Successful library activities for the early years and ways to promote books effectively

Early years activities in libraries - and of course library books - can play a huge role in supporting babies' and young children's learning and development. This chapter will consider that role and identify effective library activities and book promotion for under-fives.

The benefits of library activities for early childhood learning and development

The acronym SPICE is a very useful reminder of early childhood developmental needs:


Libraries are well placed to nurture all of these. Many readers will have witnessed young children learning how to take turns in rhyme times, just one example of the ways libraries help social development. Successful rhyme times incorporate plenty of movement - evidence of support for physical development. Anyone who has given or watched a library story time for young children and listened to their questions and comments will be well aware of their value for intellectual development. Craft activities foster children's creativity. Lots of picture books are wonderful for emotional development, helping children's understanding of their own and others' feelings.

Many countries define the areas of learning and development that should be supported in early years establishments. Libraries can and should bear these in mind when planning activities. This way they usefully complement what is happening in preschool settings and in the first years at school, so reinforcing children's learning. In addition, libraries can demonstrate their relevance to young children's education, making library visits more attractive to preschools and schools. In England the areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (DfE, 2012) have much in common with those of other countires. The EYFS prime areas of learning are:

  • communication and language
  • personal, social and emotional development
  • physical development

There can be no question that libraries help communication and language. Rhyme and story times develop babies' and young children's listening and attention skills, help them understand the spoken word and communicate with others and increase their vocabulary. Such activities also play a valuable role in terms of personal, social and emotional development. We have already seen some examples, to which could be added the fact that regular attendance at library sessions helps young children learn to manage their feelings and behaviour, and begin to share. Craft activities and rhyme times aid coordination and motor skills.

These are defined as the EYFS specific areas of learning:

  • literacy
  • mathematics
  • understanding the world
  • expressive arts and design

Again, it is easy to think of ways in which libraries and books play a part. Surely nowhere is more important for early years literacy than libraries. Crucially, libraries help children enjoy books, making learning to read much easier, and rhyme times draw attention to word sounds in a highly enjoyable way. There is clear evidence of the benefits of rhyme in terms of literacy development (Booktrust, 2014). Libraries support maths too. Number rhymes help with counting. Lots of picture books explore concepts like shape and size. Books are also wonderful for giving young children an understanding of the world. They learn about their own and other countries, about nature, about people. Any library activity in which children explore and use media and materials is all about expressive arts and design, as is any in which they have the opportunity to be creative and imaginative.

We should consider not just the direct impact of library resources and activities on babies and young children. Libraries also have the potential to develop the skills of parents and carers, enabling them to support their children better. Family learning is very powerful, and libraries are in an ideal position to support it. We know that parental involvement in a child's learning is more powerful than family background, size of family or level of parental education (Campaign for Learning, 2014), and that the earlier parents become involved in their children's literacy practices, the more profound the results and the longer-lasting the effects (Mullis et al., 2004). Library practitioners can model and support good practice. They can help parents and carers understand the importance of rhymes, books and book sharing and model good ways to aid children's learning. Many parents, if they read to their children at all, open the book, read the words, then shut the book. Through libraries, they discover how to engage children and make book sharing far more enjoyable and creative, and feel confident to use books, rhymes and creative activities at home.

Key ingredients of successful provision

If these are the benefits, what are the key ingredients of successful early years provision? First and foremost, everyone must feel welcome. Practitioners leading sessions need to welcome every participant, but welcome extends wider than this. How early years-friendly does the library feel to the first-time visitor? Are all the staff on board? One glowering face as families come in can ruin a visit, and may mean some never return. Is there a secure place to park buggies? How easy are nappy changing and breast-feeding? How safe does the library feel? Unless issues like these are addressed, again, families may only come once.

Fun must surely be the next priority. If the babies, young children and parents and carers attending library sessions don't enjoy them, they will not learn and they will not come back. No rhyme time, no story time, no early years venture of any sort will achieve its goals if it does not foreground pleasure. Is the children's area in itself an enjoyable place to spend time in?

Children love and need to be creative, as we have already seen, so make opportunities for this, remembering that joining in with a book and talking about it can itself be creative and that projects like making books are highly enjoyable. Sessions in which children create things to take home help reinforce learning, especially if the activity in some way continues there. An example might be planting a seed after hearing Jack and the Beanstalk and taking it home to grow.

Play is crucial for young children's learning, so library activities need to include lots of it. A good rhyme time will of course just feel like play. Well-chosen books can too. Watch a child interacting with The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Carle, 2002), and what you see is play. Some Essex libraries offer creative play sessions in conjunction with local children's centres - a great idea. Good toys are very valuable, especially when used constructively - for instance at the end of story or rhyme times. Use soft toys to tie in with rhymes and songs and to demonstrate actions.

As babies and young children learn through all their senses, it is always helpful to incorporate multi-sensory approaches. A book like Handa's Surprise (Browne, 2006) lends itself well if there are lots of fruits for the children to touch, smell and taste. Musical instruments in rhyme times are great: things for babies and toddlers to shake and to hear. Simple things like water, sand, feathers, leaves, balloons and bubbles and messy play are extremely popular and stimulate lots of discussion and learning. Soft toys, puppets and artefacts bring rhymes, stories and books to life and increase enjoyment, understanding and participation.


Participation is a vital part of successful early years sessions. No baby or toddler learns by just watching and listening. Parents and carers are much more likely to use the ideas they encounter in the library at home if they have taken an active part. (And of course we also need them to be engaged as otherwise children will be distracted.) What are good ways to make sure babies, young children, parents and carers are all involved? Small groups foster interaction and participation. Instruments, soft toys, puppets and artefacts encourage involvement by both children and adults. Encourage everyone to participate by using familiar rhymes that involve the adult and child doing things together: action, counting, tickling or cuddling rhymes. The best seating arrangement for rhyme times is a circle, as this encourages participation (and reduces the risk of small children escaping). Make sure small babies face their carer rather than facing outwards, as they can only focus on faces and objects that are nearby. Plan participative activities that link the artefacts, stories and books you aim to share, for example exploring light and dark with torches after reading Peace at Last (Murphy, 2007), or playing with cars on a floor mat after a car story. Acting books out is great. When choosing books to read aloud, choose ones that encourage children to join in, for instance books with lots of repetition.

Indeed repetition is very important for children's learning. In story times, young children often want to hear a book they have loved more than once. Reading it again will garner extra participation, enjoyment and learning. Research has shown that hearing the same book lots of times is better for children's vocabulary than hearing lots of different books (Bealing, 2011). Successful rhyme times use the mostly the same rhymes and songs every week. Babies and toddlers look forward to them, and develop the confidence to join in because they are familiar. It's great to have the same welcome song and the same goodbye one each time. Many Welsh library authorities support bilingualism by delivering some rhymes twice, once in Welsh, once in English.

There is lots more detail about successful rhyme times in Chapter 10, about music and rhyme time sessions for the early years, by Shelley Bullas and Ben Lawrence.

At the start of this chapter we saw the early years areas of learning and development. Language and literacy are key aspects of learning that libraries can and should support. Speaking and listening are the cornerstones for language and literacy development and crucial for lots of learning, so encourage lots of talk during early years sessions. Clear, simple language is vital for babies' and children's (and parents' and carers') understanding and to develop babies' and children's language skills and learning. Sharing books and rhymes in libraries is beneficial in all sorts of ways, not least that they help young children develop a love of language. Story-telling and story-tellers are fantastic. So too are local visitors - people like fire-fighters - talking about what they do, and telling a relevant story or reading a book. It's worth remembering the other areas of learning when planning activities, to make sure they are relevant and helpful.

Planning and practicalities

Early years activities should feel informal. To achieve this, meticulous planning is vital, with clarity about the aims and expected outcomes. Risk assessments are crucial. Work out a safe maximum number of adults and children for under-fives events. As we have seen, careful thought must be given to practicalities like buggy parking, access to toilets and breast-feeding arrangements. It's well worth consulting local early years providers as well as users and non-users over under-fives provision. Session plans are a good idea, setting out what is to happen through the session, what resources and props will be used, what the practitioner will do and how children and carers will be involved. It's important to build flexibility into plans, since the number, age profile or needs of the visitors to a story or rhyme time are often not as expected. Good planning ensures that you have a range of ideas and resources to suit any eventuality. Try never to be in the situation where you have to give an early years session without notice. Babies, young children and their carers deserve activities that have been thoughtfully prepared, and that takes time - something that unfortunately is in short supply in many libraries.

As much as possible, have the same practitioner each time. Consistency of staffing adds to children's and carers' sense of familiarity and comfort. Timing needs careful consideration: nap times need to be thought about, and school pick-up times. It's well worth consulting library users and non-users about this. Aim for a day of the week when there are not lots of other under-fives activities on offer locally. Whatever day and time you select, busy families need predictability and an easily remembered pattern. 10.00 every Tuesday is memorable. 10.00 on every fourth Tuesday is not. (The last Tuesday of every month is preferable, if staffing levels dictate monthly rather than weekly activities.)

For practical reasons, many library authorities offer one overall early years session a week. This is not ideal, as the needs of babies and toddlers and three- to four-year-olds are all very different. Children at the older end love fast paced sessions and lots of action, but for babies these are bewildering. If at all possible, it is more effective to have separate sessions for different age groups. Enfield Libraries provide rhyme times for babies under one and not yet mobile, toddler times with stories and rhymes for one to three-year-olds and story time and play for under-fives (Enfield Council, 2013). It is of course flexible with families with more than one child.

Try to have some activities at times when working parents can attend. Lots of library services now offer Saturday or Sunday under-fives events, sometimes targeted specifically at fathers and other male family members. Essex Libraries has Daddy Cool sessions with stories, songs and rhymes.

Most early years library provision takes the form of regular activities. However, one-off events can also be very valuable for attracting new and existing users, such as a very well attended bedtime story session at Petts Wood Library in Bromley. A number of UK libraries run occasional family days with appeal across the ages. For example, in March 2014 Glasgow Libraries mounted a Wee Write Family Day with rhyme times, book readings, art sessions and lots more, as part of a Glasgow-wide book festival for children and young people.i

Ideally, not all early years provision will be for families. There is lots of value in providing visits to the library by toddler groups, preschools and nurseries. The emphasis should of course be on enjoyment, with plenty of rhymes, stories and interaction. Where possible, visits to early years settings are also very useful promotional tools. Some library services provide specifically for childminders. Others make sure they are invited to regular under-fives activities.

Put up signs throughout the library about early years sessions, to advertise them, and to let other users know that noise levels will be higher than usual at those times. Many library users love seeing and hearing young children enjoying themselves in the library, but unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone. In this way the potential for dissatisfaction and complaints is reduced.

Do not worry if attendance is low to start with, as word will quickly spread, but do check that there are no problems with timing or access.

Monitoring and evaluation

The best early years provision evolves over time. Good monitoring and evaluation are very important. Keep a record of responses to the library and your activities. Some parents and carers find form-filling very off-putting. Oral testimony is equally valid. Listen to what the children say too, and watch how they interact with your sessions. And act on what you hear, and on your observations about what works and what is less successful. Make sure good practice is shared throughout the library service. Monitoring can provide useful evidence of the value of your activities for senior managers and elected representatives. A few years ago Croydon Library Service conducted a survey about the effectiveness of their Saturday rhyme times. These were the very impressive results:

98% of respondents showed evidence of enjoyment
83% showed evidence of progression
93% showed evidence of acquiring new skills
72% showed evidence of a change in knowledge and understanding
52% showed evidence of a change in attitudes and values

Catering effectively for early years entails catering for the whole family. A parent of a baby is quite likely to have a toddler as well, and perhaps older children too. That parent is not easily going to be able to attend an event for the baby or toddler without bringing their siblings. A flexible attitude means the library welcomes the whole family to activities, even when the age range may not be quite appropriate for everyone. Themed family days can cater for lots of ages, for example Perth and Kinross ran a circus-themed day in March 2014, with a range of family friendly activities including a story time with puppets and a puppet-making workshop.

Inclusivity is a useful watchword. Thought should be given to how to involve young children with special needs, for instance making sure that anyone with a hearing impairment sits near the practitioner. Props to accompany rhymes and stories make them easier to understand for children with learning problems. They are also very beneficial for families with different mother tongues. It's great to share songs, rhymes, stories and books in a variety of languages. You may not know how to speak more than one language, but your visitors may be very happy to take the lead for a short while. Be sensitive to needs. For instance, teenage parents may require some separate provision, as activities where all the other parents and carers are vey much older than them can be daunting. Do try to get men involved in library activities. Male role models are vital, but unfortunately often lacking in libraries. When a father accompanied a nursery group on a library visit and found and shared books about trains, the children, especially the boys, were enthralled.

It is well worth considering the value of partnerships with other providers - and not just children's centres, but organisations like local museums. Library and museum or library and archive cooperation in activities for under-fives can be very successful.

Marketing early years activities

What about marketing? The library service website is very important, and traditional flyers and posters have a role to play, particularly if they are displayed in places non-users will see them: health centres, religious institutions, shopping centres etc. Make sure to emphasise that activities are free and anyone can come. Use Bookstart as a marketing tool, with activities that tie in.

It's important to remember that for huge numbers of children parents are not the main daytime care-givers. Grandparents need thought in terms of marketing. Childminders have already been mentioned.

Outreach is crucial for reaching non-users. Visits to early years settings are very beneficial. A number of UK library services promote their offers at health centres. Some, for instance Hillingdon Libraries, have delivered one-off activities in shopping centres. Greenwich Library Service have done story-times in local parks, and on one occasion joined forces with the National Maritime Museum to give an open-air rhyme time. It attracted hundreds of participants and increased take-up of regular library rhyme times.

Word of mouth is the best means of marketing there is, and in these days of social media it is more powerful than ever. Think of the value of a positive write-up on Facebook or Twitter, like this tweet: 'Libraries offer a chance for my child to meet other children - rhyme time is an exciting part of our weekly routine!' Your users are your best ambassadors. This is from a father's blog post:

"Bounce and Rhyme was worth the wait. Sandy LOVES it. She's been doing it a while now ... so she's well versed in 'Zoom, zoom, zoom' and 'Five Little Monkeys.' She really enjoys all the movement and singing, and absolutely loves shaking her rattle in time with the other kids. There was a new lady leading it today and she was great. She did some new ones that ... I didn't recognise, so I learned something new as well."
(Adventures of a Stay at Home Dad)

Promoting books and reading

There is no question about the importance of promoting books and reading. As Orville Prescott famously said many years ago: 'Few children learn to love books by themselves. Someone has to lure them into the wonderful world of the written word; someone has to show them the way.' (Prescott, 1965) Library practitioners, with their knowledge of and access to huge numbers of inspirational books, are of course the ideal people to do it. Who knows better how to make books exciting and special? It is fabulous to hear a good book read aloud well. Young children who experience that joy are likely to find learning to read easier - they have seen how to do it - and to want to read. As mentioned earlier, children benefit directly from hearing stories and books in libraries, and they benefit indirectly as their parents and carers learn how to share books effectively.

What types of books work well for reading to groups of babies and young children? Given that we want to spread a love of books, the best aid to selection is to use books that you enjoy. Your enthusiasm will be contagious. If you find the book fun, so will the children. Use books with content that will stimulate lots of interest and discussion. Look for books with characters and plots that young children will relate to and understand. Choose books with good visual impact and good illustrations that can be seen from a distance. For babies, choose simple, colourful books with clear photographs or pictures of familiar things and everyday activities. Books that reflect home and preschool help children's understanding and make reading relevant. Pop-up books and books with flaps, textures and noises encourage enthusiasm and participation, and are great for children with special educational needs and children who have little understanding of the language you are reading in, though they may not work well with large groups. Funny books are always popular. Books with rhyme, rhythm and repetition work well. They help young children's memory and understanding and develop their literacy skills, and are ideal for fostering participation.

Think about concentration spans. Babies and toddlers need short books with plenty to hold their attention, and not too many of them. They need more time than older ones to take in the words and the pictures. Older children, especially if they regularly attend your story times, will be able to concentrate for longer, but will still need books that provide lots of stimulation. Be sensitive to emotional needs. Lots of older children love Where the Wild Things Are (Sendak, 2000), but it can be terrifying for some younger ones. Young children are intensely curious and love learning. Intersperse story books with simple and attractive information books on topics that are likely to interest them.

Avoid books which reinforce stereotypes in text and/or pictures. Aim for inclusivity. Consider the implicit messages in the books you are sharing. There is a huge value to children experiencing a range of cultures and ways of living through books. Read dual-language books sometimes, even if you can only read one of the languages.

Good book promotion is not just about choosing effective titles; it's also about the method of delivery. What are good ways to make books come alive for young children? Children love hearing different voices for different characters. Use lots of facial and vocal expression and big body movements. Props really help them understand and enjoy books. There are lovely Gruffalo (Donaldson and Scheffler, 1999) toys in lots of libraries, but home-made props or soft toys and puppets from charity shops can be equally effective. Participation makes all the difference. Even very little ones love joining in with the final words in rhyming lines. Three- and four-year-olds enjoy role play. A teacher introduced a reading of The Tiger Who Came to Tea (Kerr, 2006) by asking the four-year-olds in her class to imagine they had tiger ears and tiger stripes, a lovely way to make them receptive to the story. Dressing-up clothes are very popular. Simple art and craft activities related to books are fun, and help comprehension. For instance, children could make or paint tiger masks. Thematic approaches work well. You could accompany Dear Zoo (Campbell, 2010) with an appealing information book and an activity making pop-up pages with animal themes. For very young children the same book would be great accompanied with animal props and rhymes about animals.

Paul Kropp (1995) tells as that 'Reading time should always be full of talk and play, even if that has little obvious connection with the story.' It's through talk before, during and after book sharing that children make sense of what they are hearing and seeing, relate it to their own lives, and find wonder.


Wonder is an excellent word to finish this chapter. We have see that library activities and library books are superb stimuli for babies' and young children's learning, and that they spread positive messages about libraries and reading. Well-planned sessions and well-chosen books deliver enormous benefits to children and families. The best are lots of fun. And yes, full of wonder.




  • Adventures of a Stay at Home Dad
  • Bealing, J. (2011) 'Again, Again!' Why repetition in reading helps children learn more, University of Sussex.
  • Booktrust (2004) The Benefit of Rhymes.
  • Browne, E. (2006) Handa's Surprise, Walker.
  • Campaign for Learning (2014).
  • Campbell, R. (2010) Dear Zoo, MacMillan Children's Books.
  • Carle, E (2002) The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Puffin.
  • Department for Education (DfE) (2012) Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage, Department for Education.
  • Donaldson, J. and Scheffler, A. (1999) The Gruffalo, MacMillan Children's Books.
  • Enfield Council (2013) Toys and Stories.
  • Kerr, J. (2006) The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Harper Collins Children's Books.
  • Kropp, P. (1995) The Reading Solution: making your child a reader for life, Penguin.
  • Mullis, R.L., Mullis, A.K., Cornille, T.A., Ritchson, A.D. and Sullender, N.L. (2004) Early Literacy Outcomes and Parental Involvement, Technical Report No. 1, Florida State University Family Institute, Outcome and Evaluation Unit.
  • Murphy, J. (2007) Peace at Last, MacMillan Children's Books.
  • Prescott, O. (1965) A Father Reads to His Children: an anthology of prose and poetry, E.P. Dutton & Co.
  • Sendak, M. (2000) Where the Wild Things Are, Read Fox.