On the first Tuesday of every month, parents take their toddlers and preschoolers to the Hogtown Creek Headwaters Nature Center for story time at the park, an event organized by the Alachua County Library District, Millhopper Branch.
Pigeons that drive, dinosaurs and monarch butterflies that travel to Mexico are some of the characters that come to life in the 30-minute story time sessions. Library staff members usually read four to five books and sing songs in between stories like “Head Shoulders Knees & Toes.”
However, something different happened Tuesday at the November story time at the park. Staff members and volunteers sang “Cabeza, Hombros, Rodillas y Pies” (the Spanish version of the song) instead.
For the first time, the storytelling and singalong was bilingual in English and Spanish. Carmen Eldridge, 36, volunteered to read and sing in Spanish for the session. She’s brought her 3-year-old son to story time at the park since it started in June.
Having family in Spain and being raised within the Spaniard culture, Eldridge said she has been intentional about raising her son in a bilingual environment.
“Spanish is my second language. But I’ve kind of made it my life’s goal to get better at speaking it,” Eldridge said. “Now having a son, I wanted him to speak Spanish too and be able to communicate with our family and my grandma.”
Eldridge said to immerse her son in the language, she has to find and create social environments where her son will hear people speaking it. One day at the Millhopper Branch Library, she filled out a comment card suggesting the story time also be in Spanish.
“I just thought it would be great if we could have story time in Spanish too. There’s actually a really big community of Hispanic people here,” Eldridge said.
After reading the suggestion, Coleen Tobin, a children’s librarian at the Millhopper Branch Library, contacted her and got the paperwork started for Eldridge to become a volunteer.
“We love it when the patrons share with us what they’re looking for or their ideas or things that they would like to see us do because sometimes we’re just kind of guessing what we think people want,” Tobin said.
She said the branch library has a good demographic for the bilingual storytelling, according to the feedback she’s received from other patrons.
Anita Aguirre, 39, is a regular at the Millhopper Branch Library and attended the story time at the park Tuesday with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, Amelia. Aguirre is from Peru and her husband is from Colombia. Despite only speaking Spanish at home, Aguirre has noticed her daughter knows more words in English than in Spanish. She says having a bilingual story time allows her daughter to be exposed to the Spanish language.
“It is very important to me that Amelia has Spanish as her first language and is exposed to it,” Aguirre said. “It is her grandparents and our family’s native language and a big part of our culture.”
Shantall McDonald, 30, is an elementary school teacher from Colombia and wants her 2-year-old son to be bilingual like she is. McDonald speaks to her son in Spanish and her husband is also slowly picking it up.
“I read to my son in English and Spanish, and he listens to English and Spanish music and TV shows,” McDonald said. “He does a whole mixture, but I try to speak Spanish as much as possible because he’s going to be exposed to English everywhere else.”
McDonald brought her son to the bilingual story time, so he starts feeling more comfortable with Spanish outside of the house setting, she said.
The Millhopper Library Branch started to hold story time sessions outdoors at the Possum Creek Park in the summer of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic when it wasn’t safe to be indoors. But due to low attendance and unreliable weather, the sessions were stopped in May.
Rae Hafer, recreation leader at Hogtown Creek Headwater Nature Center started noticing that their largest groups of visitors were preschoolers and toddlers. As a result, she reached out to the library and offered to hold the story time at the park in the nature center’s environmental classroom.
“Whether it’s rainy, or too cold, or too hot outside, the event will still happen since it’s indoors,” Hafer said. “And plus, it’s a very toddler friendly format. And afterwards, the kids can go outside and be in the playground and picnic outside.”
Story time at the park at Hogtown Creek Headwaters started in June. During the summer, the monthly session takes place in the mornings, and during the rest of the year it takes place in the afternoons.
Tobin said if patrons continue to be interested in bilingual story time, the library will make it a recurring activity.
“The main point of the story time is usually just to get kids excited about reading and get them used to looking at the books and hearing the stories,” Tobin said. “It’s all part of early literacy.”