Inclusive Storytime: 6 steps to success

What do we mean by inclusion?

A great definition of inclusion, as it pertains to early childhood, comes from the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Early Childhood and the National Association for the Education of Young Children who say: 

“Early childhood inclusion supports the right of every young child and his or her family, regardless of ability, to participate in a broad range of activities and contexts as full members of families, communities, and society. The desired results include a sense of belonging and membership, positive social relationships and friendships, and development and learning to reach their full potential. The defining features of inclusion are access, participation, and supports.” (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2009)

Recent research about inclusion in early childhood learning reveals persistent barriers to participation for children labelled with disabilities (Flewitt et al., 2009; Kaeding et al., 2017; Kliewer & Biklen, 2001; Mui & Anderson, 2008; Prendergast, 2016). Not participating in learning activities that other children (and their families) take for granted means that children with disabilities may be not get the support they need for their early literacy learning.  Later on, if they fail to learn to read, the underlying presumption of incompetence might become a self-fulfilling prophecy(Mirenda, 2003; Zascavage & Keefe, 2004). This is where I believe that offering inclusive early literacy experiences within public library and other community literacy programs can make a huge difference. 

What is inclusive early literacy? 

Inclusive early literacy means that prior consideration and planning has taken place that will help to ensure that young children with disabilities as well as other exceptionalities are able to experience early literacy with their age peers in the same program.

6 Steps Towards Inclusive Storytimes

1. Pace

Children with a variety of developmental disabilities frequently (not always!) experience delays in their language and speech development when compared to children without disabilities. One of the ways to make a storytime program inclusive of more children is simply to s-l-o-w down your rate of speech. Forget everything you have heard about keeping things moving quickly in order to keep kids’ attention. As long as things are interesting, you have their attention. Slowing down can help the children who have lags in their language development participate as well as children who are newer to English (or whatever language you are speaking) much better. You are not slowing down to the rate that a glacier recedes, but you are aiming for a slowed rate of speech that still sounds sensible but that you are consciously aware is m-u-c-h slower than your normal rate of speech. It is a hard, but necessary step to take in order to maximise the inclusivity of your storytime programs. Practice reading aloud and teaching rhymes while consciously talking more slowly! 

2. Engagement

Literacy is a social act(Hamer, 2005; Street, 2003). Everything that children learn about literacy comes through relationships with other people, mostly their parents and closest caregivers(Bronfenbrenner, 1986; Vygotsky, 1978). 

Storytime as a site of literacy learning should therefore be considered an important social experience and the learning that takes place is via the relationships between the people in the room. That means social engagement, or in other words “a connection.” Eye contact, smiles, gestures, waves and kind words all contribute to an atmosphere of warm engagement. Children and adults alike will feel at ease and learning can happen. 

This aspect of inclusion is likely the one that is already well established in your storytime programs however it is critical that you recognise how important those relationships are to the creation of an inclusive storytime experience. If you are starting up a brand-new program with families you don’t know, it will take some time for everyone to feel comfortable. Take it slow, with no pressure to on them to participate and just focus on building trust with the children’s caregivers. You want them to see you as someone they want to learn from, someone who they know is cheering for them and likes them and their kids.  If possible, offer some nice healthy snacks like fruit, cheese, and crackers as these are always appreciated. 

3. Repetition

We know how much children like to do an enjoyable thing over and over again, even well past the time we as adults have become incredibly bored with it. Listening to stories and playing simple games repeatedly are some of the ways that children’s brains are able to actually grow their connections. 

These same principles apply in inclusive storytimes where all children’s brains are afforded repeated opportunities to experience new words and concepts in various, multimodal ways(Diamant-Cohen et al., 2013). For example, the same book might be repeated another day by showing key words in[T1]  sign language, or using puppets instead of holding up the book. There are multitudes of ways for repetition to be woven into storytime programs and all of them are beneficial to all young children’s learning. Sing some of the same songs every single time, and absolutely repeat things that seem to have become crowd favourites! 

4. Routine

It is true that some children are more flexible than others when it comes to their daily routines. That being said, most children are happy to follow general routines. Other children have critical needs for structure and routines in order to be able to learn at their optimal level(Wildenger et al., 2008). This is often the case with children who have some types of disabilities although otherwise typical children can have extreme discomfort with unpredictability too.  

Storytime experiences that are chaotic and ever-changing from week to week will not be well-received by children who do best with routines and children who are more flexible are absolutely fine with routines being imposed upon them. Therefore, storytimes that follow a predictable “routine” each and every week will add a great element of inclusivity into your programs. 

Start with the same opening rituals, move to a song, a story, a hand rhyme, another story, a stretch, a dance and a visual story and so on in the same order each week. Show the children by way of a visual schedule (cards showing simple pictures of the general activity) what is happening when and next. These are easy to make with copyright free images or photographs, laminated and stuck on a flannel board with Velcro. You can watch the sample storytime videos on this blog to see how this works.  

5. Group Size 

In terms of inclusiveness, it will not surprise you to learn that loud noises, lots of voices and chaotic movement are overwhelming for children with some kinds of disabilities and/or sensory processing issues. These are often the children who scream and demand to be taken out of a crowded, hot, and loud storytime program(Prendergast & Lazar, 2010). 

At the same time, pre-COVID, early literacy programs were popular destinations for young families and public libraries were challenged with meeting the demand for storytime programs because they are just so good!

Getting storytime crowds down to a manageable size (which will depend somewhat on the size of the room) will help to increase the overall inclusivity of programs. Bear in mind that drop-in programs are hugely appreciated by many families as registration causes frustration and disappointment for those who do not get in. 

Solutions to crowded storytimes should be addressed at the community level, with careful consideration given to the needs of all attendees. It is equally critical to get input from potential or former attendees who have not come to storytime because they are too crowded. 

2021 Update: As terrible as COVID-19 has been, one silver lining that I am anticipating is that group programs will have to be small and spread out. This is great for inclusiveness.

6. Targeted programs

A look at the professional literature reveals that library workers are very welcoming of families whose children have disabilities when they arrive at the library(Banks, 2004; Feinberg et al., 2014). 

If we want our programs to be truly inclusive, they should be able to represent the diversity that exists in our communities of children and families. One way to encourage attendance at regular storytime is to first offer targeted programs for specific populations of children and families who are not yet coming to the library. 

By connecting with other service providers who work with families of children with various disabilities, you can offer to create unique programs to suit the needs of each group. These programs aim to provide a safe place within the library for similar families to come together and experience the joy of early language and literacy with their children and to learn about what else the library has for them. 

I think this kind of targeted program approach should be done with the intention of eventually graduating these children into the regular stream of inclusive program offerings when they are ready to do so and making sure they continue to feel welcome and supported. 

This resource has been adapted and updated from my chapter: 

Prendergast, T. (2015). Inclusive early literacy. In A. Brock & C. Rankin (Eds.), Library Services from Birth to Five: Delivering the Best Start (pp. 183-198). Facet. https://doi.org/DOI: 10.29085/9781783300808.010


Banks, C. (2004). All kinds of flowers grow here: The Child’s Place for Children with Special Needs at Brooklyn Public Library. Children & Libraries, 2(1), 5-10.             

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1986). Ecology of the family as a context for human development: Research perspectives. Developmental Psychology, 22(6), 723-742. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.22.6.723     

Diamant-Cohen, B., Hetrick, M. A., & Yitzhak, C. (2013). Transforming preschool storytime: a modern vision and a year of programs. Neal-Schuman.          

Feinberg, S., Jordan, B. A., Deerr, K., Langa, M. A., & Banks, C. S. (2014). Including families of children with special needs : a how-to-do-it manual for librarians (Revised ed.). Neal Schuman.     

Flewitt, R., Nind, M., & Payler, J. (2009). If she’s left with books she’ll just eat them’: Considering inclusive multimodal literacy practices. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 9(2), 211-233. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468798409105587

Hamer, J. (2005, June 1, 2014). Exploring literacy with infants from a sociocultural perspective. New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ Work, 2(2), 70-75.         

Kaeding, J., Velasquez, D. L., & Price, D. (2017). Public libraries and access for children with disabilities and their families: A proposed inclusive library model. Journal of the Australian Library and Information Associationhttps://doi.org/10.1080/24750158.2017.1298399

Kliewer, C., & Biklen, D. (2001, 04/15/). “School’s not really a place for reading”: a research synthesis of the literate lives of students with severe disabilities [Article]. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 26(1), 1-12.         

Mirenda, P. (2003). “He’s not really a reader…”: Perspectives on supporting literacy development in individuals with autism. 23(Generic), 271-282.          

Mui, S., & Anderson, J. (2008). At home with the Johars: Another look at family literacy. The Reading Teacher, 62(3), 234-243.     

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2009). Early childhood inclusion: A joint position statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/DEC_NAEYC_EC_updatedKS.pdf

Prendergast, T. (2016). Seeking early literacy for all: An investigation of children’s librarians and parents of young children with disabilities’ experiences at the public library. Library Trends, 65(1), 65-91. https://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2016.0023           

Prendergast, T., & Lazar, R. (2010). Language Fun Storytime: Serving children with speech and language delays. In B. Diamant-Cohen (Ed.), Children’s services: Parterships for success (pp. 17-23). American Library Association.           

Street, B. (2003). What’s “new” in New Literacy Studies? Critical approaches to literacy in theory and practice. Current Issues in Comparative Education, 5(2), 77-91.   

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.           

Wildenger, L. K., McIntyre, L. L., Fiese, B. H., & Eckert, T. L. (2008). Children’s daily routines during kindergarten transition. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36(1), 69-74. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-008-0255-2          

Zascavage, V. T., & Keefe, C. H. (2004). Students with severe speech and physical impairments: Opportunity barriers to literacy. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 19(4), 223-234.        


Easy Felt Board Activities for Storytime

One little red fish swimming in the water

Swimming in the water

Swimming in the water

One little red fish swimming in the water

Bubble bubble bubble bubble pop

(twirl your fingers upwards for the bubbles then clap for the pop!)

(count up with other colours of fish) 

You can absolutely sing this song without the felt board, but it is really easy to make a set of fish and it works really well in storytime!

Here’s the video to learn the song!

Here’s a photo of what it can look like from https://www.literacious.com

I also showed you the Little Mouse, Little Mouse activity – so easy to make and it works really, really, really well in storytime despite how very simple it is. Here’s a link to my friend Jean at VPL with a cool demo!

How do I put it on

How do I put it on? 

I can get dressed all by myself

This is my shirt. Do I put it on like this? 

No! I put it over my head.

These are my pants. Do I put them on like this? 

No! I put my legs through my pants.

This is my cap. Do I put it on like this? 

No! I put my cap on my head. 

These are my shoes. Do I put them on like this? 

No! I put my shoes on my feet. Here goes…

Shirt. Pants. Cap. Shoes. I’m ready. Off I go. 

I got dressed all by myself! 

Here’s a link to the story and pattern sample



Storytime Songs

This section will include songs that you can fit in anywhere during storytime!

An orca whale

An orca whale

Little sea stars and an orca whale 

An orca whale

An orca whale

Little sea stars and an orca whale

Sea otter, sea otter

Little sea stars and orca whale 

Sea otter, sea otter

Little sea stars and orca whale

(Tune: A ram sam sam) 

This version replaces sea stars with sea scallops! Sing both! Make up new verses!

This is big big big

This is small small small 

This is short short short 

This is tall tall tall 

This is yes yes yes 

This is no no no 

This is fast fast fast 

And this is SLOW!

Copyright: Melissa Depper 

Here’s the Jbrary version, slightly different than mine!


Perfect Picture Books for Storytime

For babies and toddlers, I showed you the book series that begins with Hello Humpback by Roy Henry Vickers and Robert Budd

The other books in this board book series are: One Eagle Soaring, Sockeye Silver, Saltchuck Blue, and Raven Squawk, Orca Squeak

You can read more about these books here:

I also told you about a lovely book for active toddlers called Supertruck by Stephen Savage. Here’s a link to a Youtube version!

I also shared a new favourite for storytime called Awâsis and the World-Famous Bannock. Here’s a link to a pronunciation guide for the Cree words in this awesome book.

And here’s a readaloud too


Spoken Rhymes (no tunes needed)

Singing in storytime is great of course, but everyone needs a break from singing sometimes. Still others aren’t too keen on singing in public very much and while it is likely that even those who don’t have a lot of public singing confidence will still sing a bit in storytime it is TOTALLY OKAY to seek out and use language material that is just spoken or chanted. Children will still get lots of literacy benefits from a spoken/chanted rhyme, poem, or game. Here is what we’ve learned so far:

Fuzzy wuzzy caterpillar 

Into a corner will creep

He’ll spin himself a blanket

And then fall fast asleep

Fuzzy wuzzy caterpillar

Wakes up by and by 

Stretches out his lovely wings

He’s now a butterfly 

(video demo coming soon!)

We also learned this bilingual ASL/English rhyme

Lion, Lion 

Tiger, Tiger

Bear, Bear 

Monkey, Monkey

Spider, Spider

Tickle, Tickle, Tickle! 

Video demonstration coming soon!

5 fat sausages sizzling in a pan

All of a sudden, one went BANG 

(clap your hands on “bang” and count down) 

Here’s a cute video with a slightly different version of this rhyme!


Closing Songs in Storytime

Just like your opening songs, your closing songs should be the same for each week in your storytime sets (usually over 6 or more weeks). This gives your attendees a chance to learn that storytime has a beginning, a middle, and an end. At the end, when they hear the song, they can anticipate the transition to whatever is next in their day. Some kids need gentle transitions and singing a familiar song lets them know that change is coming.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

See you later, alligator

In a while, crocodile

Give a hug ladybug

Blow a kiss, jellyfish

Take care polar bear

Out the door dinosaur

See you soon, big baboon

Wave goodbye, butterfly!

(tune: Happy Birthday)

We also learned

Good-bye my friends, Good-bye

Good-bye my friends, Good-bye

Good-bye my friends

Good-bye my friends

Good-bye my friends



(As I am not able to find an existing video, I will record my own video of me singing this song and upload it here soon!)


Opening Songs in Storytime

Singing the same opening song at the beginning of your storytime week after week will help everyone learn to settle down to listen when they arrive. This will work in person and in virtual settings. Think of it as the opening credit and score to your favourite TV show. It’s familiar and it helps to get you ready to pay attention, right? Pick something you like and can sing with confidence. Pick something that is easy to learn and that families can repeat. Personalizing with children’s (and adults names) is a nice touch in some programs. Familiar tunes are great, but it is okay to pick a more unique song as long as you post the words and give attendees a chance to learn your opening song.

Opening songs we’re learning this week

Hello Everyone

Hello everyone,

Hello everyone 

It’s nice to see you here

Hello NAME, Hello NAME, Hello NAME 

It’s nice to see you here

(go all way around the room – if the group is small, include the grown-ups,

if large, just the children) 

(here’s a link to a slightly different version that you can try too!)

We also learned

I wake up my hands with a shake shake shake

A shake shake shake, a shake shake shake

I wake up my hand with a shake shake shake 

Then I wake up my hands no more 

(repeat with: toes/tap; eyes/blink; ears/wiggle etc.)

We also learned

I’m in the mood for singing

Hey how about you?

I’m in the mood for singing

Hey how about you?

I’m in the mood for singing 

Singing along with you

Hey hey what do you say?

I’m in the mood for that today

Hey hey what do you say?

I’m in the mood for that(Continue: with dancing, playing, reading/storytime) 

Here’s a cute video version

Let’s all clap cause _____ is here, ____ is here, _____ is here Let’s all clap cause _____ is here. ____ is here today! (insert child’s name) 

(Tune: Buffalo Gal) 

Here’s the Jbrary version with a real baby!

When the cows get up in the morning 

They always say good-day

When the cows get up in the morning 

They always say good-day

Moo moo moo! They always say good-day

Moo moo moo! They always say good-day!

(Repeat with other animals: this is fun with farm animal puppets) 

Here’s my friend Jamie at VPL with his version of this song on the VPL Youtube channel (another great resource actually!)