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The City Journals

Nature and learning combine during outdoor story time

Oct 04, 2021 01:32PM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart

Melinda Tooley uses movement and songs to engage children during outdoor story time behind the Tyler Library on Sept. 8. (Sarah Morton Taggart/City Journals)

By Sarah Morton Taggart | [email protected]

A librarian is leading a group of children in singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” then suddenly interrupts herself. 

“There’s a squirrel!” 

The children turn their attention to the small animal until it scampers away, then they finish their song. This scene took place on the lawn behind the Ruth Vine Tyler Library during the Wednesday morning story time.

“We were talking about animals, and I look over and there’s a squirrel,” Melinda Tooley said. “There are distractions, but I try and be really flexible (during story time).”

Tooley is a youth services librarian, and her weekly story time—like all Salt Lake County Library programs—went on hiatus in March 2020. But she was able to resume in May with a twist—rather than meeting inside the library, Tooley now reads to young patrons outside.

“There are some things I love about being outside,” Tooley said. “It’s nice to be out in the breeze. I enjoy nature and seeing animals and hearing birds.”

There are some challenges that come along with the change. 

“It can be a little challenging with people spread out and not having the kids right by me,” Tooley said. “I’m adjusting by using bigger books and moving around. I have props so everyone can be involved in the story. Making sure that everyone can hear and see and be engaged is my biggest concern.”

Children and their caretakers bring their own blankets or chairs and spread out in a semicircle around Tooley. The lawn behind the library is shady and welcoming, with whimsical touches that invite exploration. 

“I love the space out here,” Tooley said. “It’s a really nice space, and I want people to know they can come and enjoy it.”

The story time on Sept. 15 had a pirate theme with paper hats for each child and a packet with song lyrics and pages to color, including a treasure map.

The packet was a hit with Caroline Liedtke’s family. She had walked to the library with her two-year-old twin niece and nephew to attend the story time. 

“They like the songs and they want to go home and color the papers,” Liedtke said. “My friend told us last week that it was outside, so that’s why we came. I don’t know of anything else that’s started up and in the good weather they like to be outside.”

Every branch in the Salt Lake County system has been creative with keeping patrons involved and engaged while working to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Several other branches, including Taylorsville, Millcreek, Draper and Whitmore have also moved their story times outdoors. In addition, most libraries offer take home craft kits or self-guided activities and scavenger hunts for families.

The Tyler branch, located at 8041 S. Wood St., has also moved its LEGO Club outside. All ages are invited to join the next drop-in activity on Tuesday, Oct. 12 at 3:30 p.m. 

Other upcoming activities include take home craft kits and a scavenger hunt through Oct. 15 for Hispanic Heritage Month and a pumpkin craft on Oct. 8 at 4 p.m. 

Tooley plans to continue outdoor story time every Wednesday morning at 10:30 as long as weather allows. 

“It’s for the kids,” Tooley said. “You want them to have a good experience. You want them to enjoy the library and come back.”