The Work of Childhood: CLELCON21 Reflections

by Pearl Bass/Douglas County Libraries

2021 has been a year of many firsts for me. For the first time since graduating with my MLIS in June, I’m no longer a student. In May, I got my first professional library job as a Youth and Family Services Librarian. My position offers me access to a myriad of new experiences on a daily basis, including the opportunity to attend CLELCON for the first time. I joined CLEL at the recommendation of my coworkers almost immediately after starting my position, and I leaned on its resources heavily while settling into my new role. CLEL’s content was especially helpful for me while planning storytimes, another first-time activity for me as of August. I love storytime and I do have a knack for it, but I’m always looking for ways to improve my skills and provide a more enriching experience for the families that share their time with me. Luckily, CLELCON had just the session I needed to up my storytime game! More on that in a little bit.

There are so many aspects of storytime that I love, but there’s one part that I always look forward to the most. After we work our way through the storytime plan, I am thrilled to break out the toys and play with the kids. Funnily enough, this was actually the part that I initially dreaded the most. During my first few playtimes, I felt unprepared and on display. I feared that I didn’t know how to talk to kids, especially not the babies with whom I primarily work, and the last thing I wanted was to look bad in front of the grown-ups. After all, I’m supposed to be a natural at this kind of thing- it’s my job! My first instinct was to leave the babies and grownups to their own play and come back when it was time for cleanup. However, I didn’t want my fear of failing to get in the way of my professional growth. I knew I needed to give myself the opportunity to be mediocre, learn from my mistakes, and slowly get better with practice.

I started small by introducing myself to the grown-ups during playtime and talking to them about their lives and interests. I learned about the children at my storytimes this way, because it seemed easier to me than interacting with them directly. Once I warmed up to the grown-ups, though, I started feeling brave enough to play a little bit with the kids. And that’s when my whole perspective changed. Play was magical! I found that interacting with the children wasn’t hard if I just offered them my enthusiasm and attention. Soon enough, I knew all my kids’ personalities and tendencies and I could interact with them effortlessly. Playtime became and remains my absolute favorite part of storytime, and I find myself more disappointed than the kids when it’s time to clean up.

Once I became comfortable with playtime, I thought I knew all there was to know about play. Thank goodness the CLEL conference reminded me that there’s always more to learn! Ann Santori’s session, The Work of Childhood: Promoting Play in the Library, equipped me with information that I hadn’t previously considered or conceptualized. I learned that children grow through play in stages, beginning with the unoccupied play of babies and leading up to cooperative play. Ann also discussed the many different kinds of play, from sensory to dramatic and beyond. The information I took away from this session allowed me to build new skills on the foundation of my existing playtime strengths. While I already knew that play was a fundamental part of early literacy, I did not understand that there were right (or perhaps more productive) ways to encourage it. I learned that I have the ability to both model productive play for children, and show caregivers how to gently guide their kids towards the next developmentally appropriate stage of play. I felt empowered by this session, and immediately went to work testing the new tools in my toolbox.

My favorite new tool by far has been asking open-ended questions to enhance play. Rather than focusing on the “what” of the toys that a child selects, I now focus on the “why,” or the intent, of the child at play. I no longer ask questions such as “What color is this block?” and instead pose open-ended queries such as, “What are you going to do with that block?” This minor switch completely changes the play dynamic. The first question has one correct answer, and it forces the objective of the child’s play to center around producing that answer. Not only is that not imaginative, it’s also not fun. In contrast, the second question empowers the child to make any creative choices they’d like. When we create supportive play environments such as this, we allow children the freedom to play, and thus develop, freely and authentically.

This session also touched on ways to adapt productive play strategies for children who are in different developmental stages of play. So far, these adaptations have allowed me to connect with my storytime kids better than ever before. For my babies who are in the unoccupied stage of play, I’ve started narrating their actions aloud to them and asking them open-ended questions about what choices they will make next. This gives them exposure to the language surrounding their play, and also helps me build interpersonal connections with them. They may not know what I’m saying quite yet, but they know that they have my full attention! I’ve found that by simply engaging with and showing interest in the babies while they play, I can encourage them to explore new toys more enthusiastically, and I can strengthen my relationships with them. With some of my older babies and toddlers, I have started modeling imaginative play. Those who are in the solitary play phase find my choices fascinating, and will often copy me or riff on my actions. I even had a baby pretend to drink out of a cup after watching me take sips of my coffee during playtime. To engage the preschoolers and somewhat older children who come to storytime, I’ve started posing open-ended questions to them about their play. Very often, the child at play will stop and think deeply about my question before coming up with a totally creative answer. Then, they’ll continue to show me all the creative play ideas they come up with!

Regardless of the ages of the children at storytime, what I’ve noticed across the board is that allowing them to take the reins and deeply engaging with them during play makes them feel cared for. By employing these strategies, I’ve been able to build stronger connections with all of my storytime kids. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to grow from this session, and from the CLEL conference as a whole. I can’t wait to go next year!

Pearl is a Youth and Family Services Librarian with Douglas County Libraries who has a penchant for connecting with little readers! When they’re not at work, they can be found making latkes, playing with their pets, or drinking lots of coffee. Pearl is an enthusiastic advocate for diversity and inclusion both in and outside the storytime room.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position or opinion of the Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy organization or the individual committee members.