Among the many ways in which it has changed our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic has demanded that library staff responsible for creating and carrying out programming be almost endlessly innovative. I have the privilege of working with and hearing from children’s librarians and staff across Suffolk County, New York, as they’ve navigated our new reality. We’ve had many discussions in programming meetings about trying out new virtual programs only to have them flop, and how much harder the feelings that come with a flopped program can hit these days. However, our discussions, we try to keep present in our minds the fact that our current circumstances provide a silver lining of room to innovate: with patrons’ needs and behaviors upended and changing all the time, the justification for trying new things has never been stronger. One of the programming areas for which there is new potential is virtual programming for parents/caregivers of young children.
In our county, the trickiness of both reaching and retaining this demographic for programs such as parent/giver support and discussion groups often comes up for discussion. Even in good times, finding the sweet spot for this particular type of programming in the schedules of many busy caregivers with little ones can be nigh impossible — on top of considerations such as childcare for babies and older siblings, and marketing. Virtual programming may have answers to some of these problems. The main benefits offered by virtual programming for parents and caregivers are in the realms of scheduling and childcare needs. If group leaders are willing and able, virtual meetings can be held much later in the evening than is possible in a physical space, right up to or even past closing hours. This allows meetups to take place safely past the average dinner and bedtime, and because everyone can attend from home, the need for a babysitter (or library staff to mind little ones and older siblings) is eliminated. While some caregivers may very well balk at the idea of sacrificing valuable evening quiet time, others who are feeling lonely or in need of a support network may value the opportunity to develop new relationships with other stressed and struggling parents. The lowered effort demanded by attending a virtual meetup compared to an in-person one may entice exhausted caregivers who would otherwise have been on the fence to give it a shot.
Much of what we’ve innovated in the way of other virtual programs can be applied to enhance virtual programming for caregivers. For example, libraries might apply the make-and-take model and create take-home kits for things like cloud dough or sensory bins that the group creates while they chat. These could even be alternated with crafts for the adults themselves to enjoy. Perhaps families with older children who might still be awake could be given craft kits to keep the big sibs busy for the evening. And of course, all the literature on things like early learning and support resources we would be distributing at in-person get-togethers would be covertly tucked in these kits.
Another possibility opened up by virtual programming for caregivers is the opportunity to join forces with other libraries. If your virtual caregiver meetup is still only attracting two or three families, why not try combining forces with other libraries in your area? This normally more complicated option could allow families to share knowledge of resources and activities across a broader region. It might also enable libraries to create more targeted programs for families with specific needs that would otherwise be difficult to draw a group large enough to justify pursuing. Working with multiple libraries can also make the task of marketing your program simpler – local outreach partners like pediatricians, preschools and hospitals may be able to share your single, cooperative program with a wider group of families, rather than directing them to their individual libraries. This is a possibility that has only recently come up as a topic of discussion in our programmer meetings, and I am looking forward to hearing from libraries about this and other new and exciting opportunities that virtual programming and collaboration can offer to families with young children.