Storytime Goes STEM!

5 min read

By Rachel G. Payne

Yes, I freely admit it, I think too much like a librarian. Often this is an asset, but when I first started adding STEM into my storytime programs, this became a problem. I kept looking for books to read to kids in the non-fiction section. My go-to favorites were Red-Eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Nic Bishop, and Actual Size by Steve Jenkins, both solidly in the 500s. While I love these books, I was thinking too small. It took Lynn Cole, a science educator from the Queens Library Children’s Discovery Center, to shift my thinking during her staff training on science activities for preschoolers at the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). She opened my mind to another way of thinking about the books I was already sharing by reminding us we could find science and math concepts in the picture book section as much as anywhere.

Before she presented, she asked BPL staff to send  their favorite storytime read aloud titles. I wasn’t sure where she was STEM children's library programsgoing with this, but I was intrigued. One of her first suggestions was to use Kitten’s First Full Moon to talk to kids about reflection. The Three Little Pigs can represent different principles of engineering. Use Caps for Sale to illustrate patterns and sequencing. And Freight Train is an embodiment of the color spectrum (you know– ROY G. BIV). It took Lynn to remind me of something I already knew: science and math are everywhere! And if they were everywhere, why wouldn’t they be in the works of Kevin Henkes or Ezra Jack Keats?

I was so taken with Lynn’s approach that I wanted her to share her perspective with more librarians and she was game to go to Public Library Association Conference this last March in Indianapolis. We recruited Saroj Ghoting to help, seasoned presenter that she is. Together, we facilitated a lively “converstation” discussion session.

During our brainstorming session, we asked the group to identify STEM concepts in some classic storytime books. It was wonderful to see librarians discussing predator/prey relationships, air resistance, and non-standard units of measurement! We also asked them to brainstorm STEM activities using a book as an inspiration. Here are some of my favorites that came out of this lively group discussion:

  • If You Give a Mouse a Cookie… by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond
    • Talk about the “shape” of the story. It is circular!
    • Discuss how the mouse has human characteristics. Would a real mouse wear overalls?
    • Create a graph of everyone’s favorite cookie.
  • Bee Bim Bop by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Ho Baek Lee
    • Encourage parents to cook and follow a recipe with their children. Cooking is science!
    • Invite someone from a Korean restaurant to come to your program and have them bring some of the ingredients they use.
    • Try sensory food activities! How do these foods look, feel, smell, taste and even sound? (Do they crunch when you chew them?)
  • Flower Garden by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
    • Talk about the various parts of a flower and the shapes of  leaves and petals.
    • Encourage parents to discuss recycling with their children. Sorting recyclables will help to teach your child math!
    • Make a DIY Chia Pet with the kids.

We also discussed when you bring math and science into your programs, you don’t need to know the answers. Give children the tools they need to explore and ask open-ended questions. Encourage them to hypothesize about why Peter’s snowball melts in The Snowy Day. Why does the wolf in the The Three Little Pigs have such long teeth? How would you divide up the cookies in The Doorbell Rang? Let the children be scientists and problem solvers and explore their own ideas.

Another idea that came up in our discussion was to talk about the math and science concepts in all the activities you do, whether it is a craft activity or a science experiment. Making butterflies out of tissue paper for a spring storytime? Talk about symmetry! Making Cat in the Hat hats? Discuss  the pattern  on the hat and what other patterns you could create. Making snowpeople out of construction paper? Bring out the rulers and measure their creations.

And finally, Saroj reminded us that it is important to connect the dots for parents at all of your programs. If you are doing a science experiment, like the classic “Does it sink or does it float?” activity, label it as science.

STEM activities for kids

If you are stringing beads, tell parents that exploring patterns is math. If we don’t help parents and caregivers see that their children are learning about STEM, they will just thinking you are doing another fun project at the library.

So these days I am trying to think like a scientist, a mathematician, and a librarian. Now it is your turn to join our “converstation.” Put on your virtual lab coats and slide in your pocket protectors and tell us about how you have brought STEM into your storytime. What STEM concepts have you discovered in your favorite read alouds? What activities have you tried that have been a success? And how do you help parents and caregivers understand they are also doing math and science every day, whether it is at the library or at home?


Rachel Payne

About the Author

Rachel Payne is coordinator of early childhood services at Brooklyn Public Library and a co-author of Reading with Babies, Toddlers, and Twos. She has reviewed for Kirkus and written for School Library Journal.


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