You don’t need expensive gadgets or software to make your virtual story times a hit. What makes your story times really shine are the low-tech ways you connect with your audience, says Matt Mazur, a children’s entertainer with a graduate degree in autism intervention and early childhood development, and co-founder and director of Turtle Dance Music .
Read on for seven low-tech ways to make your virtual story times engaging, or watch Matt’s full 15-minute video below.
Look directly into the camera
During in-person story times, your eyes probably move around the room to connect with as many kids as possible. On camera, you have to train yourself to do the opposite and maintain eye contact with your camera.
It can be a little awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it, your audience will see your facial expressions more clearly, and your story time will become more engaging.
Mention every kid’s name
The simple act of recognition seems small, but it can be vital to a child’s development. (For more on this, read about Child Honoring , a philosophy developed by singer, songwriter and children’s author Raffi Cavoukian.)
As you are welcoming kids to your story time or leading everyone in a song, try mentioning every participant by name. “What’s so great about Zoom is that you can physically see the kids there,” says Matt. “This makes it easy to compliment the hat a child is wearing or say that you are happy that so-and-so is here today.”
Have kids rename themselves on your virtual platform
Ever been in a Zoom or Google Meet story time where all the kids are logged in as “iPad1” or their parents’ usernames?
At the beginning of your story time, ask parents or guardians to rename themselves using their kids’ name or a fun nickname. (On Zoom, they can rename themselves by right-clicking on the three dots at the upper-right corner of their thumbnail.) This gives the kids ownership over the livestream and makes them active participants from the start.
Make it a conversation, not a presentation
Kids are not interested in a presentation; they will get bored if they’re just spoken to the whole time.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I went live two to three times a day with some of my best material,” says Matt. “But people were logging out really quickly. I discovered that having a conversation and getting the kids up and moving around had them stay much longer.”
The solution is to make your story time as three-dimensional as possible. Ask the kids direct questions (while looking into the camera and using their names!) and type into the chat for kids who have their cameras off. You can also ask kids to send reactions like the thumbs-up or heart to let you know that they are watching.
Make sure you’re well lit
Even if you don’t have fancy professional lighting, make sure the audience can see your face. Face the window for natural light or turn on all the lights in your room. Just make sure you’re not sitting in darkness so the audience can see your face to make out your reactions.
Gamify your livestreams
Don’t be afraid to get silly; add little games, like dance breaks, into your story times. Try giving points to kids showing off their best moves. Kids love to dance — and they love anything that gives them points, even if there is no clear winner at the end. Or just mention each kid by name and compliment their moves.
Finally, take a chance on being vulnerable with your audience. “When my parents both had COVID earlier this year, I was really scared, and I would mention that in my shows,” Matt says. “Even though you’re communicating through a screen, these are still real relationships, and they appreciate getting to know the real you.” A real relationship with their librarian is more meaningful than just about anything else.
Matt Mazur is co-founder and director of Turtle Dance Music. He is the co-author of the children’s book "Scrak’s Big Adventure," written with and illustrated by Tim Shaw, an autism advocate and artist and Matt’s brother-in-law. Proceeds from the book go toward scholarship funds for adults with autism to attend local colleges. Follow Turtle Dance Music on Facebook for more. Mr. Matt would be happy to offer a free in-depth virtual story time webinar to your library staff/county-wide system; e-mail him at TurtleDanceMusic@gmail.com  for more info or if you have further tech questions.