What Is the Best Age for Story Time? Librarians Weigh In. | First Steps

Is a mix of ages better in a group, or one? Youth services staff make compelling cases for both approaches.

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One question I have gotten repeatedly in 20 years of supporting children’s librarians is how to divide up story time age groups. Is it best to have programs dedicated to specific ages to focus on the developmental needs of each? Does a mix of ages offer other ­benefits? Youth services staff at libraries across the ­country make compelling cases for both approaches.

Many librarians divide programs into three buckets: baby programs (prewalkers), toddlers (walkers under three), and preschoolers (three years and up). This allows story time leaders to choose age appropriate books, song and rhymes, and activities. “I like to break down by age to focus on the attention span of the child and what activities they are ready for,” says Lina Hait Crowell, youth services coordinator at Warren County (NJ) Library System. “I don’t expect a two-year-old to sit for a longer book. Crafts need to be geared toward the abilities of the child.”

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When families attend programs with multiple-age children, most story time leaders advocate for flexibility. “We don’t card kiddos,” quips Sharon Anderson, library assistant at Tiskilwa (IL) Public Library. Older siblings who show up to her baby program get dolls and are encouraged to participate as caregivers. Jenni Frencham, main branch manager at the Morgan County (IN) Public Library, leaves out flannel boards during preschool programs for young children to enjoy if the craft is advanced.

Alison Mitchell, children’s librarian at the West Branch of the Somerville (MA) Public Library, recommends breaking programs down by developmental stage and rooting them in what children want from story time. “Baby Lap Sit” is for prewalkers, “Singalong” is for all ages, and “Storytime” is for kids able to sit for longer stories.

“We had trouble with an all-ages story time. We get a young, large crowd, so it’s unrealistic to expect two-year-olds to sit quietly,” says Mitchell. “When I announced ‘story time’ was turning into a singalong and we were adding
a ‘sit and listen’ story time, caregivers were so happy.”

Other librarians started offering mixed-age programs due to staff shortages and audience changes. Jenn Burton, children’s services librarian at Sublette (WY) County Library, says attendance dwindled after a community preschool opened. This fall she launched “Babes and Tots Storytime” for babies to preschoolers. “We say that we expect wiggles and shorter attention spans,” she says. “We want to remain flexible, and when more older kiddos can attend, we will bring back two separate story times.”

Ashland (NE) Public Library director Tanya McVay found that an age-stratified program didn’t work for ­families wanting to bring all their children to one program. “We have a story time for all ages under six; then follow it with play time. If kids get restless or parents want to take their kids out to play early, they can. If they have an older one who wants to finish listening to books, they stay.”

Diane Chiofolo, children’s librarian at Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) New Utrecht Library, believes mixed-age groupings are more inclusive for her families, even if it makes planning more challenging. “I sometimes adjust on the fly,” she says. With a song like “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes,” she tells her participants, “If you know where these body parts are, touch them as we sing. If your little one is still learning body parts, you can help them by gently tapping theirs during the song.”

Kirsten Grunberg, former children’s librarian at BPL’s ­Arlington Library, prefers mixing ages in part due to the influence of Montessori practices. “Older and younger children learn from each other, especially when a ­collaborative environment is promoted,” she says. Maria McGrath, children’s librarian at BPL’s Macon Library ­observed this, too: “It’s quite sweet to see how toddlers and babies interact. Sometimes on school holidays older ­siblings will join and are thrilled to have something to teach their younger ­siblings.” Just ensure everyone watches out for babies if ­active play activities are involved.

Whatever the approach, families appreciate clear ­language on which program is best for their child and how they can best participate.

Rachel G. Payne is coordinator of early childhood services at Brooklyn Public Library.

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