Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On Toddler Programs, Or I Thrive On Chaos

Hey, someone's reading this blog! Got the following heart rending e-mail the other day:

Can you offer any tips on crowd control during toddler storytime? My preschool groups are great but the toddler/baby demographic has become out of control. What do you say to parents before and during storytime to keep them engaged??

Well, basically,I don't do toddler "storytimes". The one exception to this is the series of 4 programs I do every June, and that's for a limited group (20 max), age range 20-24 months (so they are nearly 2) and the same group each week. It's a controlled group, I know the kids and know the parents. I know who participates and who doesn't, which parents/nannies are treasures and which are pains in my toches who let their kids run amok or are purely there to hang out with other moms and will never look at a book on my shelf. I can plan accordingly.

The rest of the year it's a crapshoot. The ages of the kids vary from barely 12 month olds to the 23/24 month olds who really aren't toddlers any more. Their parents/caregivers range from those who really believe in what I do to those who are there because their employer has sent them there and/or they are using me as a free filller between the other programs these poor mites are scheduled into when they should be out in the park or home with a basket of toys and books!

My hat is off to those of you who use books in your toddler programs,  but I don't think that toddlers for the most part get much out of a group reading of a book unless ALL THE ADULTS PARTICIPATE AND INTERACT WITH THEIR CHILDREN.

Odds on that happening, in my experience (and yes, I've been around a bit) are low and from what I see of parents/caregivers, don't seem to be getting better with the years. Sigh....

So I do "Mother Goose Time", a half hour of songs, rhymes and games all designed to foster language development skills, which are part of the pre-reading process. It's all interactive, which to me is key in working with toddlers. And here's what I've learned the hard way:

1)Start your program by having all parents/caregivers TURN OFF THEIR PHONES.
Yes, I know that should be obvious, but it's not. I've had mothers/fathers/nannies texting, etc during programs and last spring had The Stupidest Mother I've Ever Dealt With (really) letting her child play with the phone during the program--and it started ringing!
I have taken to pulling out my phone and announcing that I'm shutting it off and that everyone else needs to do the same. "This is unplugged time with your child," is my favorite line.

2)Ask adults to put toys, books, etcetera, securely away.
Toddlers are distractable. Last week, one of the moms had a fascinating diaper bag shaped like a bee or something and one of the kids kept going over to pull on it. This morning there was an argument between 2 littles over a board book--I asked parents to put all books in their bags or behind them, and will remember to do the same next week, because this keeps happening with this particular group.

3)Limit books and focus on interactive activities
Insist on a book to set a "theme"? Fine,do that first, when there is still a chance some of the kids will focus on it. Then spend the remainder of your time in activities that engage parents/caregivers in interacting with their children. Rhymes and games require parental attention. Read a book and unless parents/caregivers are willing to actively engage, you have no way of drawing them in. On the other hand, games like "Pat A Cake"  and "Itsy Bitsy Spider" encourage parents to sing along and make hand gestures.

The most unfocused period of my programs is when I go round the circle with animal puppets for "Down on Grandpa's Farm". The kids love this, but because I am going one on one with individual kids, there's nothing for other kids or their parents to do, and the parents start to chat and ignore the kids more often than not. I wouldn't do it but they love the puppets and it's become a regular part of my routine. Speaking of which:

4)Routine: Repeat and Repeat Often
Yes, you (and parents/caregivers) may get tired of singing "The Wheels On the Bus" every week, but the kids love it and expect it. They thrive on routine and ritual, they NEED this kind of structure.
I personally sang "Chanukkah o Chanukkah" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" every night for about 6 months to my older girl when she was around 2. Ritual.Comfort music. When she was 5 and broke her leg she wanted me to sing her "Hush Little Baby" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", her bedtime lullabies for years <3
 Every week we play "Ring Around the Rosie" and repeat it at least twice and could probably do it 3-4 times. While I change rhymes week to week, these two plus a series of "bounce" rhymes are always a part of the program and it gives me a framework for anything else I throw into the program.  And we repeat each rhyme/game at least once, and applaud ourselves--the kids are good at that.
Toddler programs don't need themes. I do change rhymes with the seasons--we've been singing "The Pumpkin Song" since early October, for example, and I have rhymes for rainy days, rhymes for cold days, etcetera. But the core program remains constant. As a result, I don't have to plan heavily for Mother Goose Time.
No one has ever complained about the repetition, BTW, and I've been doing this for years to the point where in some families I am on the second or third child and with some of the nannies we've been through 2 or 3 families together!

5.Learn to Thrive On Chaos If you want nice quiet kids watching you raptly and/or participating just as you expect them to do, you will be miserable doing toddler time. Truthfully, you'll be miserable in any preschool story time (!) but toddler time is the one even skilled preschool programmers often hate/dread because it by nature is never going to be nice and smooth!
Be fully prepared for toddlers who wander around the room--as long as they're not poking/pushing/pulling hair of other kids, it's just toddler behavior.Fully expect to have inattentive kids, ones who participate and the very quiet ones who just sit there.
This last group, btw, are often the kids who go home and talk about what they did, but never say a word at programs!

Today at toddler time I had one little boy who loves to stand right in front of me and watch me, often saying "Hi!", an angelic looking little girl who likes to crawl under my table and is never still, a little girl in a ballet tutu skirt who kept pulling up her shirt and with her little pot belly looked like a "Troll Baby" doll and an almost 2 who cracked me up during "Wheels On the Bus" by the enthusiasm of his "SHHH!" sounds.

I get the little one who wants to play "Ring Around the Rosie" with ME, comments like "we sing that song all the time at home now", the joy of watching a solemn face break into a grin with a peekaboo game, the fun of watching a little boy say "dog" for every animal puppet and then suddenly one day recognize one of them as "duck!" and all the other fun that comes from watching the explosion of development that occurs in this second year of life.

Yup, it's chaos. But it's also a blast.
So have fun with it!


  1. I just found your blog and couldn't be more pleased! Your "tricks of the trade" and videos are great. And your story time philosophies are quite similar to my own. I am so excited to read through your blog to learn and be inspired. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this!

  2. Your comments on the toddler program echo my own experiences with baby and toddler programs. I sometimes describe my programs as controlled chaos; I'm never quite sure what's going to transpire during programs, but the smiling faces and over the top enthusiasm of the kids brightens up the day.. Today I had a lot of stomping "bears" and crawling "wombats" (The Wiggles' song, Here comes the Bear)

  3. Love the Wiggles! They were at their hottest when my younger girl (now almost 14) was little and we all enjoyed listening to them. Three out of 4 of the originals were training to be preschool teachers when they ended up in the band and it shows in their work. They always look to me as if they're saying "Hey, I get to do this AND I get paid for it," which is just how I feel about my work!


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