Rhymetimes in Reading ‘took off’ pretty much straightaway as parents, carers and other family members identified benefits of attending. Rapid expansion to all libraries across Reading led to 19 Rhymetime sessions a week at their peak. Covid restrictions meant numbers were significantly reduced and booking became essential. Reading library staff ‘pivoted’, providing video recorded storytime and Rhymetime sessions that were available on YouTube. The move back from Covid has provided an opportunity for Reading to review its Rhymetime work, link with other partners and make adjustments to increase quality and learning opportunities for both children and parents or carers.
Reading library staff and service leads were aware of the national concern around speech, language and communication development and saw particular areas of need in parts of Reading. There was also a need to encourage more use of libraries and to expand the library membership, particularly among families with young children and families who speak English as an additional language.
Careful planning was needed for how to run Rhymetime sessions across all libraries, especially those with less space.
Reading Rhymetimes began life at the main libraries, where there was more room. It soon became apparent that they were so popular that they needed to be run in every Reading library. Session times are published in advance and other people who would prefer not to access the libraries at this time can avoid it. Central library Rhymetimes took as many as 50 families at a time with smaller branches having less space, so limited numbers were able to access the sessions.
The free Rhymetime sessions last approximately half an hour and use props and instruments to go alongside songs and stories. The sessions are open to everyone and the main participants are children under three and their parents and carers. During the holidays, older siblings come along too and were joined (pre-Covid) by wider family members. A Dads Rhymetime session was held on Saturdays at one particular library.
Key partners attend the library sessions offering information and advice for parents and families (for example around mental health, dental health etc.). Bookstart packs (baby packs and treasure packs) are also available for families to pick up at Rhymetime sessions. Staff are on hand to enable participants to register to join the library.
For indoor Rhymetime sessions, the library staff tasks include arranging new books and books that are particularly pertinent to the session to encourage participants to borrow them to share with their children.
Prior to Covid restrictions, many committed volunteers were involved too, managing buggy parking, talking to parents, offering support and managing props and instruments.
In the prepandemic period, a handful of outdoor Rhymetimes were also held across the borough, with the aim of promoting Bookstart and Library Services. The outdoor Rhymetimes included an Early Years/Family Information Service/ Health Visitor presence. One of the outdoor Rhymetimes was held at the Abbey Ruins, following restoration - over 500 people attended!
Outdoor Rhymetimes will be relaunched with the big Platinum Jubilee Rhymetime Tea Party in Reading’s Forbury Gardens on 03.08.22. This will be a drop-in session, led by Teddies Music Club and with free picnic juice and biscuits (all packaged and Covid safe) handed out to participants.
There has also been work with local music and theatre groups (Teddies Music Club and Reading Repertory Theatre), the latter having accessed funding for this partnership project through the Arts Council. The groups have written plays, taught songs at the Rhymetime sessions and then provided free or £2 tickets for Rhymetime participants to see the productions at the Reading Hexagon or Repertory theatre. This has provided opportunities for many families who would not normally access theatre.
Reading Rhymetimes have become like an institution: People really value them. Parents have identified how much the Rhymetimes have helped with reducing social isolation and supporting their mental health.
Participants appreciate the fact that they are free (similar music sessions can cost up to £10 in some parts of Reading). Benefits for children have been seen, especially those who are new to the country: One family joined Rhymetime sessions after having recently moved to the UK. The child was very withdrawn and had no English. They were initially reluctant to join in. By the time they were about to go to school, the child was joining in with the songs and rhymes, sharing toys with other children and thriving in the group experience.
There is anecdotal evidence of positive impacts on:
- Parental mental health, especially for parents and children who are socially isolated
- Speech, language and communication development
- Emotional wellbeing
- Development of pre-literacy skills (good rhymers are good readers)
- Positive experiences of libraries
- Increased membership of children and young families
- Increased book borrowing through the Rhymetimes, especially of board books
- Increased access to the libraries by families who wouldn’t usually use them
- Happy and uplifting experiences for staff.
Monitoring of attendance shows that between October 2021 and March 2022, there has been a footfall of 900 adults and 1,300 children at Rhymetime sessions in Reading. (2016/17 figures showed a footfall of 49,651 adults and children at Rhymetime sessions).
Rhymetimes during lockdown were recorded with Teddies Music Club. The video recorded for the virtual Children’s Festival in May 2020, achieved 158 views. Reading library staff took up the mantel, recording Rhymetimes in Autumn 2020 (342 views) and the Christmas version in December 2020 (603 views plus 43 post engagements and an additional 337 views and 12 post engagements the second time it was posted).
How is the new approach being sustained?
Links with speech and language therapy are hoped to support Reading Rhymetimes inclusion on the speech, language and communication pathway in Reading.
The training that is planned to take place along with partners (see below) will help revitalize people’s involvement with the plans.
There is ongoing funding for the Reading Repertory Theatre work with a production planned for April 2022 and the hope of a Christmas show. There will be a pitch to the children’s services to look at whether they can make a core contribution to the library service going forward.
The chance to stop and replan has meant that numbers won’t go back up to pre Covid levels, out of choice. The team wants to ensure a quality learning experience for the groups of children and parents / carers attending Reading Rhymetimes.
There is a recognition that impact monitoring can be extended through questionnaires and focus groups for parents and tracking new members’ links to Rhymetimes.
Consideration is being given to the use of volunteers for running Rhymetime sessions as not all library staff feel confident and comfortable to do that.
The opportunity that Covid has provided to pause and re-plan Reading Rhymetimes, alongside work with the LGA around linking libraries to Family Hubs has seen an increase in involvement of Reading Library Services with other strategies, for example linking with speech and language therapists and early years practitioners to take part in joint training from Teddies Music Club; sitting on the speech, language and communication pathway working group with Brighter Futures for Children and Reading’s speech and language therapy team.