Write Away

Easy, Free, and Rewarding: I love this program so much. Here’s a newsletter description:

“Stretch the imagination in this creative writing workshop! Launch your writing with themed story starters and fun activities.”

And a typical event outline, which I modify to be age appropriate for two different sessions:

Grades 3-4  //  Grades 5-8

  • Warm Up Activity
    • Choose something quick and fun that doesn’t require a ton of critical thinking.
    • This is a good spot for activities that introduce new vocabulary words.
  • Writing Challenge
    • Don’t make these static: never say something as basic as “write a story about BLANK.” The kids will be more engaged and successful if you lead an activity that guides them toward creativity, rather than an assignment that demands creativity upfront.
    • With grades 3-4, I usually do something that involves a picture book; I read, and they munch on snacks and listen, and they extend the story somehow.
    • With grades 5-8, I use an activity that draws on something they already know about, like dystopias or emojis or fanfiction.
  • Snack Break
    • Brain Food: cookies, pretzels, water. You know the drill.
  • Writing Challenge 2
    • Same guidelines as above, but this is a distinct second activity. Here are some that I’ve done:
      • Hang up emoji in a random order: they write one sentence of a story per emoji.
      • Read a picture book out loud, but don’t show them the cover or the pictures. They draw the cover.
      • Read a picture book out loud, but stop 75% of the way through. They write the ending.
      • Write the story of the day you were born: for an extra challenge, don’t use these words – baby, hospital, mother, father.
  • Sharing
    • Don’t force it, but always offer. Some kids like to share.

I don’t have a particular resource to recommend for designing the writing challenges and warm ups: the ones I’ve used have been my own invention, influenced strongly by my own experience as a writer, journaler, and reader. “Writing prompts” is a rich and varied google search, and as good a place as any to start out.

When you lead this program, and you’re giving the students time to write, it’s very important that you write along with them. Sit there, at the front of the room, visible to all, and do the challenge along with them. Offer to share what you wrote. Be prepared to jump up and help them when they get stuck. And be flexible – this isn’t school! If they’re stressed out, change the script so they’re having fun instead. The learning will follow!


Stuffed Animal Sleepover

I created this slideshow for a Stuffed Animal Sleepover at my previous library. We hosted this as a two-part registered event limited to 25 children. My partner and I hosted both events and took the photographs together; the evening after the Drop-Off event, I created this slideshow, which I told as a story at the Pick-Up event. When I do this again, I will certainly use a digital camera and a laptop with Power Point, but at the library where I worked at the time, those resources were not really an option. Instead, I took all the photos with an iPad Mini and used the FlowVella app to make the slide show.

Drop-Off event: Tuck in your animals and leave them at the library along with a short survey (we asked about the animal’s favorite games and foods, so we could take pictures that matched the child’s interests). We did a storytime-style event with a few songs and a book: The Snatchabook by Helen Docherty.

Pick-Up event: Enjoy a snack and watch a slideshow story of what your animal did in the library overnight. I told the story as the slideshow progressed; when it was over, they demanded an encore.

Hide and Seek: can you see the hidden stuffed animal?!

It was a truly enormous amount of work, but the overwhelming positive reactions from children and adults made up for that. More than one of the adults in attendance actually took the time to email the department and thank us for the excellent program. The slideshow presentation has since then managed to collect over 870 replays – I have no idea how it got so large, but I’m thrilled! If you’re interested in doing a Stuffed Animal Sleepover, be warned – it takes a lot of work to do it right, but your patrons will love you for it.

Minecraft Mania

big tree house

the challenge was “20 minutes to build a tree house,” grades 3-5.

Specs: Max registration of 20 participants (with a waitlist of 5). Two sessions for grades 3-5 and one for grades 6-8. We do this combination of three classes as often as possible based on the library’s schedule and the availability of the room/computers, which is usually 2 times per quarter.

Techs: We use Minecraft EDU software and the Lab computers (a set of laptops purchased by the library for program use). Each participant gets their own laptop and joins a shared Minecraft world (server) that is exclusive to the program.

Recs: You cannot run a Minecraft program ‘cold.’ The kids who sign up will eat you alive. You must spend significant time playing on your own first; an absolute minimum of 5 hours will give you enough familiarity with controls, materials, and situations to get by, but keep in mind that many of the kids who sign up will have been spending all of their allotted daily screen time on this for months, even years, and they will know more than you. The more you play, the better this program will go. If you don’t have five hours of off-desk time to spend in-game, give up this dream, or give it to someone who does.

As much as they may beg you, do not let them run wild for the whole session in PVP. It’s a waste of your valuable time and expensive resources. Create a curriculum for your Minecraft program that is worth the energy and expense required to present it to the public. Pick a STEAM objective to focus on and let your curriculum flow from that starting point:

  • Science: Set up a world where the children will act as scientific explorers of an uncharted world. Like real scientists, they need to Survive the elements, Discover new things about the environment, and Record their findings.
  • Technology: ComputerCraftEDU
  • Engineering: Build roller coasters, obstacle courses, or complex labyrinths using redstone.
  • Art: Challenge them to create pixel art or work together on a group build.
  • Math: Use a timer and do speed challenges – 5 minutes to build a symmetrical 4-sided pyramid; 10 minutes to build a circle; 15 minutes to build a sundial. Or, challenge them to make an in-game graph to represent data that you provide (or better yet, data they gather themselves). Don’t forget that Minecraft uses an X/Y/Z grid to create coordinates for every block: an easy, built-right-in math concept that you can use.

If you are struggling to generate ideas on your own, my favorite curriculum planning resource is the MinecraftEDU World Library. Even if you don’t have the EDU version of the game, you can still browse these user-created worlds for ideas that you can use in your own programs.

I hosted a similar program on a much smaller budget at my previous library. You can read about it here.

Rainbow Magic Fairy Party

choreography fairy

The Plan:

  • 5 minutes of getting settled and greeting (get a snack on your way into the room)
  • 10 minutes of reading aloud from Vanessa the Choreography Fairy
  • 30 minutes of craft time: Make your own Fairy Wings
  • 15 minutes of dance party
  • …with a photo booth open throughout

(This formula gets a lot of mileage at my library: it’s the same thing we do for New Year’s Noon, and we’re using it again for the Elephant & Piggie Party this fall)

everybody dance now!

everybody dance now!

The Budget:

  • Crafts for 30 children – wings and stickers: about $80
  • Cupcakes and juice boxes for 30 children: about $25
  • Decorations for the room and photo booth: about $75

I’m lucky enough to work in a library that can bear such expense, but it can be done exactly the same for as little as $43. Here’s how:

  • Nix the decor purchases and reuse whatever brightly colored tablecloths, toys, posters, and decorations your library has kept in storage (you could even create a rainbow backdrop for your photo booth out of multicolored copier paper)
  • Trim the craft budget by buying only the wings; reuse stickers from your craft closet or just let children color with markers
  • Don’t serve food


Do you have even less than $43? Make a different craft: magic wands out of dowel rods or pencils would be nice! Or staple blank paper into mini-books and print out pictures of fairies to glue inside or on the cover: each child can name the fairies and write stories about them.

Why should you do this program?

  1. It’s an easy-peasy crowd pleaser. This was one of the easiest and most successful programs that I’ve presented in my entire career. Caregivers and staff alike were over-the-moon complimentary; children were awed, thrilled, and amazed throughout.
  2. It celebrates literacy. The Rainbow Magic Fairy books are just that: books! They’re outrageously popular and they don’t have a tv show or movie to propel that success. Children love reading about the adventures of the fairies and the talents that make each one special, and I wanted to reinforce for these kids and their parents that these books are VALID and GREAT, no matter what fairy prejudices you might have.
  3. It’s inclusive. In promotional text, I specifically noted that this party was “for boys and girls.” When I got questions about whether it was “just girl stuff,” I was careful to always say the party was “for children of all genders who are interested in fairies.” At the program, I talked with all of the children about the talents that each Rainbow Magic Fairy has, and asked them what their talents would be: the answers I got ranged from Gymnastics and Football to Arts & Crafts and Reading. I drew their attention to talents we all have: Listening, Being a Good Friend, Taking Care of our Pets, etc. I wanted each one of them to think about what makes them special, and it was FREAKING. PERFECT.
  4. And then, we danced! Librarians love dancing because it’s a perfectly fun free-form exercise that gets parents and kids moving together. I like combining physical activity with mental activity in my programs, especially for this age, K-3 grade, which is when lots of curricula and programs start sitting them down for more serious brain-work.
Miss Maggie is ready. Bring it on!

Miss Maggie is ready. Bring it on!

I’m indebted to Literary Commentary and erinisinire for their great ideas and commentary on this program, as well as to my spectacular colleagues Ms. E and Ms. S who helped me pull it all off. Librarianship is truly a collaborative field where we all support each other and make each other better. Y’all are the literal best. And I love you.

Minecraft Club

There was obvious demand at my library for Minecraft programming, but I hesitated for weeks about what kind of program to do. It was important to me that the time we spent in the program would be educational and not just computer lab time to fight PVP – partly because I don’t feel like that’s worth my time and effort, and partly because ‘lab time for fighting PVP’ is what our internet computers are used for every day after school anyway 🙂

Minecraft Club, Grades 4-6: Get together with other superfans to show off your builds, trade ideas, and work as a team to build big stuff! Registration required (limit 10).

I got advice from the nice people at the Schaumburg Township District Library and the Glenview Public Library, which both run similar Minecraft Clubs. I took their ideas and advice and added my own to make Minecraft Club at my own library!

Major, Important Things To Know for N00bs:

  • You have to know how to play this game before you even put the club on your library calendar. At minimum, spend 5 hours playing.
  • The mobile version of the game – Pocket Edition – does NOT have all the features of the full computer game (joining large multiplayer servers is the biggest missing feature)
  • You CAN buy the game online with a credit card: it costs $27.95 per account. I didn’t want to spend any effort, money, or time on hosting servers for Minecraft Club, so I designed a curriculum that could be done without any multiplayer gaming.
  • Most of the kids who sign up will already know their stuff, probably even better than you do: use them as a resource to help other kids who aren’t as advanced or who are having trouble with their technology

photo 1

Prizes: buttons (made by me on the library’s button machine) are the most popular. I’ve made 5 or 6 different designs but the creeper (pictured) is the best one. Bookmarks, designed/printed/laminated by me, have been popular too. I’ve also given away single pieces of candy, but the prizes go over much better when they are Minecraft themed.

Our equipment: 3 iPads, 3 iPad minis, and 3 laptop computers (kids are invited to bring their own devices, too); 3 unique library-owned Minecraft accounts ($27.95 each); Minecraft Pocket Edition for the library’s iPads ($6.99 for multiple devices)

Prep: Download or install Minecraft on all machines. Set up machines at tables with appropriate charging capabilities and launch the game (have it up and running before the kids arrive)


  • 15 minutes – settle in, logging on/tech hiccups, rules, and introduction
    • Kids are allowed to play however they want: they can join another person’s LAN game or a multiplayer server; they can start a brand new world all on their own; they can play in Survival or Creative mode. Most of them chose LAN games in Creative mode (which means they are in the same virtual space as other MC Club players and they have unlimited access to all resources).
  • 85 minutes – timed building challenges (anyone who completes the challenge or makes a reasonable effort to do so earns a prize)
    • 5 minutes to build a water fountain
    • 5 minutes to build a truffula tree
    • 10 minutes to build a tree house
    • 20 minutes to build a pirate ship
    • repeat as needed with different time allotments/builds
  • 30 minutes – free play

As written, this is a two hour program. It could easily work in 90 minutes or even in 60, as long as you’re prepared to lose up to 15 minutes to initial setup. In my experience, the kids roundly rejected free play in favor of more building challenges, so come prepared with a few extra ones. I also experimented with doing 30 minutes of watching Minecraft youtube videos at the start of the program, but this got lukewarm reception so I nixed it.

But Maggie, that sounds complicated. Why should I bother with Timed Building Challenges? 

Because TBCs are the best and the greatest! They are a phenomenal way to introduce STEAM into your program: geometry, math, and engineering are intrinsically important to Minecraft – you literally can’t play without encountering these concepts. TBCs allow you to focus on them individually and take all of the fighting and most of the competition out of the game. TBCs also encourage concentration and critical thinking: there is always deathly silence in the room while my timer counts down because everyone is concentrating so hard. Then, when time is up, they beg for more time (I always say yes). Finally, we all stand up and circle around the room so everyone can share what they’ve created. The kids are always very proud of what they’ve made, and the only thing they love more than showing it off? Blowing it up with TNT! I grabbed these screenshots before the fuse blew:

IMG_0002challenge: 10 minutes to build a giant doghouse (Yes, that’s Clifford in there)

IMG_0003challenge: 20 minutes pixel art (left – swords) and 20 minutes to build a roller coaster (right)

update from October 2015: I have tweaked and improved this program and refashioned it to fit a new library environment, one with a larger budget and a larger group of registrants. You can read about it here.