your history and experience with storytime sounds similar to mine, since I started out with themes and then gradually moved away from them because it was so hard to find several books I was excited about on each theme (and I refuse to read aloud books I don’t love). I did appreciate Melissa from Mel’s Desk pointing out that themes can be helpful for the younger ones especially because of the repetition of vocabulary. However, I also struggled to get parent participation when I changed songs frequently to complement the theme. I appreciate your example of a storytime outline that enhances flow–I still have a hard time with transitioning between books and other activities, so I’m going to use this as inspiration to be more deliberate.

    1. Thanks so much, Michelle! I think with the repetition of songs and even the repetition of stories you can find ways to repeat vocabulary without sticking strictly to a theme. But like I said, I’m not for or against themes, I’m just focusing on the flow and the transitions right now. Glad to have inspired you too!

  5. My approach is to “go with the flow”, which means I bring more books and activities (e.g. flannel stories) than I plan to present. Then I select books and activities based on the families that show up that day–mostly the ages of the children that are present and what is most likely to appeal to them, but I also consider the personalities of the adults that come and what they might enjoy.

  6. This is my approach to storytime planning, too! But I must say, even though I generally eschew themes, your theme-organized resources (especially those on your YouTube channel) are my go-tos for finding the perfect song or fingerplay to build a bridge from one book to another.

    Barring the perfect transition, I can never go wrong with your surprise duck version of Put Your Hands Up High. It is one of my favorites and is a hit every time!

    1. I love that song too. It’s got everything – following directions, movement, and a surprise ending. Thanks so much for your kind words 🙂

  7. I’ve never been a “themer”, mostly because I I don’t like being tied to anything and need my flexibility! This is especially true for mixed-age programs where you never quite know what your group will look like from week to week.

    I like being able to just pick books that work well for my style and my audience, without having to worry about whether they match a theme, and I always bring more books than I’ll ever need, just in case I need to make a last-minute swap out to accommodate my group. I typically repeat most of the same songs and rhymes every week during a session, anyway, and really only swap out the books.

    But, there’s no right or wrong way to do a program! Whatever works for each presenter and each group! 🙂

  8. I’ve been excited for this post! Thank you so much for offering an example of flow. I started out doing theme-heavy story times, but I didn’t have a lot of room for repetition, so my families didn’t get the benefit of learning the songs, since they changed from week to week. I have gotten more into the habit of story themes, but keeping many of my songs the same, to allow for familiarity, and that’s been great, but transition has always been where I got stuck. I feel like I’ve become a storybot: “It’s time for head, shoulders, knees, and toes!” Flow looks like SO much fun-I can’t wait to try this with my families! But do you keep several of the same songs from week to week, so the families get to learn them? Most of my families are English language learners, and I find the repetition helps their comfort level, along with the inclusion of one or two Chinese nursery rhymes I’ve learned thanks to repeated YouTube viewing.

    Thank you so much for this post!

    1. Yes, I still try to keep 80% of the songs and rhymes the same week to week. I also have a high ELL population at my storytimes and it’s beneficial to them and to the kids who thrive on repetition. Figuring out where to place and how to transition to the weekly songs can be tricky at times and I definitely do say things like, “now we’re going to do one of our favourite songs!” as a lead in sometimes. No shame! Having perfect transitions between every single element every single week is probably an unattainable goal. I more wanted to show what I strive for and how I’ve moved away from strict themes. It sounds like we do really similar things in storytime 🙂 By the way, I would love to learn the Chinese nursery rhymes if you have any links to share.

      1. Whew, thank you! I think I overthink storytime and how I need to make them “the best” (in my brain). If my families are happy, I should just relax. 🙂 I started using “Yo te amo” thanks to Jbrary, which went over so well, and that inspired me to look for quick and easy nursery rhymes in Chinese. Two Little Tigers goes over really well in my storytimes; I love watching the moms and grandmas light up when they jump right in with it. Here’s the video, with pictograms and English letter pronunciation: It translates to:
        “Two Little Tigers, Two Little Tigers,
        Run so fast, Run so fast, (mimic running)
        One has no ears, one has no tail, (I cover my ears, then cross my hands over my lower back)
        Very strange, Very strange!” (hold palms up and shrug)

        Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star is a big favorite, too:

        Well-Behaved Little Rabbit gets a bit of love, too:

        I hope you get a good response! Thanks again for another great article.

  9. I love this! I have been struggling with coming up with different themes for storytime. Choosing a theme restricts the mind and using flow gives the mind more creative thoughts. Your example is excellent! This opens so many more avenues in storytime.

  10. My Storytime is small and very “20 kids or 4”. I use theme-based, planned a month or so in advance. This entails up to 3 picture books, 2 non fiction, a movement/song and a hands-on craft or game. The beginning of the season, my 2-4 year olds are lucky to make it 35 minutes before losing all interest, but by Halloween I have them about an hour. By Thanksgiving, I let the kids help plan what they want to read, and learn about, and this keeps them engaged and eager to keep coming. I will try to incorporate the Story-Flow method in this coming season’s class and see how it works. I’ve been doing this 10 + years… so any new ideas are good ones.

    1. Wow, an hour is a long time! Props to you. I only have them for 30 minutes at my library storytime. I could definitely see getting the kids involved in the planning when they are preschool-age and you have them for longer. It’s great to build on their interests. And themes work great for many people!

  11. This is a great example! I prefer storytime flow to themes as well. I have been doing storytimes for over 30 years and I have found this works well and you can use quality books, music and activities that may not at first glance seem to work together.

  12. Where i work I am the lucky one who gets to choose the themes for preschool, toddler, library club and teen club. We all know that these themes are more like “guidelines” and can be tweeked to meet the needs of our group. The themes are basically put in place for the parents so they can anticipate what will be covered that week and can possibly check out books to read to their children accordingly. It also helps staff to know what is being done so if one of us is at a meeting, sick, etc. the other one can just jump in and pick up the themed storytime.

    Both ways are work very well, I think it is just important to find what works for the librarian and also for the group they are working with.

  13. This is certainly great food for thought. I do find, however, that themes are actually freeing for me. Once I have a focus, I can really work on incorporating all those other important things we librarians love to share with our kids. If you are a theme person like myself, there are ways to incorporate repetition, etc. like using a song cube each week so you are guaranteed one of six repetitive songs. I’ve grown a lot while still staying in the framework of my themes but am always open to new ideas. Thank you for sharing and for all your great Youtube songs, etc.

    1. Song cubes are a great idea for incorporating some repetition into your storytimes! I tried not to present my argument as there being one right way to do storytime – everyone has what works for them. I’m glad you’ve found a system that lets you grow while keeping you focused 🙂

  14. This is my second year as Story Hour Instructor for toddlers. I have been doing themes but toddlers need so much more repetition that you can’t get sometimes with weekly themes. We have three songs we do each week, “It’s Storytime”, “Open, Shut Them”, and “Clap Your Hands”. (A change I made this year.) The children, even the youngest participate in these. The other songs and fingerplays, because it’s not like a preschool where your reinforcing a theme daily for a week or two, often the children just watch and join in sometimes through the third rendition.

    Had just come to the conclusion that I needed to revamp Story Hour again. Have been doing that a lot as the ages of the groups attending is now from about 15 months to 3 years old vs. 3 – 5 year olds. So interesting to have come across this post as I had just come to same realization.

    Will continue with themes but more loosely and mainly for the craft tie in to one of the books, but will keep the songs and fingerplays ones they know and gradually add in new ones.

    Have been thinking of a Song Cube to add, too.

    Thanks again for wealth of information and resources both of you have shared with all of us!

    1. That sounds like a great plan and I am impressed with your continual reflection and adapting as your audience changes. Many people keep doing the same thing year after year even if it stops working for the group. Kudos to you for trying new things!

  15. So you do three or more stories in one story time session? Every time?

    1. Definitely not! This example was for a family storytime with kids ages 2-5-years-old. I try to gauge the attention level of my group and may end up cutting things out even if it interrupts the flow. With a toddler heavy group I usually read one book and do one felt story. Any more than that and I’ve lost them. I also try to slow my pace when reading so one story might take up to 5 minutes. I’m not a fan of squeezing in as many stories as you can. I’d much rather go slow and focus on the repetition and language acquisition.

  16. This is such an awesome post and so helpful, as is your blog in general. Thank you!!

    1. You are very welcome! Thank you for your kind words 🙂

  17. Hello! I’ve been planning by storytimes by theme for a long time, but I’m ready for a change. I’m thinking I might repeat the same songs and rhymes from week to week, then choose my books based on their quality as a read-aloud instead of their theme.

    I agree with all the reasons this post identifies for organizing by flow instead of theme. I’m also considering this change because of the large number of English Language Learners I see at my location. The vast majority of our customers speak Spanish as their home lanugage, but we see a growing number of families who speak Swahili. I wonder if the repetition and focusing on flow would help them learn English? What are your experiences working with English Language Learner populations?

    Note: I’m not bilingual in Spanish, so a fully bilingual storytime is not really feasible. I also want to reach families who speak other languages.

    Mary (who was a French major)

    1. Repetition of words, songs, rhymes, and stories helps *everyone* learn English, but ESL families will especially benefit. The majority of my storytime families speak Mandarin and including a core set of songs and rhymes each week helps them learn the language and participate in the storytime better. I also put up the lyrics as they have requested the written version too. I wrote two posts about repetition that I think you will find helpful in thinking about how to serve your ELL population. Here is part 1 which includes a link to part 2:

      1. Hi Lindsey, thanks so much for your reply. Your posts about repetition are very helpful. I’ve pinned them so I refer to them in future.

        I agree that repetition will help everyone, but ESL families will especially benefit.

        I appreciate your help!

  18. That’s all very helpful, thanks for posting!
    I have also found recently that following a theme is rather limiting. I tend to choose “so-so” books at times just becasue they fit the theme, rather than choose a fabulous book that I know the kids would like just because it doesn’t fit the theme.

  19. I just wanted to let you know that I greatly appreciate this post! For years now, I have been a “storytime flow” type of person and have been very happy with the outcome. However, I just moved to a new state with the same position I had before, and the other Children’s Librarians do storytime in a very different way. They are very themed and I’m struggling to introduce my way of storytimes in a way that doesn’t sound negative against themes, but also to give evidence as to why I don’t do them. So, thank you for this! Your post will help me to put into words what I was struggling to explain.

    1. Happy to help 🙂 I think I would really struggle with that as well though I also think it’s important for people to plan in a way that works for them. I’ve heard from some people who do themes that they only choose books on a theme and keep the songs mostly the same week to week. I also wrote two posts about the importance of repetition that may help you make your case. Here is Part 1 which includes a link to Part 2 as well:

  20. Hi, its currenly March 2024, I was feeling a little stuck feeling like I was doing the same things. Im super happy that it was suggested I visited your blog! I have been struggling with making my bilingual storytimes better. I wanted to dazzled them up. I am very grateful for your website and all this wonderful information. I believe is the best place to find amazing resources.

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