A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Sensory-Enhanced Storytime at Douglas County Libraries: An Inclusive Program

by Laura Baldassari-Hackstaff, Sheila Kerber, Ruth Ann Krovontka, & Laura Root Olson on May 20, 2014

Sensory-enhanced storytime at Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries (DCL) is an inclusive program developed for all ages, children through young adults, who are on the autism spectrum or differently abled, and presented at a preschool level of development. Everyone is welcome at each of our library storytimes, but we began this storytime because some find greater enjoyment in its modified environment of a closed room where lighting and music are lower, movement and conversation are encouraged, and there are multiple ways to engage through the senses. Public libraries offer many programs based on their patrons’ age, abilities, interests, and other factors, and sensory-enhanced storytime at DCL is another expression of our commitment to the American Library Association’s (ALA) Core Values of Librarianship.

At the very heart of the ALA code of ethics is the promise, “We provide the highest level of service to all library users.”1 We at DCL realized that this special population was not receiving storytime services. Many parents with children who are differently abled do not attend library storytime because they are concerned that their children will be disruptive, and yet these children need and benefit from our services. We were determined to provide a safe, comfortable environment that would welcome these children and young adults, and their families, so they too could benefit from the literacy-rich environment that the library provides.

Since beginning sensory-enhanced storytime in September 2012, we have received many expressions of thanks from parents, caregivers, and medical therapists. Their statements of support can be summarized as thanking us for providing a program where a son can be who he is, where siblings can interact just as they do at home, and where weekly growth can be observed. Children, teens and young adults with a variety of special needs attend our program, revealing a broader need than originally anticipated. Our program has connected us with a young adult daycare, whose clients attend weekly, and where we visit monthly to present our storytime. When these young adults visit the library for storytime, they may also use our computers or check out materials.

Many of our attendees are new to the library, and they apply for library cards after storytime. We see them using the library before and after our sessions, and we encourage them to attend upcoming  events and participate in our seasonal reading programs. Further, by welcoming siblings, extended family, and medical professionals to each session, we are providing a therapeutic and informative program with value beyond the immediate experience. We are dedicated to making our libraries welcoming to all patrons.

The Stories of Sensory-Enhanced Storytime

From the start, we have been pleased by our attendees’ age range and developmental levels. This is an expression of the importance of this program for a large segment of people in our community. We have infants, toddlers, preschoolers, children, teens, and young adults attend, each with their unique abilities to interact and enjoy the event. When we were developing the program, we expected that our audience would be largely children of toddler and preschool age on the autism spectrum, but we have learned that this storytime fills a need for a much more diverse demographic.

We currently have an average of eight youth attending each session. While we anticipate increased attendance over time through word-of-mouth and outreach, we know that our program is making a difference in the lives of our regular participants. They attend once or even twice weekly, giving us the opportunity to see their attention, language, and social skills develop. Initially some are hesitant to come into our storytime room, or may cry during their first visit. After a few sessions they are comforted by their growing familiarity with the songs and activities that we repeat at each session, and gradually begin to engage and participate.

Some make progress during their first storytime. A mother noted that her daughter did not cover her ears at all during her first sensory storytime at our library, which she regarded as a significant milestone. We also see that repeat participants become more engaged over time. They gain self-confidence and improve their language and social skills. They may gradually develop their ability to make eye contact. Their attention spans and participation increase as they are more able to anticipate each activity. We have learned that children who may not appear to be interested in the session will smile when we call them by name and make note of the scarf color they have selected, for example. Equally gratifying, some children choose to sit closer to us with each storytime they attend, and eagerly join in our activities. Mason, a two-year-old participant, is now comfortable coming up to our easel and placing his flannel shape on the board. A few short months ago his dad had to do this for him.

New friendships among the children, their parents/caregivers, and the program staff are another important benefit of sensory storytime. Raising a child with special needs can be an isolating experience for families. Our program offers a weekly time for them to visit the library and socialize. They begin to call each other by name, the typically developing children interact freely with those with special needs, and the relationships continue beyond storytime. At the conclusion of a recent session, one of our youngest participants looked up into the face of a young adult participant and said “Goodbye, James!”

Our storytime parents and caregivers are very appreciative of the safe and welcoming environment that our program provides for their children, and the developmental growth that it helps promote. Holly, whose son has a sensory processing disorder that makes it difficult to stay engaged, likes our sensory storytime as “it is hard to go to the library because he goes from thing to thing.” Our contained storytime room, with volunteers watching the closed doors, enables the parents and caregivers to relax and help their children benefit from our activities. The reassuring environment engenders a sense of security in their children. They talk, sing, sit, stand, walk, and move freely as they express themselves during the storytime activities.

Patrice, mother of two sons with Prader-Willi Syndrome, says of the program, “There have not been any negatives. It’s really a valuable resource for people like us that the kids don’t have to try and fit in. No one minds their little issues or idiosyncrasies. It’s very welcoming and we can just relax and be ourselves.”

Sensory-enhanced storytime is also a place for parents to connect with our staff, volunteers, and other parents and caregivers to seek and exchange information on library and community resources. As they enter our storytime room, we provide take-home information on our library programs, the Autism Society of Colorado, therapy centers, and other community organizations that have partnered with us or are recommended by our families.

Where to Begin

We began planning our sensory storytime program in fall 2011 with the formation of a district task force. The task force was composed of staff from several DCL departments. This group established working relationships with two organizations having extensive knowledge and expertise in providing programs for youth with special needs: (1) the Autism Society of Colorado (ASC) and (2) the Douglas County Preschool Program (DCPP). These collaborative relationships continue today, and our sensory storytime program is based to a great extent on their contributions, as described next.

During the ten months of storytime development, the ASC partnered with us in numerous ways. We attended their Autism Answers program, which is an introduction to their mission and staff, and to autism spectrum disorders, presented by their executive director. Following the program, we discussed the plans for our sensory program with them, and they provided ideas and information that are integral to how we market and present our storytime. The ASC has included our storytime schedule in their website since our program began.

Additionally, three members of the ASC staff visited our library. They attended preschool storytime, in order to discover which elements of this traditional program could be included in our sensory storytime, and to suggest appropriate modifications and enhancements. They also toured the library meeting room where sensory storytime is held, to help ensure an optimal and safe environment for our attendees.
We set up our room for sensory storytime based on ASC staff suggestions: the fluorescent light banks remain off, as some children may be sensitive to their buzzing and flickering; ceiling fans remain off due to their vibration and sound; the emergency and hallway exit doors are labeled with red STOP signs and monitored by volunteers; we place our meeting room tables in front of our stacked chairs to eliminate the chairs as a climbing hazard; and we secure all miscellaneous items such as push pins, pens, pencils, rubber bands, and so forth. Additionally, the ASC staff suggested that we use our rug with multi-colored squares to allow each participant to select a color to sit on. We also encourage our participants to bring their own seating, if they wish.

In June 2012, the ASC presented their Autism 101 program at our district staff day. As described by the ASC, “Autism 101 is an introduction to understanding autism spectrum disorders. Through this interactive and quick-paced presentation, you will learn the signs of autism, how to interact with individuals with ASD, and how to appreciate the gifts of autism.”2 We gained valuable insights from this presentation into the sensory and learning challenges of children on the autism spectrum, and a higher level of confidence in our customer service skills for serving patrons with special needs.

Our task force also worked extensively with the DCPP during the development phase of our sensory storytime. We observed a preschool class session, where the teacher sat with her students and acted out “Humpty Dumpty.” The children were enamored and engaged. We came away inspired that we could stretch ourselves in our sensory storytime without being over the top for the children. Additionally, a DCPP occupational therapist attended our task force meetings. She provided guidance on the children’s seating, fidgets, and many other aspects of the storytime.

Another crucial step in our sensory storytime’s development was reading Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski’s blog post, “Programming for Children with Special Needs,” which details her preparation and launch of a sensory storytime for the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County (N.C.).3 Along with the vital participation of the ASC and DCPP, Twarogowski’s blog post is another part of the foundation upon which we developed our program. Among the many valuable tips she shares, we have incorporated into our storytime her recommendations to invite siblings and medical therapists to attend, to add to the family’s enjoyment and therapeutic understanding of their child; to develop the storytime for all ages and at a preschool developmental level, in order to welcome children, teens, and young adults; and to offer parents and caregivers surveys of their experience with us in order to adapt and improve the storytime.

We also benefited from information provided by the Inclusion Collaborative of the Santa Clara County (Calif.) Office of Education. According to its website, the Inclusion Collaborative’s focus is “the successful inclusion of children with special needs in child care, preschool programs, and the community through education, advocacy, and awareness.”4 They replied to our request for assistance with the design and implementation of a sensory storytime with useful guidelines for organizing the storytime space, activities, and social story.

A social story is a digital slideshow to introduce the library and storytime presenters to the children and families before they attend their first sensory storytime. We created our social story based on the Inclusion Collaborative’s example.5 Our social story includes photos of our storytellers, a staff nametag for easy identification of a staff member, the front exterior of our building, main entrance, book return, storytime hallway, storytime room interior, information desks, restroom, children’s department, and self-check machines. We also incorporated Inclusion Collaborative’s suggestions for seating, quiet fidget toys, and adapted storybooks to increase storytime interactions.

Staff and Volunteers

With the task force’s research complete, we (the authors), along with Carol Wagstaff and Leeann O’Malley-Schott, began to plan the details of the fall 2012 pilot. We offered the pilot program weekly, with morning and afternoon sessions on the same day. Realizing the daily demands on families of children with special needs, we could not predict an ideal day of the week for them. Consequently, we varied the storytime day monthly during the pilot, in order to help us determine the best day and times by surveying the parents and caregivers.

Next, we considered the staffing needs of the program. We learned from our work with ASC and DCPP that it would be ideal to have three people at each storytime: the librarian to lead the presentation and two additional staff or volunteers to assist with the parallel storybook/flannel board presentations, hand out manipulatives, and monitor the doors for safety. In order to provide ongoing continuity in our storytime, which is an important factor for those on the autism spectrum, each storytime has its assigned youth librarian presenter. Due to scheduling and budgetary restrictions, we recruited volunteers to fill the additional positions.

DCL District Volunteer Services Supervisor Ali Ayres and Branch Volunteer Coordinator Kim McClintock developed and led the volunteer recruitment. We asked volunteers for a minimum six-month commitment, and to be available for a specific weekly session. We wanted them to have experience with, or a professional interest in, children with special needs so that the program would be enhanced by their understanding and skills. Ayres and McClintock contacted our library’s existing volunteers, and advertised the positions in our district’s volunteer newsletter as well as in external publications. As our district does with all volunteer applicants, the candidates underwent a background check before being accepted. Ayres’ and McClintock’s dedication to finding the best candidates resulted in the formation of a core group of twelve wonderful teens and adults, some of whom have been with the program since the pilot. Our volunteers have formed friendships with the participants, and enrich our presentations with their experience and love.

Next we created a volunteer orientation to the program. With the permission of the ASC, Wagstaff developed a synopsis of their Autism 101 program. We began the orientation with this, followed by a discussion of the volunteers’ storytime tasks. Finally, we presented a portion of the storytime to demonstrate those tasks for them.

Themes, Plans, and Materials

The next step was to develop the storytime themes, plans, and materials. We selected themes that are supported by numerous and well-loved storybooks, songs, and flannel stories (see figure 1). We designed a sensory storytime plan template (see figure 2) to ensure that we would offer the same opening and closing songs, bubbles, parachute, and other activities at each session.

Figure 1. Sensory-Enhanced Storytime Themes Pilot Program

Things That Go
Farm Animals
Mice are Nice
Shake Your Sillies Out
Yummy in My Tummy
Bundle Up/Clothes
Snow Friends/Penguins
Under the Sea

Figure 2. Sensory-Enhanced Storytime Template

Hello Song
Welcome and Visual Schedule
Book or Adapted Book and Flannel/ Manipulative
Fingerplay/Nursery Rhyme
Book or Adapted Book and Flannel/ Manipulative
Fingerplay/Nursery Rhyme
Scarf Song
Bubbles and Song
Parachute and Song
Goodbye Song

Using information from the ASC, DCPP, and Twarogowski’s blog, we then enhanced the sensory experience of our storytimes in multiple ways. To offer a richer visual experience to our audience, we read a storybook while our volunteer simultaneously engages the audience with the flannel board version of the book. The pieces of the flannel board story are placed on a portable flannel board for our participants to select and place on the easel flannel board as the story is read aloud.

We made adapted storybooks and manipulatives to further engage the children. The adapted storybooks are color copies of storybooks that are laminated and put into a three-ring binder. A second set of copies is used to cut out and laminate key illustrations from the pages. Those illustrations are then attached with Velcro on top of their identical images on the pages in the binder. Prior to a storytime, we remove the Velcro-attached images from the book and place them on the flannel board. While we read the storybook, children take turns placing the images on the pages of the adapted book. We also attach laminated characters from select storybooks to large craft sticks and distribute them, allowing the audience to act out the story as it is read.

A variety of movements and sounds are incorporated into our storytime as well. We sing songs that include waving, clapping, stomping, and swaying. Musical instruments such as tambourines, sound blocks, tapping sticks, shaker eggs, and water bottles filled with rice add to the movement and sound opportunities. We move colorful scarves through the air at every storytime to the song “Shake Your Scarves” by Johnette Downing from her album The Second Line Scarf Activity Songs. Each session also includes moving a parachute up and down to the tune of songs such as “Tick-Tock.” Some children also need to walk or run around at some point during a session, which we can accommodate in our room.

A selection of puppets is also an integral tool to engage our attendees. Finger puppets serve as both characters from our stories and fidgets for their hands, and the larger puppets join us on the floor where they serve as props, pillows, and cuddly friends for the children. They provide an additional sensory source as well, as the children can stroke, swing, or squeeze them. In all of these ways, puppets help our audiences participate in the storytime.

We engage the children’s tactile sense with sensory balls, felt teddy bears, small beanbags, squishy paint bags, large feathers, chunky paint brushes, and other stimulating objects. For those children who enjoy scents, we pass cotton balls in plastic jars saturated with pleasant smells relating to specific stories. Bubbles from our bubble machine are included in every sensory storytime, which attract and delight many of our participants. We have found that by incorporating different sensory experiences into each storytime, we are able to engage and re-engage our diverse audiences.

Another important component of sensory storytime is the visual schedule, a tool commonly used in inclusive classrooms. Wagstaff created our smiling caterpillar whose individual circles depict a different storytime activity- read a book, sing a song, bubbles, and so forth. As we complete an activity, our volunteer or an eager audience member removes that circle from the caterpillar and moves his face down to meet the next circle. The visual schedule is a reassuring element for our audiences because they are familiar with its purpose and it tells them exactly what to expect at each session.


In order to gain a foundational understanding of the autism spectrum, and to aid in the development of our storytime plans, we consulted and recommend the following books (see figure 3). These titles are part of the wealth of information available to you to supplement what you will learn from your local Autism Society and school districts.

Figure 3. Recommended Reading Materials

The Autism Book: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Early Detection, Treatment, Recovery, and Prevention. Robert Sears, M.D. (2010)
Autism Every Day: Over 150 Strategies Lived and Learned by a Professional Autism Consultant with 3 Sons On the Spectrum. Alyson Beytien (2011)
The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum. Temple Grandin (2013)
How to Talk to an Autistic Kid. Daniel Stefanski (2011)
Music for Special Kids: Musical Activities, Songs, Instruments and Resources. Pamela Ott (2011)
Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew. Ellen Notbohm (2012)

Still Learning

September 2013 marked our first full year of offering sensory-enhanced storytime at the Highlands Ranch Library. Throughout this year we have offered our storytime each Thursday (at 10:30 a.m. and 4:15 p.m.) and on the third Saturday of each month (at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.). This schedule was, in large part, determined by the survey and in-person recommendations that we received from our participants during the pilot program. We learned that our public school district’s preschool program offers families the choice of half-day morning or afternoon classes, so it was logical for us to offer both a morning and afternoon weekday session. The times of day were likewise chosen based on our pilot audience’s suggestions.

Thursday was chosen because it was the day that most attendees preferred. Additionally, because we do not have a dedicated storytime room, it is most efficient for us to set up our storytime once on Thursday morning, and offer two storytimes before putting our supplies away. Both sessions have a core group of weekly attendees and regularly attract new families who can attend because of a change in their school schedule or medical appointments.

We request that the child attending storytime be signed up for each session, and patrons can register up to one month in advance. A maximum of fifteen children can register for each session. If non-registered participants arrive, we welcome them into the storytime with the request that they register in the future. No one who wants to attend is turned away. There is no registration required for those accompanying the registered children. An adult must attend with the child, but a one-to-one ratio is not necessary. We have a storytime email group that is regularly updated with new registrants. This group receives the storytime plan from us at the beginning of each week. This was requested by a mother who wants to make the storytime session more enjoyable for her child by reading the storybooks and singing the songs prior to attending. We know that this can be helpful to all of our participants, so we include this in our weekly tasks.

We also email a pre-survey to families who register for the first time, and send a post-survey after they attend. The pre-surveys tell us how our registrants found the program and the specific needs of their children that they choose to share. The post-surveys allow them to tell us what they did and did not like about the storytime, and to make suggestions for how to improve it. With this information, we adapt our sessions to better meet their needs.

Our 2013 storytime themes follow the weekly themes of our traditional storytimes. We present the theme that our traditional storytimes offered during the previous week. By following this schedule, we do not use resources needed by our traditional storytimes, while allowing us to choose from the books, flannel board stories, and songs that have already been gathered.

We changed our storytime floor seating from our large rug to foam squares (approximately 18″ x 18″ in size) that adhere to our library carpeting with Velcro dots. This was prompted by our concern that the curled edges of the rug would be a tripping hazard. The foam squares are colorful puzzle shapes decorated with animal and plant designs and numbers. Upon arriving, the designs and numbers prompt some of the children to discuss which square they will sit on, creating immediate engagement. Of course, some children prefer their parent or caregiver’s lap or snuggling with one of our large puppets during storytime, while others bring their seating from home or remain in their wheelchairs.
A volunteer passes out hand fidgets at the beginning of each session for sensory stimulation and to assist with engagement during the storytime. Some fidgets are related to the theme of the storytime or to a specific book being read, while others are provided for their calming properties, like the cooling sensation from the paint bags when placed on a cheek or forehead.

When we sing everyone’s first name after our welcoming announcement, we pass a sensory ball from child to child. The sensory ball has raised nubs covering its surface for an increased tactile experience. Periodically an adult in the audience will use the sensory ball during our storytime to soothe their child by rolling it gently along the child’s back or limbs.

We have found that our participants greatly enjoy storytime when we read our oversized storybooks or sing select storybooks. The oversized books enhance our audience’s visual experience and allow for easier viewing. One volunteer holds one side of a large book and helps the storyteller turn the pages. Singable books (such as Five Little Ducks, Over in the Meadow, or Today Is Monday) encourage movement with their rhythms and hand gestures and increase participation for many children.

Bubbles and a parachute song conclude each storytime with smiles and laughter. Most of the children are delighted with the bubbles and they often stand under them or try to catch them as we sing a song from “The Mailbox Magazine” (see figure 4). There is much excitement as we break out the parachute and beach ball. We sing a song while everyone moves the large parachute up and down or sits under the parachute for a sensory-rich experience. The children move the parachute to try and keep the beach ball on it, and take turns retrieving it whenever it is bounced off. To encourage everyone to let go of the parachute at the end of the song, we say that we need our hands to wave as we sing our goodbye song.

Figure 4. “Bubble Song Lyrics”

Bubbles floating all around
Bubbles fat and bubbles round,
Bubbles on your nose and toes,
Blow a bubble, up it goes.
Bubbles floating all around,
Bubbles floating to the ground

Over the past year we have heard from our participants about some of the many ways in which our storytime is useful and beneficial for them. Parents attend with children who will begin preschool in the next school year. They use our program to encourage their children to participate
in group activities, follow directions, and develop social and cognitive skills. Families attend for their typically developing children to enjoy an activity with siblings who have special needs. Caregivers attend with their clients to provide them with a weekly change of environment and informal instruction at a preschool level. Medical therapists join their patients at storytime to observe them in a non-clinical setting and to understand the therapeutic benefits of the program. Parents and caregivers also appreciate the library and community information we provide, as well as the relaxing environment.


Community outreach has been an important part of our storytime’s growth over the past year. We have created partnerships with a variety of community organizations that serve the needs of special populations. Our collaborations were initiated by DCL, by the organizations themselves, or through parent recommendations. As we did during the development of our storytime, we continue to partner with the ASC and the DCPP through mutual program promotion and referral. We also collaborate with the HighPointe Center, a daycare facility for young adults with developmental disabilities. They attend our weekly storytime at the library, and we present a storytime at their location once
a month. Our storytime bookmarks are available at their center’s reception desk, and we offer their information on our resource table.

We are also fortunate to have the STAR (Sensory Therapies and Research) Center as a local resource and collaborator. We offer their informational brochure on our storytime resource table, and they display our storytime poster in their reception area. The Highlands Ranch Community Association’s therapeutic recreation program provides classes and activities for youth with special needs, and we are pleased to have a partnership with them. Their class offerings and community events are advertised at our storytimes, and they provide information on our program in their facilities.

Throughout 2014, we are planning to offer additional programs and services for the special populations in our communities. The families who attend sensory storytime have established connections with each other through our program, and we would like to help them develop a parent
support group to be held at our library and therapeutic recreation centers. We will also forward to our participants relevant community
information, with their permission.

We encourage you to consider offering a sensory storytime program at your library. We have told you about how it benefits our patrons and community. What you also should know is that our two-year journey to develop and present sensory storytime has been one of the most joyful and satisfying experiences of our careers. We welcome you to join the community of libraries that present sensory storytime.


  1. American Library Association, “Code of Ethics of the American Library Association,” accessed Feb. 5, 2014.
  2. Autism Society of Colorado, “Autism 101,” Aug. 16, 2013, accessed Feb. 5, 2014.
  3. Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski, “Programming for Children with Special Needs, Part One,” ALSC Blog, June 23, 2009, accessed Feb. 5, 2014.
  4. Santa Clara County Office of Education, “Inclusion Collaborative,” accessed Feb. 5, 2014.
  5. It is posted on the sensory-enhanced storytime page of our website.

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