Summer Programming Ideas, from Ska Storytime to Outdoor Treasure Hunts

It’s midwinter—a perfect time to start planning your summer programming. Here’s a snapshot of what librarians are putting together for 2018.

Summer readers at the B. B. Comer Memorial Library in Sylacauga, AL.
Photo courtesy CSLP and B. B. Comer Memorial Library

It’s midwinter—a perfect time to start planning your summer programming. Here’s a snapshot of what librarians are putting together for 2018, from partnerships with parks to “rock star hair” parties. What do you have in store? Share in the comments section.

Libraries Rock!

First, the bedrock: Summer reading programs (SRPs), a traditional offering at many libraries, encourage recreational reading and learning when school’s out. Critically, SRPs help keep reading skills strong over the long vacation. According to an American Library Association (ALA) LibGuide on the topic (, “95 percent of libraries offer summer reading programs to forestall the ‘summer slide’ in reading achievement experienced when learning takes a holiday.”

Other benefits: encouraging a lifelong reading habit, attracting reluctant readers with entertaining programming, providing an opportunity to make friends and connect with library staff, and generally creating interest in the library, according to ALA. Additionally, SRPs “can just be good fun and provide an opportunity for family time.” Here’s what some librarians are doing with SRPs.

From left: Meg Schiebel, head of children’s services at Booth &
Dimock Memorial Library in Covington, CT, leads storytime at a local farmers market;
with kids playing instruments made from found and recycled materials;
and during a Learn to Write Chinese event in partnership with the local public school.
Photos courtesy of Booth & Dimock Memorial Library

The Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP) is a familiar organization to many librarians serving youth and children. What began as a statewide consortium in Minnesota, CSLP now has library contracts in more than 40 states and territories. A grassroots approach allows frontline librarians to participate in generating yearly themes and program ideas for all ages. The organization distributes a manual to member libraries, complete with printables, program plans, booklists, and more. “A first-time summer library programmer can use [it] as a bible, while a seasoned librarian can use the resources as a springboard,” says CSLP head Karen Day. The theme for 2018 is Libraries Rock!, which Day says can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

The Springfield-Greene County (MO) Library District (SGCLD) is taking “rock” in two directions: music and geology. Students in grades 4–8 will be able to attend Masterpiece Painting Party: Rock Star Hair, according to youth services assistant Emily Alexander. After creating simple portraits, kids will blow-dry wax crayons to create wild, melted-wax hairstyles for their characters. The library will also offer younger kids a chance to move, groove, and hear stories at a Bibliobop Dance Party. After jumping around to a set of songs, “we will read aloud some of our favorite picture books about dancing,” says Alexander.

Liz Hoens, children’s librarian at the Rahway (NJ) Public Library, plans to make the most of musical programming. For one, the library will offer preschool dance parties, says Hoens. “We create a set list of classic kids’ songs like ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It’ along with popular music. Kids will use scarves and instruments to dance along.” Regular storytimes will feature musical genres such as punk, ska, jazz, classical, and hip-hop. “We read books, sing songs, and introduce kids to different styles of music that they might not normally encounter,” says Hoens.

Older kids will rock out on instruments made from recycled items, including drums and bongos crafted from oatmeal and other containers; castanets made from bottle caps and buttons; and guitars created from cardboard boxes and rubber bands.

To kick off its summer reading program, the Plymouth (MI) District Library (PDL) will hold a library playlist scavenger hunt, according to youth services librarian Lauren Baker. Families will follow clues to activities, including a photo booth, outdoor mobile video game truck, button making, and rock-star jewelry creations.

Participants in the Painting with Bob Ross program at Herrick District (MI) Library are advised to wear paint-safe clothing.
Photo courtesy of Herrick District Library

At SGCLD’s Pint-sized Prospectors events, kids will become amateur geologists, visiting different stations to “explore at their own pace,” says Alexander. Activities will include gemstone geology slime, a rock exploration station, creating Kool-Aid rock candy, and decorating rock pets. The library will also offer an all-ages program based on the Kindness Rocks Project, which “inspires others through random acts of kindness” by writing messages on rocks. Attendees will paint pebbles with inspirational words and hide them for others to find.

Public libraries also have the option to use iRead (, a manual of programming resources and images created yearly by the Illinois Library Association. This year’s theme is Reading Takes You Everywhere, and Pinterest is a great place to check out some ideas. Search for iRead and you’ll find boards by individual librarians along with the committee’s curated suggestions, according to Brandi Smits, 2019 incoming iRead chair.

One activity is a treasure hunt–style program called Reading Takes You Everywhere in Your Town. “Each week, the library will hide the mascot Gaston (from the picture book of the same name, by Kelly DiPucchio and Christian Robinson) at a different business within the town,” she says. “The children will get clues at the library that will lead them to explore the town and find Gaston. Once they do, they get the clue for the next week.” It’s a fun way for families to sightsee in their area—and it “promotes community partnerships with businesses,” says Smits. Travel-themed teen craft ideas include making a pillow or constructing an emergency road kit.

Effective themed programming

The annual themes offered by consortia such as CSLP provide inspiration for new ideas each year, but librarians also recognize the value of the tried-and-true, perennial favorites—Harry Potter programming, for instance, which continues to draw crowds. Baker is planning a Harry Potter day, potentially hosting the Harry Potter–themed band Tonks and the Aurors. PDL will also host a weekly series of programs for kids ages of 5–12 that will feature crowd favorites such as a live animal show and Michigan magician Cameron Zvara. To cap the season, PDL will host a summer reading ice cream social.

When the Herrick District (MI) Library celebrated the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter last summer, programming was so successful that staff applied a fantasy theme to 2018 programming, according to teen services librarian Amanda Heidema. Teens can take a fantasy art class or catch a viewing of the movie Eragon, while elementary-age children will have a dragon/unicorn party. The early literacy crowd will have a character visit from Dragons Love Tacos—yes, a librarian in costume.

Lisa Mulvenna, head of children’s services with Clinton-Macomb (MI) Public Library (CMPL), says that her library has recently moved away from nationally planned themes. “Our new theme is just Summer Reading,” she says. “We do a lot of summer outreach, and this [allows] us to be more easily recognizable” and target all age groups. CMPL will take storytimes outdoors with a garden series; activities will include making a planter and visiting a nearby arboretum. Mulvenna adds that Retro Recess programming has been a hit for kids and tweens in past summers, and traditional games like duck, duck, goose get everyone playing. This year, it will feature water games, including a balloon toss and hot potato game with a water balloon. School-age children can also create their own miniature masterpieces using a 3 x 3–inch canvas.

Young superheroes test their capes at the at the
Arlington Heights (IL) Memorial Library.
Courtesy of Arlington Heights Memorial Library

The Arlington Heights (IL) Memorial Library (AHML) has created its own theme for the summer: Bravo! Summer Reading. The theme capitalizes on an art exhibition of the same name with works by author/illustrator Chris Raschka, who will be AHML’s artist in residence for a week. The library will feature “lots of hands-on art programs for all ages,” says school services coordinator Julie Jurgens. She adds that AHML utilizes teen volunteers to develop and deliver programs for younger kids: “Youth services staff act as mentors to small teams of volunteers, guiding them as they develop programs around themes.” This summer the teens will offer Pee Wee Pollocks, a process-oriented art program for toddlers; Messy Baby, a sensory storytime; Book Buds, where school-age children read to teens; and Build, a series of engineering challenges.

AHML will offer tween coding programs using Google CS First, and the library will make the connection with Raschka’s music-themed books in Meet the Music programs, an idea from Angie Manfredi, head of youth services for Los Alamos (NM) County Library System. “We will read a picture book biography of a musician, listen to their music, and do a related art or science-based activity,” Jurgens says.

Partnership with parks

Meg Schiebel, head of children’s services at the Booth & Dimock Memorial Library in Covington, CT, will leverage community connections to strengthen youth programming this summer. “Our parks and rec department has an existing summer concert series, and we’d love to be able to work with them,” Schiebel says. “We are thinking of having an open program all summer where patrons could come create their own musical instrument.” During the concert series, the library would then invite everyone who created instruments to do a short performance. Schiebel is also considering partnerships with a new arts guild and local music store.

At CMPL, Mulvenna is looking forward to spreading the word about summer reading through a partnership with the area’s two parks and recreation districts. “They’ve been excellent in having us participate in their summer kids series as an outreach location for summer reading sign-ups, activities, and pop-up libraries. In return, we run two of their outdoor storytimes in the park,” she says. Some of the parks “are within smaller communities [and are] easier for families to get to than our library branch in that area.” CMPL also has a presence at summer meal program sites, offering activities like button making, STEM challenges, and stories that tie into the SRP. This community outreach is invaluable, notes Mulvenna, “as these kids, more often than not, can’t make it into the library during our open hours.”

Area parks also function as outreach locations for summer reading in Arlington Heights. “We take our bookmobile out to the day camps run by the parks district,” Jurgens says.

Parachute games at Clinton-Macomb Public (MI) Library’s Retro Recess program.
Photo courtesy of Clinton-Macomb Public Library

Getting the word out

With all these opportunities in store, what are librarians doing to inform their communities about their programming? Many public librarians work with local schools at the end of the school year to share plans with students and to get teachers and administration on board.

“This year, our primary public school district is fully integrating into our summer reading program,” says Jurgens. That means collaborating on recommended summer booklists and schools sending home promotional material about AHML’s SRP. When school starts in the fall, students will be encouraged to report back on their participation.

During school visits, Jurgens avoids talking about the specific details of the summer reading program, instead focusing on something “high-impact and interesting that will catch their attention. I don’t talk about the reading log or the prizes or the process, because I think it’s just confusing for the kids. I talk about programs and interactive elements and often do a fun read-aloud, whether it ties into the theme or not.”

While scheduling can be a challenge with the 61 schools in her library’s service area, Mulvenna says that thanks to presentations and a presence at school events such as end-of-year picnics, “69 percent of the schools that we visited in the last year showed an increase in summer reading participation over the previous years.”

CMPL tracks the different schools’ participation in summer reading in a unique way: “We hang some sort of shape on our windows for each school and add stickers to the shape as a child from that school registers for summer reading,” says Mulvenna. “By keeping summer reading highly visible, kids want to know how their school is doing. They might not know what summer reading is, but they do recognize their school and want it to always do better.” The visual aspect of registration leads to great marketing opportunities on social media, and “parents, administrators, and parent-teacher organizations also really get into it.”

Baker’s library advertises on the local high school’s radio show, and the youth department creates a 90-­second video about summer reading that area schools send to parents. The city of Plymouth’s weekly Music in the Park, a free concert series, is another great venue for spreading the word about summer reading.

Heidema and her colleagues are increasing their efforts to reach families who aren’t current library users, going to places such as “migrant camps and low-income housing communities,” she says. They also visit summer tutoring camps, day care centers, and the Boys and Girls Club to increase awareness of library offerings.

Creative initiatives stem the summer slide and strengthen community connections. Happy planning—let us know how yours turns out!

April Witteveen is a community librarian with the Deschutes Public Library system in central Oregon.

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