Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many libraries have been forced to halt in-person gatherings and events to keep their communities and staff safe. In the place of this standard programming, libraries have been exploring and revisiting low-tech options to keep connected and engage with their communities. Growing trends include scavenger hunts, StoryWalks, Dial-a-Story, obstacle courses, and I Spy windows.
Outdoor Scavenger Hunts
In Boone, N.C., at Watauga County Public Library, seasonal outdoor scavenger hunts focused on alphabet recognition have helped serve the important need for flexible, socially distanced programming while supporting reading skills for children ages three to eight. “Research is repeatedly proving that alphabet recognition and phonemic awareness are two of the best predictors of early reading success, so I try to create programming that supports family interaction around those two skills,” said library director Lisa Flanigan.
The scavenger hunt, which was set up near the library, challenged participants to find magical creature cards hidden in the specified area, each of which featured a letter of the alphabet. Participants were provided with a bookmark-style check sheet to record the matching letter and magical creature. Flanigan said 100 bookmark checklists were printed and available to the community to complete and turn in, along with pencils (which participants were asked to keep to avoid the spread of germs). Past scavenger hunts included butterflies “with letters of the alphabet hidden in the vein work of their wings” and a snowflake hunt that challenged participants to solve a word scramble using the collected letters.
The StoryWalk, created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vt., and developed with the help of Rachel Senechal at Kellogg-Hubbard Library, has become a go-to for libraries globally as a way to safely share a story widely within a community while encouraging children and families to spend time outdoors.
Darci Hildebrand, library director at Wamego Public Library in Wamego, Kans., said her library is “always looking for ways to take the library out into the community and reach people that might not come into our building.” Their locally sponsored StoryWalk projects have quickly gained momentum in their community as a way to bring many organizations together for a common goal.
The library partnered with the WHSPeer Chamber, a local student volunteer group, to help launch their year-round StoryWalk initiative. “The students provided lots of hands-on labor with guidance from Riley Construction to give them practical skills, learning opportunities, and a finished project they can be really proud of,” Hildebrand said. To help defray the costs of the StoryWalk, the library solicits and accepts sponsorships from organizations wishing to support children, families, and literacy, but has also had “a wonderful response to the sponsorship program as a special way to celebrate grandparents, a child’s birthday month, and even as a Summer Reading prize.” Sponsorship covers the cost of three copies of the featured books; two books are used for the StoryWalk and the remaining copy is used as a giveaway to reward participants.
The library had originally planned to change the featured StoryWalk book nine times throughout the year, but, due to its popularity and increased usage during Covid-19, the library has started changing the story monthly. The featured books are selected by the children’s librarian with the input of the monthly sponsor. Wamego Public Library measures the success of the StoryWalk through several means, including a digital guest book accessible through a QR code, Facebook challenges, comments received on social media announcing a new book, and direct feedback from patrons.
San Antonio Public Library has offered a frequently updated Dial-a-Story option, available in both English and Spanish, to its community for the past 20 years. “While many of our community members might not have in-home internet access,” said Cresencia Huff, coordinator of children’s services, “most of them do have telephone access of some kind.” The program, which began as a collaboration between the library and the local newspaper, is now fully supported and implemented by the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Public Library and allows individuals to call in to hear a story being read aloud. Since the start of the pandemic, usage has increased, prompting the library to increase the frequency of the recordings from once per week to twice. “We select stories that do not rely heavily on visuals, are appealing to an early childhood audience, and can be recorded at a reasonable speed within four minutes,” said Huff, who recommends the service as “a great way to provide relatively low-tech service to a wide range of patrons.”
Outdoor Obstacle Course
An outdoor obstacle course has proven an excellent way to engage and entertain the community in Tomahawk, Wisc. Melissa Nieman, the outreach librarian at Tomahawk Public Library, created a chalk obstacle course to add “a little fun to our Riverwalk trail [along which the library sits] and create some much-needed laughter in an uncertain time.” Nieman said that, because the courses are designed using chalk, the activity is inexpensive to implement. Each course lasts only a couple days before fading from use and weather, but Neiman creates a new course every two weeks. Each course has less than 10 features, includes positive messages and illustrations, and can be seen clearly from the windows of the library’s reading room.
In Webster City, Iowa, the Kendall Young Library’s outdoor obstacle course has also been a hit. Library director Ketta Lubberstedt-Arjes said their version, also located right outside the library, was designed using chalk, then filled in using donated latex house paint, which allowed for a longer lasting course. The library had originally designed a simple course, but, after an incident of vandalism, spent four days covering the original with an expanded version. Lubberstedt-Arjes said that the course has been popular with children and families but has also been used by older patrons on their own. “The library has already received requests to create an outdoor obstacle course next year as well,” Lubberstedt-Arjes added.
I Spy Windows
At the Princeton Public Library in Princeton, Wisc., I Spy windows, inspired by the classic books by the late Jean Marzollo, have provided an opportunity to provide “a great mental exercise and fun for both kids and adults” while “keeping the library in people’s minds,” said library director Laura Skalitzky. Their recent window, which featured a spring theme, was available for a full month for the community to enjoy at any time. The library used on-hand materials to fill the window, employing shelves and picture frames to create depth and “clutter” to the display and making some items easier to find than others to engage a variety of age and skill levels. Skalitzky said the nature of the activity made it difficult to track participation, but that overall “the community response was great.”
In addition to its obstacle course, Kendall Public Library has also provided the community with an I Spy window on a glass door accessible from outdoors. Lubberstedt-Arjes said that, while the basic design of the window stays the same, a few items are changed out each week and the list of things to find is also changed weekly.