The New Frontier: Interactive Virtual Storytimes

Last week, my coworker Angela and I performed our first “live” interactive virtual storytime via Zoom.

For the first time since March, we could actually see the kids and they could see us.

I was surprisingly nervous, even though prior to the shutdown, I used to regularly perform six or more live storytimes a week. But technology adds a whole new level of unpredictability. Now, on top of my recurring nightmare of being faced with a large crowd of toddlers with nothing to read but The Grapes of Wrath, I now had to worry about Zoom bombers, Internet outages, glitches with our ebook databases, and any number of other problems completely out of our control.

But thankfully the Internet gods were kind, and we had a wonderful coworker (Darren) managing all of the nitty gritty techical challenges of muting and unmuting, and monitoring the chat. We had a large and enthusiastic audience of kids, and we all had a blast.

Here’s how we did it:

In order to reduce the risk of Zoom bombers, and also to comply with COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), we required participants to register in advance, and verify that children under the age of 13 would be participating with an adult. Advertising went out over social media (Facebook and Instagram) a week in advance, although it was really the email newsletter that went out to our patrons that brought in the most sign-ups.

On the morning of the program, we logged on to our Zoom meeting about an hour in advance to make sure all of our ebooks were loading properly, run through songs, adjust the lighting, and gather props. We kept everyone in the Zoom waiting room until the program started, although I sent a message to them saying that they could rename themselves if they didn’t want their full name or their child’s full name on the screen.

Once we let the audience in to the meeting, we spent a few minutes explaining to the families how to mute and unmute, and how to set the Zoom meeting to Speaker view, so the kids could see me or Angela when we were talking. Mostly Darren managed muting throughout the storytime, which was a bit of a challenge, since muting everyone meant that Angela and I were temporarily muted too, but only for few seconds.

We also asked the kids to find some kind of cloth (dish towel, small blanket, wash cloth, etc.) and something to make noise with (paper cups, pots and pans, keys, etc.) to use in different parts of the storytime.

We kept the kids muted while we read the books and sang the songs, but we would unmute them in between. For many of the songs, we asked for suggestions of motions we could do, or animals to sing about. These were the books and songs we used:

Opening Song: Do As I’m Doing

This is a really simple action song, which worked well in the virtual setting. We asked the kids to suggest different motions (twirling, jumping, etc.), which they demonstrated on video. Some of the actions involved the cloth that we asked the kids to gather at the beginning (twirling the cloth, throwing it in the air, etc., basically the same kinds of things we used to do with play scarves in our regular storytimes). I played it on the ukulele, while Angela demonstrated the motions. Here are the chords and lyrics.

[C] Do as I’m doing, follow, follow [G7] me.

[C] Do as I’m doing, follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

[C] Follow, [G7] follow, [F] follow [C] me.

[F] Follow, [C] follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

Follow, [G7] follow, [F] follow [C] me,

[F] Follow, [C] follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

Song: If You’re Happy and You Know It

We added verses for different emotions: If you’re sad and you know it, cry boo-hoo!… If you’re angry and you know it, say “I’m mad!”… If you’re sleepy and you know it yawn and stretch… If you’re nervous and you know it, hide your face (we used the cloth, and then did a big “Peek-a-boo!” at the end of each line). Angela had paper plates with different faces (happy, sad, angry) on them that she held up at the beginning of each verse.

eBook: Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang; illustrated by Max Lang

When Jim Panzee, the monkey, wakes up in a bad mood, all of the other animals try to cheer him up. We read this one from Overdrive, using the Share Screen, so the kids could see the illustrations up close. Angela read the narration and the voice of Jim Panzee, and I did all the other animal voices. This is such a great book for 2020, when everyone feels a little grumpy sometimes. One mom emailed me later to say that her toddler retold the story to every member of their family, so I think it was a hit!

Song: Old McDonald Had a Farm

Angela had a bunch of puppets prepared to hold up, so we could sing about the different animals, but we didn’t end up needing them. The kids (adorably) were all eager to hold up their own stuffed animals, or suggest a favorite animal and the sound it made (unicorns apparently say “neigh!”). This ended up being one of my favorite parts of the storytime.

eBook: There is a Bird on Your Head by Mo Williems

Gerald the Elephant is unhappy when two birds build a nest on his head. This book is available for 1 Hour Borrowing from Open Library. Angela and I each read a character, and I held a bird stuffed animal on my head (in retrospect, I wish I had asked the kids to pretend their cloths were birds and had them put them on their heads). The simplicity and humor of these books make them perfect for almost any age group, and sharing the ebook on screen made it really easy for the kids to enjoy the illustrations.

Song: Five Little Ducks

There are LOTS of different versions of this song, but the tune I usually sing is the Raffi one). Angela had a Monkey Mitt with the 5 Little Ducks velcroed on, so she held it up while I sang and played the song on the ukulele.

Closing Song: You Are My Sunshine by Jimmie Davis & Charles Mitchell (or possibly by Oliver Hood)

We had unmuted the kids temporarily while we talked about this being our last song, but before we could mute them again, one little boy sang the whole song through all by himself and it was adorable! We asked the kids to play along on the noisemakers (pots and pans, etc.) that they gathered at the beginning of storytime. Angela and I always used to end our regular Musical Storytimes with this song, so it felt almost like old times.

REACTIONS AND TAKE-AWAYS

All in all, Angela and I felt that the storytime went really well. It was wonderful for us to actually see our audience, after months of performing pre-recorded storytimes in an empty room, and wonderful for the kids to see us and each other.

After the storytime, I emailed all of our participants with the registration link for the next Interactive Storytime (which was led by a different librarian). One mom emailed me back to say that in some ways she almost preferred this format to the live storytimes in the library. She said that sharing the ebooks on screen made it easier for her toddler to see the illsutrations and follow the story, and muting the kids during the story meant he wasn’t distracted by the usual noises of the audience. He also bragged to his older brother, who is doing At Home Learning, that he too got to be in a big class with lots of kids on Zoom.

This feedback made me wonder if there might be ways to incorporate some elements of virtual programming into in-person storytimes in the future. For example, I might try displaying the illustrations on a screen while I read from the physical book (so the kids still get the sense of how physical books “work”, but can still see the illustrations clearly. Or I might try to use more “big books,” although I have a hard time turning the pages. In any case, it’s definitely something I will be thinking about when I finally go back to doing in-person storytimes.

Have you performed or attended any virtual storytimes? If so, what worked well, or not so well, for you? Please share any thoughts in the comments.