Blogger Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers committee

Play Café: Storytime & Special Populations

Photo of table with colorful nametags
Play Cafe nametags. Photo credit Sharon McKellar.

Have you ever prepped for a storytime and no one has shown up? Have you tried a new flyer, a new day, a new time — and still no traction? You read blog posts with tips for crowd control and think, Must be nice…

I feel you, friend.

In the Oakland Public Library system, some branches regularly pack the room while others sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” to, well, crickets. But we know there are toddlers in the neighborhood — strollers are everywhere.  A David and Lucile Packard Foundation study told us that caregivers in our community are looking for the things storytime can provide: networking and community building, early literacy support, all in a safe, free environment. Clearly our message wasn’t working.

So we made some changes.

We stopped saying “Storytime,” which is meaningful in some communities but was insider jargon in ours. We renamed it “Play Café,” a playgroup. We set aside a bigger chunk of time (90 minutes): it’s more worth the effort to get a toddler dressed and out the door and families aren’t pressured to be “on time” for a “show,” but can roll up a half hour after we start and functionally not have missed much. We still have “storytime” in the middle, incorporating diverse books & rhymes that reflect our community.

We serve a snack for kids & caregivers that’s provided by a culturally relevant, local caterer at a cost of about $2-5/person, funded by a Packard Foundation grant. More than just an incentive, this supports a crucial part of Play Cafe: the program is as much for the caregiver as for the child. I have seen its impact in the way caregivers relax, laugh, build community, and support each other during snack time.

Having this structure in place, we did the most important thing: telling people about it. We printed bilingual postcards and posters and hit the streets, approaching families and caregivers with a free board book and inviting them to our playgroup. Having a “buddy system” with a coworker or community member doubles your impact. We hit up local businesses, talking to the owners or workers and listening to their thoughts about the community. We went to our schools during pick-up and drop-off times. Adults were in a hurry to get their kid to school, but once that’s done, they’ve still got the other kid in the stroller and time to chat.

This outreach is time consuming. I had to take a look at my schedule and see what I could cut for a few weeks to focus on it. But it was crucial to connecting with the initial Play Café participants.

The first week, six people showed up, which felt like a huge success. We asked participants to tell their friends, to take postcards or hang a poster in their apartment building. The next week, attendance doubled. Then, again. Within weeks and still almost a year later, we are near capacity. No more singing to crickets for us.

Mary Dubbs is the children’s librarian at the Elmhurst Branch of the Oakland Public Library in California. She works closely with Kate Hug at the Melrose Branch on the Play Café project.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.


  1. Armin Arethna

    Congratulations, Mary and Kate! This is a wonderful success story, brought about by changing our expectations, listening to the hum of our community, doing outreach, and coming up with a great new program that is popular. Very inspiring!

  2. Marlena Okechukwu

    Mary, this is great and thanks for sharing!

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