Children at Alachua County libraries are encouraged to learn through play and movement rather than sitting quietly with a book.
The Sensory Storytime program is designed especially for preschool-aged children with autism or other different sensory integration needs.
The program is highly structured with a schedule of planned activities. Each child’s place in the room is marked with an individual carpet square so they know exactly where to sit.
The structure of the program helps the children feel comfortable, said Gail Carr, the library supervisor.
Carr’s contribution to the program was making 40 quilts over the course of eight months.
“It was a work of love,” she said. “I’m a quilter so I really enjoyed doing this.”
She made the small, nine-square quilts with nine different textures and colors as a sensory item for program participants to hold and look at during the library’s story time.
This approach to learning helped earn the district the Innovation of the Year award on Sept. 18 from the Northeast Florida Library Information Network.
Brad Ward, executive director of the Northeast Florida Library Information Network, said the award is for a library that did something creative with a program and is able to demonstrate an impact upon the community they serve..
“From the touch-and-feel books to the lap dogs and the music aspect of it — they just really had designed something special,” Ward said.
The first Sensory Storytime was held in April 2015. There are three libraries in the Alachua County Library District that have implemented the program. There are plans to start two more programs at other branches, Carr said.
The librarians who help with the program were trained by the University of Florida’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders.
“We had an all-day training about the core features of Autism and characteristics prevalent in the population,” said Ann-Marie Orlando, a coordinator for education and training programs with CARD, who helped train the librarians.
Orlando said objects like Carr’s sensory quilts, colored scarves and weighted stuffed dogs, help engage the children and give them a chance to learn in a way they respond to.
“The conventional notion is that when you go to the library, you have to be very quiet and be very careful with the books,” Orlando said. “I love that the library is trying to dispel some of that so that everyone feels comfortable coming to the library.”
Although the program is designed for children within the Autism spectrum, Carr said the librarians encourage all children to participate.
Ann LeZotte is another librarian who helps with the program. She is excited to be part of an organization that is inclusive to children with differing needs.
LeZotte was born completely deaf, but she grew up going to a library that was accepting, despite being what she described as a “jumpy little deaf girl.”
She leads part of the story time, which includes a short sign language lesson.
Mary Sanchez takes her 3-year-old daughter Kiele to many of the library’s programs. Kiele was born premature at 1 pound, 10 ounces.
Sanchez said the programs help her daughter progress and become more comfortable around other children. Kiele will start pre-school next year and Sanchez thinks the library’s programs, like Sensory Storytime, will help her prepare for starting school.
“This is a great program – everyone is always so helpful and enthusiastic,” Sanchez said.