So here's what I did and will continue doing. I used my usual format for the storytime itself--2 or 3 good books for this age (not tiny board books) with songs and/or activities between, and I always begin and end with the same hello and good-bye songs. But instead of doing a make-and-take craft afterwards, today I gave them a bagged craft to take home and do (so the grown-ups who are very attached to crafts can still take one home to do themselves), and I introduced some activity centers that are more suited to 2 and 3 year-olds--they stem from Iowa's Every Child Reads or ALA's Every Child Read to Read components. Families then stayed for 20-30 minutes to do a "center."
I took just about 2 minutes to tell the parents the purpose of each center, and then they chose one, took it to the floor or to a table, and parents and children did the activity together. This was glorious. In the past at the craft tables, most of what I heard consisted of parents directing their children in what to do in order to make the craft as they wanted it to turn out. Today, instead, I heard conversations. I heard laughing. I heard encouragement and praise. I heard stories. I heard learning happening, and it was exciting.
So after that last sentence, if you're still reading this, you're probably expecting some pretty spectacular, innovative center ideas to follow, but what follows are just simple, engaging activities--one of them homemade--that are appropriate for 2-3 year-olds and serve a purpose in the ECR and ECRR frameworks. My goal is to create/obtain enough of each (except the sand table, of course) so that I can offer just 3 choices each week, plus the sand table, and rotate the choices often.
Here are my initial centers. Please note that although many involve sorting and counting, their purpose may have more to do with the fine motor skills involved in manipulating the objects or with the conversations they generate. It's purposeful play.
1. Sand table with various plastic containers, pourers, sieves, and funnels (ours can comfortably accommodate 8 small children at once, elbow to elbow). I didn't take a picture of it, but they are sold through a variety of school and library supply companies.
2. Counting/Sorting Bears
I had anticipated a huge bag of bears that I could divide into smaller kits, but there are only ten of each color, so I am ordering more of these, available here.
3. 3-D Shapes
These were used as blocks, for counting, and for color sorting by most. Learning the names of the 3-D shapes wasn't the main objective from my perspective. I plan to attach some conversation prompts to the containers for grown-ups who might not know what to ask or say while playing with a 2 or 3 year-old. Some of the adults who bring children to our storytimes are babysitters, some are fresh out of high school, and some just may not realize how beneficial purposeful conversation can be in the literacy development of a child. These I bought from Lakeshore Learning.
4. Counting Chips
I used empty Crystal Light-type containers, cut slits in the lids, and put about 25 colored plastic chips in each. Children empty the container and then drop the chips into the container one at a time while either counting or identifying colors. The chips would make a more satisfying thunk with a coffee can, but my storage space is limited, so I like this compact container. These are the chips I purchased. although others would work just as well. I checked my local dollar store for some less expensive poker chips, but they didn't have what I was looking for at the time.
5. Lacing Beads
The container of beads came with just four laces, so I purchased extra laces that are thick and made specifically for this kind of activity. The beads are very large, too--good for little hands. I divided the huge container into six smaller ones. This develops the pincer grasp and eye-hand coordination. These are the beads I bought.
6. Finger Puppets
I bought sets of people and animals. This is another center that I'll write prompts for eventually. Adults who may not feel comfortable making up dialogue on the spot might be willing to sing Old MacDonald Had a Farm or some other familiar song from their childhood instead.
7. Flannel Boards
Again, eye-hand coordination and pincer grasp come into play as well as story-making. I purchased a 5-board set from here, put the flannel pieces for each into a labeled gallon-size Ziplock bag, and they were ready to go. The set I purchased came with scenes for the beach, a cafe, the zoo, a camp site, and a pet shop. I love creating flannels and will, over time, supplement these sets with some homemade ones.
8. I Spy Bottles
These were the most time-consuming, because I made them. I ordered gumball charms from a seller on Etsy, died alphabet-shaped pasta in primary colors with a mixture of food coloring and rubbing alcohol, and mixed them into rice in Blue Diamond almond bottles. The lids are hot-glued shut to prevent spills. I made sure that each bottle got a complete alphabet so that children can try to find all of the letters of their names if they want to. I put a very short list of things to look for on the top of each lid for those who want a specific challenge. Examples of these are all over Pinterest.
9. Poms and Tongs
In a gallon-sized Ziplock bag I put a plastic container of various-sized poms, a small paint tray (because I don't currently have a supply of egg cartons, which work just as well), some small containers, and a pair of children's plastic tongs. The idea is that children will use the tongs to transfer the poms from one container to another or from the floor to a container. This activity could involve sorting by color and counting as well. This idea came from here. Scroll down to Transferring.
The favorites of the day were the counting bears, the I Spy bottles, and the flannel boards. I'll be interested to see if the favorites change as the makeup of my storytime groups change.
Do I ever plan to do crafts after storytime again? Yes, but only ones that serve a purpose for toddlers. Painting activities (what kind of mark will this sponge, stamp, cotton swab, or wheel make when dipped in paint?), collage-making (rubbing a glue stick onto a piece of paper and sticking things to it will engage some of my toddlers for tens of minutes), and other similar activities will make occasional appearances after my storytimes, but I will no longer be a slave to the post-storytime craft.
I have a list of more post-storytime activity centers I'd like to create or obtain, including:
--Making a "feelie box." Cut a hole into the side of a box for a child's hand to fit through. Put objects inside--spoon, comb, pencil, eraser, fork, cotton ball, clothespin, coin, etc. Put on the side of the box as a prompt: Can you name each object you touch? How does it feel (smooth, hard, soft, long, short, etc.)
--Threading pieces of a plastic straw onto a lace
--Rubber stamps, pads, and paper (I love watching toddlers experiment with the kinds of marks they can make with various marking tools. I can almost hear them thinking, "What will it look like if I smear it? If I press it? If I drop it onto the paper?")
--No-mess finger paint (finger paint in duct-taped gallon Ziplock bags)
--Sorting chenille stems into tall containers by color
--Scoop and pour: I'll provide dry beans and peas, plastic containers, a spoon, a scoop, and let them experiment with ways to transfer the beans from one container to another.
--Clothespin transfer: I'll provide a clothespin, some objects, and some plastic containers to move the objects to.
If you're interested in the actual storytime we did today, here's my outline:
--Song: Hello, Everybody, Yes Indeed from H.U.M. by Carole Peterson
--Book: Wiggle by Doreen Cronin (Of course, we made all of the various kinds of wiggles as we read.)
--Song: A Tooty Ta
--Book: Is Everyone Ready for Fun? by Jan Thomas (We jumped, danced, and wiggled with the cows.)
--Song: Teddy Bear Play Time from So Big by Hap Palmer (I purchased 4 dozen inexpensive teddy bears from Oriental Trading so that children have an actual teddy bear to use for the song. It's been the favorite this summer and we've done it every week.)
--Book: Dot and Dash Play Together by Emma Dodd (Today's group was particularly attentive; otherwise I would skip a third book.)