Storytime at the public library is a great activity for young children to interact with kids their own age, have some fun and experience something outside of their usual home environment.
Storytime can be loud, though, with recorded music, singing and clapping. It also can be bright, with the lights on full power and lots of colors that typically are associated with kid-themed events. All that noise and color can be overwhelming to children with sensory sensitivity.
The Fort Ben Branch of the Indianapolis Public Library offers a toned-down storytime that is custom-made for those more sensitive children.
“With sensory friendly storytime, we don’t play music, because speakers have a lot of, kind of auditory feedback,” Juvenile Librarian Sarah Tadsen said. “We don’t have any of the yelling books, or the big loud instruments.”
They also dim the lights and provide a less colorful rug for the kids to sit on while they listen to stories, she said, and they offer a variety of toys with the expectation that the kids need to fidget.
“We have a five-pound little (stuffed) elephant that they can hold during storytime, we’ve got the five-pound unicorn lap mat, which is really good for soothing and kind of helping kids stay seated,” she said. “We also have little sensory toys with different textures. So that’s all during storytime — they can get up and get those at any point.”
The weighted toys provide gentle pressure that can help soothe anxiety. Tadsen said it’s kind of like getting a hug, but without the physical contact of another person.
Tadsen said she chooses books that can engage the children.
“Like today, we’re doing cats, which is a great topic for neurodiversity because cats have boundaries and cats are a little different,” she said. “It’s a really good way to have a child-friendly introduction to, like, ‘You’re not weird. This is just you.’”
Tadsen said the library has a collection of books for people who are neurodiverse, and she sometimes pulls storytime selections from there, as well.
The sensory-friendly storytime is part of the Fort Ben Branch’s overall commitment to serving people with autism and sensory sensitivity. Before the new branch opened last year, staff went through training so the library could become a certified autism center — the first library in the state with that designation.
Although this storytime is designed to be sensory friendly, it’s open to any kid and their parents.
About 10 children gathered in front of Tadsen on the blue-and-green rug during a recent event to hear three short stories about cats. Initially, the kids didn’t seem to pay much attention — they were more interested in each other and the toys. But after the first book and some group singing with hand gestures, they became more engaged.
After the stories, the children could choose to play with the selection of sensory toys or work on a craft — coloring in an outline of a cat and decorating it using glue and pieces of tissue paper.
While her daughter worked on her craft, parent Angel Dick said they attend most weeks, and she appreciates that the library’s sensory storytime is inclusive.
“They learn a new (American Sign Language) sign every week,” she said. “The sensory options for the tactile play — it’s not just a craft with some stories — is also really nice.”
She said having a child who is neurodivergent means her child can be a little loud sometimes, and in other settings might need to leave because of that.
“Here, they’re pretty lenient and they’re very understanding,” she said.
Sensory storytime expands to twice a week
The Fort Ben Branch at 9330 E. 56th St. schedules its weekly sensory friendly storytime at 10:30 a.m. Thursdays. Starting in February, the branch added a second sensory friendly storytime at 5:30 p.m. each Monday.
“We have had a lot of requests for storytimes that aren’t at 10:30 in the morning, which is understandable for parents who work,” Juvenile Library Sarah Tadsen said. “So we are expanding that and hoping to get a good crowd for that.”
The storytime is open to all ages, she said, so adults with different sensory needs are welcome, too.
“When we’ve had storytime at a non-traditional time, we’ve had a lot of adult engagement as participants, which has been wonderful,” she said.
For more about the Fort Ben Branch and its programs, visit indypl.org/locations/fort-ben.