Programming for Preschoolers: Take a Tip from Preschool Centers

photo from Alternative Heat (http://www.flickr.com/photos/alternative_heat/) via http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
photo from Alternative Heat (http://www.flickr.com/photos/alternative_heat/) via http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

When I was still teaching preschool (oh how I love to talk about when I taught preschool) one of the early literacy tactics we employed was to integrate literature and literacy skills into every center. This meant having books with building themes in the block center, books about nature in the science center, having pads of paper to write shopping lists and recipes down in the dramatic play center, etc and so forth.

Are you familiar with the centers in a preschool classroom? Many youth departments now have set ups similar to a preschool classroom, including block play, dramatic play and puppet stages. If your youth space is lacking distinct areas for different kinds of play, you might want to consider changing things around to allow for these play spaces. If you’re not familiar with preschool classroom centers and how classrooms are arranged, here are a few links:

NAEYC guide to setting up literacy rich classroom centers
Centers in a preschool classroom
Introduction to Preschool Classroom Centers

Now, if you’re stymied for some “beyond story time” programs for three to five year olds, just take those varied centers and start creating programs based on them.

Here are just a few ideas from some of the “centers” you’d find in a preschool classroom.

Discovery, Sensory, and Science

STE(A)M is a buzzword that can potentially get concerned parents into your programs. In certain communities, you need to promote programs as being enriching and academically rigorous to get buy-in from families.

For any science, cooking or making program, try to have the recipes or steps printed–with accompanying picture instructions–to amp the early literacy.

  • Invest in a sensory table, which you can fill with sand, colored rice, moon sand, cotton balls–the possibilities are endless!
  • Have a mixing & “cooking” program where you make  flubber or playdough.
  • Write or draw in shaving cream
  • Play with a light table
  • Mix up bubble solution and make giant bubbles
  • Do a “sink or float” program

Writing Center

Writing is just as important an early literacy skill as letter recognition, phonemic awareness and print awareness. Fine motor skills and being able to hold a writing utensil correctly is an important skill to have for Kindergarten as well.

  • For any program, have kids write their own names on name tags or on a (large) sign-in sheet
  • Practice writing with different media, including  crayons, markers, paintbrushes, colored pencils; write on chalkboards, white boards, and tablets, too
  • For a more sensory experience,– in rice, shaving cream, or tracing letters on sandpaper

Dramatic Play

Dramatic play is the perfect opportunity for children to try out different characters, work through difficult emotions in a safe space, and “…it remains an integral part of the developmental learning process by allowing children to develop skills in such areas as abstract thinking, literacy, math, and social studies, in a timely, natural manner.” (x)

Further, the ability to retell a story verbally or using props is a CCSS benchmark from Kindergarten up. Helping kids retell stories and get a handle on narrative structure–beginning, middle, end, etc–makes for a perfect preschool program.

  • An easy “unprogram” would be to gather toys, puppets, props and costumes for 5-6 well known fairy tales. Station them in your programming room or even all around your Youth Space. Have staff available to read the stories if kids aren’t familiar, then encourage the kids to use the props to retell the story, even changing it if they like.
  • Another unprogram would be to create a dramatic play center if you don’t have one. Create a house, grocery store, post office, shopping mall, farm, or restaurant, and stock it with books about those places. Have lots of paper and writing tools available to create shopping lists, menus, take orders, or whatever else the kids want to create.

Building/Block Center

Fine and gross motor skills are developed in the block center, depending on whether you use large wooden or cardboard blocks or smaller duplo sets. Seeding this program with related picture books, both fiction and non-fiction (Iggy Peck, Architect, any and all construction books, Lego guides), will give kids ideas without being prescriptive. Include toys and props with your block program, and kids will also engage in dramatic play.

These are just some suggestions, and often play centers and areas will intersect. For example, dramatic play will often happen in the block area, and building will often happen during dramatic play. It’s easy to work math into dramatic play (How many bears are there? How long do you think it would take to climb a beanstalk to the sky?) and work writing in science (write a question you want to answer, or draw something you’re observing). Retelling stories overlaps literacy activities with dramatic play. By using centers as a starting point for programs beyond storytime, it allows you to have one main focus, to which you can add and tweak as suits your mood and your audience.

Also, nothing precludes you from adding elements of different centers into your story time if you want. Instead of a craft at the end of story time, why not give the kids costumes and props and a chance to act out the stories you just shared? Or do a science experiment? The possibilities are endless and there’s no one way to do it.

Play @ your library: Playdough Party

Want to have one of the most successful library programs ever? Make playdough.

We did this program with 3-8 year olds, but I can see this working with even older kids, up through middle school–it’s all how you market it. It’s a great program to do at the library because, sadly, I think a lot of kids don’t get to engage in messy play at home because parents don’t want to face the clean-up.

Before we made the playdough we retold the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears with finger puppets because the story uses a lot of descriptive vocabulary–hot, cold, slow, fast, hard, soft—and I thought it was a fun way to launch into the program.

We made the following three recipes, making sure to talk about different textures, scents, temperatures, and other properties. Then we let the kids spend a lot of time playing and building, and allowed them to take home as much playdough as they wanted. We also printed out the recipes for parents to take home if they chose.

(I found the recipes at prekinders.com, which is my new favorite website. There are many more recipes up there, so choose your favorite.)

Kool-Aid Play Dough

2 cups flour
1 cup salt
1 package of Kool-Aid
1 cup hot water
Combine ingredients and mix.

Coffee Play Dough

2 cups used coffee grounds
1 and 1/2 cups cornmeal
1/2 cup salt
water
flour
Mix all ingredients until pliable. Add water, flour as needed to achieve a working consistency.

Oatmeal Play Dough

1 part flour
1 part water
2 parts oatmeal
Mix well and knead

Read more: http://prekinders.com/play-dough-recipes/#ixzz20Ka4QwZv

The Whole Library Approach

When I was still a preschool teacher, we talked a lot about the whole child approach, which, essentially, meant you took a whole child into consideration when you are teaching him or her. When we deal with children we teach, we can’t just have Susie the student. We also have Susie the daughter, the artist, the kid who doesn’t get enough to eat at home, whose parents can’t pay the utility bills so she cries before going to sleep because she’s afraid of the dark. We consider her immediate family, the community she’s in, and the experiences and exposures that impact her life and her development. We teach and take interest in the whole child, and take steps to help her thrive.

In so many public libraries, we’re so concerned with our own private domains. Children’s services, Adult Reference, Circulation, Technical Services, Administration– each little island has its own procedures, processes, vision, and expectations. The best libraries do what they can to unify these disparate departments, and have a library wide vision and mission, but so many don’t. So many libraries have departments that are so disparate in their approaches that it’s amazing they manage to (dys)function at all.

I am a children’s librarian as well as a staunch advocate of teens and those with special needs. (If anyone wants give me a job where my title is Toddler Tween Librarian and Purveyor of Programming, I would gladly accept.) I’ll help anyone who is within my reach, even if they’re not asking for something that a children’s librarian would typically help with.  Because that’s just what you should do.

Even though I work at the children’s desk, we get a lot of adult traffic as well. Some of these adults are parents, others are adults who don’t realize they are at the children’s desk, and others who wander over to us because of our proximity to the photocopier. I never turn adults away when they ask me a question. I will find books or resources for them, help them make photocopies, answer questions about computer classes, and walk them to the appropriate collection area if needed, the same as I would do for any child. My title is Children’s Librarian. Anything a librarian can do, I can do. Answering a reference question, regardless of the age of the asker, is something I should be able to do. I might not be as passionate about some of the reader’s advisory questions I get from adults, but I should know enough to do a RA interview, and I should have a working knowledge of major trends in adult literature.

I believe that in a public library, this should be standard. You should be prepared and equipped to serve the public at any and all times, regardless of age, ethnicity, or ability. If someone’s needs absolutely require someone else in another department, please walk the person over, make contact with your colleague, explain the situation, and make sure everything is ready to go before you leave. There’s nothing worse than being passed from person to person and department to department without any continuity or follow through.

Think about it: when you’re on the phone with customer service, don’t you hate having to give the same damn information over and over again, every time you are transferred? If you don’t like it, then don’t do it to your patrons. It’s not necessary, and it’s bad service.

Which brings me to another point: if you don’t like people, don’t work in a public library, period. Become an archivist, a collection development librarian, or, you know, go live in a cave and don’t bother any one anymore. If you like books–great! I like books too. But in the public library, books are just a means to connect with people.

Further, you need to like all people, and have a strong desire to help them. I don’t necessarily like everyone I help, but I enjoy helping them, even when it’s difficult. Sometimes the most ornery patron is the one who needs you the most.

Of course I have my preferences, like anyone does. I love working with children, which is why I specialized in children’s services, but I like helping everyone. I love talking about Doctor Who with the middle schoolers, and singing “I love my white shoes” from Pete the Cat with the special ed class, and helping an elderly patron make copies of photos at the copier. I don’t ignore or short-shrift any patron because I’m not the adult or teen librarian. If they’re in my library, they are my people, and I need to do what I can for them.

Which brings me back to the way we set up our public libraries. Most people don’t care about our stupid little divisions. This is why I love tiny branch libraries, where the reference desk and check out are usually in the same damn place. I helped you find all this stuff, and  now I am going to check it out to you. From beginning to end, I was with you, and we’ve made a connection. There was no reason for me to shuttle you off to another desk or another person to make things happen for you.

I’ve written about these kinds of issues before, but my ire was raised once again after reading Anthony Molaro’s excellent post The Apple Way for Libraries: A Manifesto? (I’d remove the question mark, though; when your points are as good as these, don’t soften or second guess your message):

In the library environment, the departments feud with each other.  This creates a hostile work environment in which collaboration simply cannot thrive.  In all honesty, when was the last time your technical services and your reference staff actually collaborated?  I’m not talking about a joint project, that a leader approved, but an actually collaboration.

Apple also cuts the fat, or drops dead weight.  Apple is known for only having A players.  Sometimes B players were pushed hard to make them A players, but more often than not, they were fired.  In lots of libraries, we have lousy staff.  We know it.  We joke about it.  We even lament it.  But the truth is if you fail in another profession you end up here.  Even worse, good C players end up with promotions and then you have an entire C rated organization.  Any A players there are pushed downward until they only strive for C results.

Yes, perhaps I’m hard on library staff today.  I have worked with some great people.  But even that statement says a lot.  They are great people not great librarians or library staff.  Most of our staff strives for the status quo, or mediocrity. They plan for tomorrow based on what happened yesterday.

So what are we going to do, guys? Are we going to let these problems destroy our libraries? Or are we going to get serious about solving these problems?