Guest Blogger

Transforming Sensory Storytime Lemons into Sensory Kit Lemonade

In November 2014, my assistant director asked me if I’d ever heard of a special needs storytime. I responded, perhaps overenthusiastically, with the notes and links I had been gathering for 6 months.

We decided we wanted to start a Sensory Storytime at our largest branch.

  • We knew we had families with children on the spectrum in our community; some came to the library, some didn’t.
  • We read all the resources we could get our hands on (including these excellent resources here, here, and here).
  • We asked some of our key donors to help buy sensory toys as a part of our annual end-of-year appeal.
  • We observed a sensory storytime at a library on the other side of Michigan in January.
  • That spring, we steadily cultivated relationships with (semi) nearby parent support groups, local therapy clinics, the local university’s collaborative autism center, county public health, and teachers who worked in the special needs classrooms, all of whom agreed to spread the word.
  • In September 2015, we held our first Sensory Storytime and held 1 every month after that.

The first couple of months, average attendance was 1 family. That didn’t change. We tried altering the time. Didn’t help. Two of our youth librarians attended an adaptive umbrella workshop, implementing new ideas in storytime. We altered the name to Sensory Story Group, so families didn’t mistake it for a “young children only” storytime. We filmed a video, getting “actors” from patrons in the library that day, which showed the program and key places in the library, so families could prepare for the event and build expectations.

 Nothing helped. We continued to see a different family every month, in addition to the one faithful family who attended regularly.

I know it sounds like we made a lot of changes, but these were made slowly over the course of a year and a half and on the advice of our community partners. We decided to take a hard look at what we had learned so far:

  • marketing wasn’t the issue–we reached everyone based on the turnover
  • the event itself wasn’t the issue—surveys were extremely positive, and the time or name didn’t matter.

These families just couldn’t attend regularly, because their schedules were always changing and/or their child wasn’t having a good day. They didn’t need a program once a month. After much reflection and discussion, we made the (painful) decision to end our Sensory Story Group. But we still wanted to serve our families who do regularly check out items from the hold shelf.  And we have all of the sensory toys, carefully selected…


We turned our toys into Sensory Kits: 2 rocking see-saw boards (to be checked out individually), 4 totes with pop tubes, Thera-bands™, foam puzzles, lacing shapes, sensory shapes and a parenting book of family activities, and 1 tote of foot/hand tactile discs. We introduced play kits to our collection last June, so our acquisitions and circulation staff knew how to process these kits.  We put the Sensory Kits into circulation 5 days ago and 3 of them are already checked out.

We had to be brave enough to closely examine a program, admit it was unsuccessful, and end it. That’s really hard to do, especially when you’re talking about a hot topic, one of national importance, and donor funded. But we were able to continue serving these families, just in a different way, which may end up a better way for our families. We made lemonade out of lemons and hope our story empowers you to do the same.

(all photos courtesy of guest blogger)


Photo of Kristel Sexton, guest bloggerOur guest blogger today is Kristel Sexton. Kristel is a Youth Services librarian at the Ypsilanti District Library, where last year she was Project Director for the first hands-on science exhibit YDL has ever hosted, Discover Tech: How Engineers Make a World of Difference. She is one of the co-authors of a LSTA grant YDL was recently awarded to pilot an early literacy texting program for Washtenaw County and is very excited to introduce this service to her patrons. 

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

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at


  1. Kathia Ibacache

    Thank you, Kritel for sharing your experience. At Simi Valley Public Library we had a similar experience with our Pajama Storytime, very popular in other libraries, but not ours. Our day time storytimes have great attendance, but we could not build the attendance of the night time storytime, even when we modified time and other features.
    I looked at your video and gathered some ideas for our storytimes. How wonderful you made the sensory toys available for check out.


  2. Rachel Hartman

    Thanks for sharing, Kristel. That’s a great way to evolve a program. At the Denver Central Library we held Sensory Storytime for two years and had to cut the program for the same reasons. However, through connections made during storytime, we built a relationship with several area schools, and hosted monthly or quarterly Sensory Storytimes for their students for a few years. Having a built-in audience through a school was much more successful for us than a public storytime.

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