A few years ago, I launched a new storytime program specifically designed for children with special needs. It was called Sensory Storytime and was modeled after Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski’s fantastic program. As a full-time youth services librarian, I was able to devote much of my day-to-day to planning and leading Sensory Storytime, which was offered as part of a four-week series that ran four times a year. Last May, though, I transitioned to a new library in a new position with a much different staffing situation. I knew that I wanted to implement a program like Sensory Storytime at my new library, but being the only full-time librarian in our department, I also knew I did not have the time to lead it myself. So, I decided to reach out to my community and investigate some possibilities.
The organization I instantly thought of for this new partnership was the National Lekotek Center. Lekotek is a nonprofit organization, which provides an array of services to improve the lives of children with special needs. One of those services is training opportunities–in-person and webinars–for educators, professionals, parents and caregivers, and librarians. In fact, I had first connected with staff at Lekotek several years ago when I had attending one of Lekotek’s in-person training sessions as part of my research for Sensory Storytime. During that training, I learned about the family play sessions that Lekotek offers for families of children with disabilities. These one-hour programs focus on facilitating interactions through play utilizing toys and technology to engage the whole family. For this new partnership program, I knew I wanted to bring someone in from the outside to lead an inclusive family program with stories, songs, and play. They had to be professionals with a lot of experience working with children with special needs. Lekotek’s focus on inclusive play and experience with leading family programs seemed like a natural fit.
When I approached the [amazing!] Lekotek staff to see if they would be interested in this collaboration, I was greeted with an overwhelming amount of support and enthusiasm. So, we immediately got to work and began hashing out all of the details of this new program. Here is an overview of the program we developed together:
- The program is called Sensory Storytime for Children of All Abilities. The target age group of this program would be children [chronologically] ages 3 to 8 with their parents and caregivers. Siblings are also welcome to attend. Lekotek has an inclusive, family-oriented programming model, which invites children with special needs, their siblings, and their caregivers to promote enjoyment and development. So, with the expertise of Lekotek staff, this program could be designed for the whole family.
- This one-hour long program is hosted at the library on Saturdays at 10:45 a.m. Parents and caregivers are encouraged to register in advance. That way, library staff can send a questionnaire to parents in advance. This questionnaire asks about their child’s strengths, interests, and unique needs. Having this information on file ahead of time allows Lekotek staff to prepare for any accommodations that need to be made to the program activities. The program is open to as many as 20 total children, including siblings.
- While the library and Lekotek staff would work together to plan each program, the program is led by two Lekotek Play Specialists. Activities include movement activities, arts and crafts, play with accessible toys brought by Lekotek staff, songs, rhymes, and stories. Even though the program is designed with children with special needs in mind, the program activities would be engaging and entertaining for the whole family regardless of ability.
- The librarian picks themes in advance for each program, selecting 2 – 3 books ahead of time to be read by the Lekotek Play Specialists during the program. The librarian also acquires extra copies of the book would be made available for children and parents to read together. Lekotek staff plan all other program activities.
What did we learn? A few things.
- What’s in a name? When we first launched this program last fall, it was called “Lekotek’s Stories and Play for Children with Special Needs.” The idea behind this name was to target the program specifically to an audience of children with special needs. However, when we changed the name to “Sensory Storytime for Children of All Abilities”, we received a stronger response and noticed more people in attendance. So, we kept the new name to promote the program to a more inclusive audience. We also thought that by welcoming everyone with “all abilities”, this was a better match for the true mission of the public library as a cornerstone of the community.
- Registration required? Families with children with special needs do not always feel comfortable registering in advance for a program. While we strongly encourage parents and caregivers to reserve their spot in the program, the truth is that some families just don’t know if they will be attending until that morning. Lekotek staff are extremely qualified and knowledgeable about how best to accommodate a particular activity to best fit the needs of the individual child. So, even if the child did not register in advance, if there was ample space, we would not turn anyone away from attending the program.
- Adjust your expectations When you are launching a new program, especially for a specific group of patrons like children with special needs, it may take a while for your program to “take off.” Over the course of the past year, attendance changed dramatically from month to month–we had as many as 20 children and as few as 2 children attend a particular session of storytime. But that is okay. We realize that just in offering this program, we are making an impact by expanding services to patrons with special needs–families that might have never visited the library before.
Looking for more information about the National Lekotek Center? Learn about how your library can enroll in their Toy Lending Library program. Be sure to also check out their online training opportunities. If you want to spread the word to parents about how they can use the public library with their child with special needs, check out this upcoming Lekotek webinar opportunity: Reinventing Libraries: Inclusion and Advocacy.
A big shoutout to everyone at Lekotek for their amazing continued support of librarians and libraries!