Monday, September 2, 2013

Let's Talk About School-Age Programming

First off, let me say: I think we, youth services librarianship, do early literacy pretty darn well. Sure, we have room for improvement, could use more trainings and refreshers, would benefit from professional development and conference sessions on early literacy programming. But, for the most part, we do a pretty good job of understanding and meeting the need for early literacy programming.

That said, I think our (necessary) focus on early literacy programming has caused us to (unnecessarily) leave school-age programming by the wayside.

It is part of my personal philosophy of public library service that public libraries should offer diverse programming options to school-age children. In many libraries, these children age out of preschool early literacy programming and don't have much to look forward to at the library until they're old enough to enjoy the teen programs that libraries have been building over the past decade. Occasionally there's a craft, and maybe there's a LEGO Club--both great programs for sure. But that's not enough.

School-age children are at this wonderful age in which they are really starting to become their own people. They spend significant portions of their days away from Mom and Dad, be it at school and/or activities, and this time away helps them to see and experience things from their own personal perspectives. School-age children are starting to develop their own personal interests, and public libraries should help them develop these new interests. We should offer them programs in which they get a taste of science, of history, of fantasy, of mythology. We should offer them activities in a program setting to really explore topics and ideas they may not have really interacted with before, like building and mummification and zeppelins and every interesting thing about the world. We should offer school-age children programs in which kids can discover, learn about, and celebrate their interests with their peers.

I very strongly believe school-age programming is something that every public library with programming services should provide. To that end, I have a few things to say to the key players in making school-age programming happen.

Librarians and other library staff who plan and lead programs: Make school-age programming a professional goal. Think about the level of programming you currently provide to preschoolers and/or teens and then try to help school-age programming catch up in terms of number of options. Offer a combination of recurring programs (Kids Advisory Board, book discussion club, LEGO Club) and stand-alone programs at times that work for your community. Make sure to include literary elements or other ties to your library collections in your programs; after all, programming is about building a love and use of the library. And when it comes to planning programs, please don't feel like you have to go it alone. Use the myriad of terrific resources that exist, from blogs, conference content, and Pinterest boards that share great school-age programming ideas. Better yet, use your personal learning network. Ask your peers what's worked for them, and then think about modifying it to fit your library's needs. There are so many amazing programs out there (here's a post that shares just the tip of the iceberg of my go-to sources of inspiration) that you need never start totally from scratch unless you want to.

Library managers and administrators: Make school-age programming an institutional priority. There's no good reason for the continuum of library services to drop to minimum levels when we talk about grade schoolers. In fact, it's good business sense to offer free, fun activities for children this age--practically every other activity these kids might participate in costs money, from scouting to sports to arts lessons and classes. Having free alternatives readily available at the library not only levels the playing field in terms of who can participate, but it also sends a very important signal to caregivers that the library is here for them and their families' educational and leisure needs. There are few ways to so quickly become a vital institution in the eyes of parents.

Folks with influence in library staffing and hiring: Where are the school-age specialist positions? I love how more and more libraries are crafting specific early literacy specialist positions; what a great resource to have on staff, someone who can do all the things a youth librarian does and additionally offer early literacy-specific program planning and training. Pat yourselves on the back if you've hired one. But the school-age service area requires just as much focus. Imagine your library with a school-age specialist: that's a librarian who can create diverse programming options for use in multiple settings; who can serve as point person on educational initiatives that impact the library, such as Common Core; who can develop frameworks for services that help children achieve their developmental assets; and who can train colleagues to more effectively reach their school-age customers and their families through programs and services. That's a librarian with the capacity to add significant value across the whole institution, and yet not many libraries have thought of hiring one.

It all comes to this: all school-age children with access to a library should have the opportunity to enjoy regular, age-appropriate programming that interests them. Access is an entirely different issue in and of itself, but when the library is there, it should offer activities for school-age kids that kids want to attend. We need to better serve these young customers. We need to talk about school-age programming.


  1. Speaking as a parent, not just a librarian, my kid doesn't have much time to go to a K6 program during the school year. After being in school all day, then doing homework, having dinner, etc., there's just not much time or mental capacity to head to the library for a program. I see what you're saying concerning the steep drop in programs after kids age out of early literacy. I did roughly 3-5 K6 programs monthly last year, and had the same 7 kids come to each. And don't get me wrong, I love those 7 kids, but in-house programs don't reach the kids who have crazy busy lives...that's where outreach to schools plays a huge part in my community. Our K6 plan now is 90% outreach, and 10% family programs for all ages. Kids are knocking down the doors to get booktalk books and are signing up for cards like we're going to run out! This plan may work for other communities who don't have a large turnout for K6 programs. This is a very thoughtful post, Amy...thank you!

    1. Thanks for sharing a really great perspective. How very true that in many communities and households, an extra event to go to on a weeknight is not a feasible option. I love that you're meeting your community's school-age needs through outreach programs. Obviously this program is drawing lots of school-age children into your library--the desired goal, regardless of whether programming is in-house or out in the wild. It's all about engaging kids where they are.

      I'll say that I'm also an advocate for weekend programming, which works more consistently with many families' schedules. I know that's a horse of a different color due to staffing issues, schedules, etc., but when they happen, boy do they draw in families.

    2. Thanks for this post, Amy! We also get the same 20 or so kids coming to after-school programming, which is why we're focusing more on no-school days and early release days. I sometimes think, though, that "no kids come to our programs" can be an easy way out of planning for them at all rather than, like MPL Eary Literacy is doing, making deliberate changes in how you do things based on patron response. Good on you, MPL!

      I wanted to share a great resource for anyone who is looking for research to back up the hiring of a school-age specialist or a grant for school-age programming!

    3. Great resource, Sarah! And ditto the perspective of doing what is appropriate for your community in terms of program schedule and format. It should never be a question of IF you offer interesting school-age options, but when and how to best meet community needs.

  2. I have a daughter that just started Kindergarten and I definitely feel like we don't offer very much for the school age kids at our library, either. I struggle with figuring out when to hold the programs as well. After school is tough - we have one elementary that doesn't get home until after 4:30 and honestly, evening and weekend programs for that age group don't have great attendance. I want to do more programs for this age group, so I would love your ideas of when and how often to hold them. I agree too - there are many more program opportunities for older kids (dance, sports, music, etc.) that make it harder to get good attendance. What do you think for a book club? Monthly, weekly? Also, I would love ideas for passive programs and ways to work with the schools. Thanks for sharing!!

    1. Carly, as far as a book club is concerned, I think it really depends on the level of interest in your community. One of our local branches has a good turnout for an everyone-reads-the-same-title club, but we have better luck with a general come-share-what-you-read-and-liked style event. Once a month is usually sufficient for us.

      For passive program ideas, I suggest checking out Marge Loch-Wouters's blog Tiny Tips for Library Fun. She has great write-ups of some of her library's passive programs, like the Awesome Box and Mystery Book Bags. She also has a great series of posts on school/public library collaborations.

  3. I'm gonna echo what people have already said and say that we try to concentrate on school breaks when parents may be looking for something to do with their school-age kids. We have also concentrated on outreach to the schools so that we can serve more than the handful of kids who might come out on school day afternoons. Even on Saturdays, we find that lots of kids participate in sports and it's just as hit-or-miss as the evenings. I will say that we just had our first beginning readers storytime last week, which we aimed at ages 4-6 and we had 15 kids which, for us, is amazing for a new program. I know it's not completely in that school-age range, but it's something...

    I will also say that when we were developing our strategic plan, our community planning committee (made up of community members) valued early literacy HIGH above all other service responses (including homework help, etc.). So that's where we concentrate the majority of of programming (especially during the school year).

  4. My town must be the weird town out, because I can't get anyone to come to weekend or break programs - but I average 40 people every week for our after school clubs on Thursday (works out to about 25-35 kids). Every Thursday we have a "club" from 3:30-5pm. All ages are welcome and the programs are drop-in. I usually get a group of preschool or younger kids right at the beginning, an excited swirl of elementary-age kids from about 3:45-4:30, and a desperate mixed group popping in right at the end. I have new people almost every week. We have a Lego Club, Messy Art Club, and Mad Scientists Club (new this fall) and I alternate a different club each week. I also run them during the summer. I've got some of the plans for the more involved ones up here


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