Unprogram Your Programs

Sometimes it seems like programs are planned to a fare-thee-well. Massive amounts of time, sweat, money, prep and pain go into what is essentially a 45 minute adventure with kids.  If you have a massive turn-out (The room is full! The self-check-outs are swamped! The staff is scrambling!), that kind of preparation and staff time commitment seems to be worth the investment. Then again, if you get a small turn-out, is all the prep worth it?

I've thought alot about this issue over the years. This post was sparked by my friend Georgia's post over at Come into Delight, many of the program ideas from Amy over at Show Me Librarian and watching the work of my colleague Sara, someone new to librarianship discovering the wonders of "stuff" readily available in our basement storage area and putting together programs with some thought and what amounts to a couple of bobby pins and scotch tape.

I wonder sometimes if over-preparation for programs happens because of pure dog fear - what if we don't fill up the time or the kids are bored? While it's realistic to have concerns about how substantive the content of an hour-long program is, planning so much "stuff" for kids that it would take three hours to do them all, simply isn't.  Accepting that the program may end a little early is fine - and so is giving kids enough time to explore or experience each part of a program without rushing them from activity to activity.

It's hard for me to justify spending more staff time in planning and preparation for an actual event than the amount of time the event actually lasts. Ten hours of staff time for discussion, planning and preparation for a program is nine hours too many. I'm not being lazy here or uncaring. But I wonder if over-preparing for an event isn't a bit of a waste of time? I think balance is important.  And fun is important. So it leads me to thinking of programs as un-programs so we can do them and still make time to be creative in other ways in our youth work (tackling change in collections, directions, and pushing the envelope on service).

I like to see programs that can be useful whether 10 kids or 110 kids show up. If time is spent making or buying a special prop, I like to see it used numerous times in numerous ways for numerous programs.  Since numbers on the low side are more realistic at the libraries I work at, these things are especially important.

To unprogram programs, I stop and ask, "How does what I'm doing connect kids to a book or books; an author or illustrator; the library or our services or some aspect of kids' interests that relate back to the library?" I just can't do something that doesn't have that connection. But more than that, is what I'm doing and choosing relevant to kids right now - not 20 years ago; not 10 years ago; not 5 years ago - but right now with my community of kids right here? It's way easy to make the mistake of thinking because a program once worked, it's time to trot it out again. S. Bryce Kozla has a great post on how she addresses the issue of what kids currently respond to.

Thinking about this informs the choices for programs and activities. It may be letting the kids free play or explore activities on their own with gentle guidance from us. If it's not a DIY craft or activity event, I think about how I want to incorporate books into the program - booktalking, talking about the book creator or their art or writing style or life or what people are talking about in relation to them, or starting a conversation with the kids and letting them talk about the books and reading - stuff that unlocks the books for the kids and gets them excited about the material. It's like extending and enriching the story.

Most kids are using the library and coming to programs because they like reading or books or our materials or us in some way.  So rather than  ignoring that aspect I look for ways to celebrate it in fun and creative ways. The result is a relaxed preparation, less emphasis on crafting and more on chatting and activities that tie directly into books or the library. Kids like it. Boom! Unprogrammed!

I hope to explore the concept of unprogramming and playing with programs a few more times in coming months (this is my first stab; I've been noodling at it for awhile which clearly accounts for its wandering nature). I am in good company with more and more bloggers sharing not just program content but their thinking beyond what they do - seems like there's plenty to talk about!


  1. Wonderful post! You hit on where my head has been recently concerning the "unprogram". When I put too much time into overthinking programs and how they are presented, I lose my energy and run short on money and enthisiasm with pressure to get results---whatever that means. The laid back, talking to kids, sharing the excitement they bring to the library, allows me to share my own excitement about the library. This is great stuff to "noodle" over!

    1. I feel like we don't get a chance to just roll with the fun...and programs become an end to a means. You got me thinking in Nov on this so I'm glad we're talking about this!

  2. Thank you for putting into words what has been going through by head for quite awhile. At our library we plan our programs so far in advance (it's January, who knows what I will feel like doing in June. By the time the program comes around I've lost interest and many times we missed popular events that have happened in the meantime. We got a directive for summer programs that the typical storytime + puppet show we done in the past and have been really popular aren't enough any more. We need more, more, more which means more staff time and lots more overthinking.

  3. I feel your pain. We are trying to wait to plan slightly longer so we are closer to the season (we finished planning most of Jan-Apr in mid Dec). SOmetimes it's a scramble for the first PR but honestly, it seems easier to add stuff on the fly that way and keep the door cracked open for the "kismet" moment or program offering!

  4. I love planning and preparing for programs, and I love presenting programs too. Planning and preparing can take longer than the actual program, but isn't that true for many things in life? It's the nature of preparation. Will I spend an hour everyday for a week learning and memorizing a story so that when I tell it, it feels totally natural and flows? You betcha. Also I learn a ton from my planning and preparation, more ideas emerge for other events or story times, better ways of presenting a book, early literacy hooks. This doesn't feel like work to me, it's actually energizing. I love "unprogrammed" time as well, our weekly Lego League is a blast, the kids are so creative. Thanks for giving me something to think about.