GREENFIELD — She twirls, takes a bow and beams every time she looks at her mom.
For 3-year-old Evie Piercy, story times at the Hancock County Public Library are a special weekly play date, complete with crafts, songs and dancing.
But mom Marli knows it’s about much more than just fun and games. With a knack for playing along and encouraging her daughter – even if it means making silly faces in public – Marli is getting her toddler ready for kindergarten by developing an excitement for reading.
Librarians and teachers alike say old-fashioned nursery rhymes and fairy tales mixed in with a few goofy songs are key in helping young children prepare for school. But even as regular story times at the library offer plenty of opportunity for children to learn, parental participation is the most important tool in gearing them up for success.
“Everything we’re doing is setting them up for kindergarten so they’re ready to read,” said Cathy Riley, youth services manager at the library.
The library uses rhymes and bouncing movements with infants to 2-year-olds during baby story time; the rhythm helps later in life with syllables and word formation.
By the time they reach the toddler and preschool story times, children are doing hands-on crafts to help with motor skills and learning how to sit still and listen to a story – with plenty of time to play with others, too.
Riley, whose eyes twinkle almost as much as the toddlers when she talks about story time, says the 30-minute sessions are just the start. Parents are encouraged to sing and read with their children at home all week long.
For Marli Piercy, story time has been good not just for little Evie, but her 5-year-old son Emerson, who’s now excelling in preschool.
“I love that they feel that joy coming here,” she said. “It just fosters a love of books, a love of stories.”
And that eagerness makes its way home, too, Piercy said. Story time has been a nighttime routine since her children were infants, something teachers say helps with early childhood literacy.
“It can show reading can be fun, and develop relationship with family,” said Harris Elementary kindergarten teacher Sara Houston.
Both Houston and fellow teacher Marc Redick said it’s easy to tell which of their students have been getting reading time at home. Some don’t know how to turn a book’s pages the right way – a big setback because by mid-year, kindergarten students should be reading.
That can be a surprise to many first-time parents, who don’t realize kindergarten is more rigorous than it used to be. Redick said by reading fairy tales to children at home before they enter kindergarten, it can help kids know that stories have morals or they can predict what might happen next.
And time with books can also help them know the basic – but important – skill of sitting still to listen, Redick added.
Collette Ott is getting those lessons early. At only 20 months, Collette is among the youngest story time participants at the library.
The babies listened to a quick story, bounced along with their parents to a few songs and danced around with bubbles.
And despite the huge box of toys that was brought out at the end of baby story time, Collette picked out a book and brought it to her mother to read.
“We read every day at home, and the first thing she brought me (here) is books,” said Amy Ott.
Bambi Pea, senior children’s library assistant, said classics like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Humpty Dumpty” help infants learn rhythm.
“When you’re learning language, it’s first the rhythm,” Pea said. “If you can reinforce that with song or anything else when they get to school later, they are more able to learn other things if it’s put to songs.”
HCPL librarians were recently trained on “Every Child Ready to Read,” which encourages talking, singing, reading, writing and playing as early literacy practices that will set children down the path to school. It reinforces what they had already been doing during story time for years, and offered a few new ideas.
The children’s room also has an early-literacy corner displaying fairy tale and folklore books, which Pea said are often too long to read during group story times but are perfect for parents to read one-on-one and interact with their toddlers. The library even has a list of recommendations, 100 books every child should read before kindergarten.
For kindergarten teachers Houston and Redick – parents themselves who regularly read stories at home to their youngsters – being proactive at home is something simple that parents can be doing to help their kids prepare for school. But reading and singing songs is something many parents just don’t know they should be doing.
“A child’s parent is their first teacher, and we appreciate all they do for them when they come into kindergarten, because it’s evident,” Houston said.