Host a Successful Event Like a Youth Services Pro!

Youth Services Staff
Youth Services StaffNearly every day an activity is going on in the youth services departments at the Mercer County Library System’s branches. Programming increases the use of our collections, boosts circulation and encourages early literacy and lifelong learning. Youth librarians regularly conduct story-times but also hold many seasonal and special events. Monthly music performances are held, community partners share their expertise, and quiet play sessions are available for independent play and socializing. A creative variety of teen programming is offered within the library as well as through take-out projects that can be done at home. Many of our events attract whole families and are multi-generational. Our annual summer reading program is a huge seven week long celebration which encourages literacy among youth of all ages via reading logs, prizes, free performances and educational workshops. Last year, Mercer County Library System youth services program attendance reached 88,829 and 4,577 programs were held.

Ladybug ProgramI work at the Lawrence Branch. As part of the above-mentioned combination of programs, I and my youth services co-workers regularly plan larger events and parties themed around books, characters or seasonal and cultural celebrations. The Friends of the Lawrence Library sponsors nearly all of the Lawrence Branch’s youth programming. Through their continual fund-raising, our children’s programming flourishes and has continued to expand and improve throughout the years. Some of the techniques we use in planning our events may be helpful to families or other organizations planning parties on a similar, or even smaller scale.

When hosting an event, we aim to spend our budget wisely while creating a party that will be memorable and unique. Though we use many professional library resources for ideas and follow public library trends, we most often use the myriad blogs, online boards and free online resources available to the public when assembling our ideas.
Following are some tips and suggestions based on our programming experience:

Entertainers. As Mercer County employees, we cannot personally recommend or endorse entertainers or products. However, attending a free library event offers a parent or individual the opportunity to evaluate the potential suitability of a performer for their own purposes. After the show, most performers are available to chat about their work. (Please observe the usual program registration guidelines when attending programs.)

Online, many party and entertainment websites list performers throughout the tristate area. We use these business websites with a strong attempt to evaluate a potential new act as best we can before making a decision. Some tips on deciding: View an act’s current performance recordings online if available, read the customer comments on their website (which will usually be the positive comments), check their websites for references, ask for professional association membership or licensing, and meet them in advance if they are available to drop by. An initial email can work nicely, but tone of voice on the phone can be very helpful in developing a rapport, discussing pricing and clarifying any special needs you may have. Ask if they have experience in your type of setting, venue and audience size. Sign a contract or appearance agreement so each side knows what to expect in terms of price, deposit, audience age range, name of the particular presenter, physical performance-area dimensions, theme and content of the specific show you will be booking, cancelation and weather-related policies, cleanup, lateness, any help that may be expected of you during the show, potential product sales at your event, contact information and other pertinent details. We have had terrific success with performers who are brand new to us, even though there may not have initially been a lot of background information to go on. Besides being talented at what they do, we are looking for a performer who can arrive 20-30 minutes early, who will provide everything they need for their show (except maybe electricity and a few tables), who can bring in and set up their own equipment, and are neat in appearance. For some types of acts, presenters necessarily arrive closer to performance time due to the nature of their show, such as those involving live animals.

The content of the show should be as advertised and the performer should interact well with the ages of the audience members. Friendliness and a smile, as well as enthusiasm and flexibility go a long way. Props and costumes should be neat and clean, not worn or dated-looking. Experienced performers have been doing their shows for years and are familiar with the differences and challenges in performing at school assemblies, preschools, summer camps, commercial indoor and outdoor venues, rented halls, libraries, senior centers, outdoor festivals and even home parties. Such acts are good choices as they will have seen it all and likely be able to adapt to your party. Of course, many new acts are very talented and qualified, and well worth your consideration. For the great majority of our entertainers, we have been very pleased with the talent and professionalism shown throughout the whole process. Many are booked over and over. However, we have also experienced a few of the following negatives, such as: lateness, no-shows or substitute performers, lack of follow-through in confirmation details, malfunctioning or forgotten audio equipment, unsafe looking props, excessively rule-oriented expectations of the children as audience members, messy materials requiring specialized cleanup, show themes, jokes or comments in poor taste, grooming issues, worn or unhygienic looking props, and space needs larger than contracted for, resulting in our inability to seat the expected size crowd at the performance. Naturally, there are presumed and accepted guidelines required in being a welcoming host when hiring a performer, too. Including but not limited to: honoring your end of the contract, providing accurate information about your needs and venue, paying promptly and making sure your attendees are being courteous audience members.

Various YS Things
Refreshments. Budget plays a big role in this element of event planning for us. We serve food mainly for special events, not everyday programming. Serving refreshments can be an option you emphasize or forego depending on the timing of your party. In our public setting, we prefer to purchase pre-packaged foods for safety reasons. Our events are often quite large, with 150 or more attendees. To avoid spills, we serve beverages that come in individual containers such as fruit drinks or bottled water. This keeps our floor and carpets clean, safe and free of spills that might pose a slipping danger. We have at times indicated that the refreshments are intended for the children, to keep costs down, but normally we have enough to serve the adults as well.

We compare costs and use local price clubs to purchase snacks, cupcakes, sheet cakes, cookie trays, veggie trays, pre-cut fruit, animal crackers, graham crackers or pre-wrapped snack items. Alternatively, local catering companies can often work with you and deliver your order, saving you a bit of hassle at party time. We have ordered pretzels, pizza and the desserts featured at local budget delivery chains. A call in advance will often yield a volume discount with pickup or delivery. Shop around. Just be clear about the time range in which you wish for delivery to arrive, erring on the side of caution. Even for those parties we have hosted requiring morning delivery, we have negotiated with local business chains that might not normally open until a bit later and have been accommodated. Portion sizes can be negotiated too, to accommodate smaller eaters and reduce waste. We have cut pizzas into many slices and snipped full size pretzels, bagels, muffins or donuts in half. Save all of your food packaging for those guests who may need to check the ingredients due to allergies. Those who want to opt out can do so. If we serve sweets, we try to also have a non-sugary alternative but we do not necessarily strive to accommodate every type of allergy. We carefully note expiration dates when choosing volume items, so that unopened leftovers may potentially be served at a later event. We buy plain plastic utensils in bulk and basic paper table supplies such as napkins and tablecloths in neutral, reusable colors. The designer sets are pretty, but costs can add up for a large event.
Crafts. Most of our events include multiple craft tables set up to occupy the children once our performance concludes. Paper is usually the most economical material to use as a basis for a craft. Coupons, sales and clearance bins regularly save us a lot of money for additional specialty craft materials required. We also buy in bulk. Large internet retailers are often cost effective when you factor in membership, free shipping or volume sales. Often, we start with the material we have acquired or purchased on sale, and then create and plan a craft around it. In this manner, recycled items can be incorporated and used as well. Various retailers cater to the summer camp, classroom, youth group and party markets by selling seasonally themed craft kits. We tend to avoid these, as we have a large supply of basic craft materials in-house and can make our crafts less expensively. But
More Decorations
these kits can be a one stop shopping alternative to starting from scratch and save time and money, particularly if on sale. We recommend ordering a small set of kits to try before buying in bulk for your event, allowing time for a return or exchange if the product is not as expected in terms of quality or suitability for your age range. Reviews are helpful in making these evaluations. We receive donations from the public of leftover craft items we can often use for crafts or for making decorations. (skeins of yarn, origami paper, fabric) Space needed for storage and usability and condition are considerations in accepting these donations, but we have had many successes. The same holds true for recycled materials. We have a large staff and can call upon them when we are collecting a recycled item in bulk for a future program (coffee cans, water bottles, paper tubes, corks, egg cartons, plastic lids, old keys). Messiness and cleanup play a large part in project choice for our large events held in our large public meeting areas. Sand, glitter, sequins, liquid glue, tiny beads and paint can create cleanup hassles for us and for the parents toting these items home. We might instead plan on using those materials for smaller programs in our activity room on our linoleum floors or for outdoor events. Tablecloths are generally used to protect our tables and facilitate cleanup.
Youth Services Staff
Favors. At large Library events, favors are the exception rather than the norm, due to cost. But at special times, we do include them to tie in with our picture book character or other holiday events. Good all-purpose items we like to include are stickers (can be bought in bulk and then cut into strips), silly straws, fruit snacks, lollipops, goldfish or animal cracker packets, paper crowns, small boxes of crayons, or other craft items the child can use at home. Themed merchandise to go along with popular picture book characters is always popular. We try to buy gender neutral items that appeal to a wide age range.

Activities & Games. Our parties are large with a high ratio of children to staff. As mentioned above, we like crafts, because they can be prepped and set up well in advance, appeal to both boys and girls, occupy a fair amount of time to create and serve as a souvenir of our event. The caregiver who brings the child helps them with the project as needed. We also set up stations that can be visited as families have time to circulate around the party at their own pace. We do not plan a station with a lot of fuss or which requires a dedicated staffer to supervise it, unless we know we will have teen volunteers or other helpers present. If it is a self-service activity, we type up clear directions as to what to do, with samples posted. If we offer prizes, it is something economical and simple, such as lollipops or stickers and we put them out in a basket for participants to help themselves to. A prize for everyone, so long as they participated or tried.
Kids; and Decorations
Party and event equipment rentals are not the norm for our organization, due to cost. Our public building naturally contains a variety of indoor and outdoor space options, plenty of tables and chairs, and public meeting space designed with enough restrooms, lighting, sinks and food service areas - though we do have to reserve this space well in advance, as it is shared with the public. We own a small tent for outdoor events and a simple sound system. For our outdoor entertainment events, we ask the public to bring their own seating. One item we did rent for a recent preschool party was a trackless train that accommodated both adults and children. We booked it to run outdoors for a few hours, and it was very successful. A driver is included with the price, and it can be operated indoors or out, even in fairly small spaces.

Since events are held here so regularly, an investment in quality game and activity supplies is very cost effective for us. Those we own and can repurpose many times over with children for story-times and large events include: color bean bags, magnetic fishing sets, colorful nylon scarves, rubber duckies, jumbo foam magnetic letters, alphabet rug squares, a wooden train set, felt board sets, egg shakers, nesting stacking boxes, toy batons, magnetic felt board/chalk board combination easels, activity parachutes, pom-poms, dot markers, puppets, character pop-up tents, stamp pad sets, small hollow plastic balls, magnet sets, peg boards, ring toss and other games, floor puzzles and puppets. We also have bins of mini racecars, dolls, vehicle playsets, building blocks and other educational toys. We have built up our collection over the years, but many of the items above could be purchased or created inexpensively. Try to buy clean used items online or at thrift stores or garage sales. Or borrow them from family and friends. Many items owned at your house will be new to your young visitors. Families who use our toys during our quiet play sessions tell us that their kids love coming and playing with our “library stuff” because they do not have them at home. Though we have materials we can reuse and re-theme for new parties, we do also regularly and inexpensively custom create many of the themed items needed from scratch for single use at our events. That way they do not have to be durable or expensive and we do not have to worry about permanent storage. These include props on sticks, toss games, and presentation materials we may use when reading aloud.
Staff & Decorations
Decorations. A trip to the party store can be a place to get ideas, buy a specialty item or check the clearance sales. We prefer to create many of our own decorations and props from scratch, often using them in our public areas rather than just for a single event or party. Tissue paper, crepe paper, construction paper, gift wrap, greeting cards, recycled paper, yarn, and netting can be used to create swags, garlands, pom-poms, paper chains and hanging decorations to string across our party areas. We are always planning ahead to the next party. An abundance of ideas abound online and on photo sharing boards, as never before. Use the physical features in your party area to your advantage, such as fences, glass block, large picture windows, built-ins, stairways, columns, fireplaces, balconies and external landscape features. We recommend using your internet browser’s image search feature, with specific search terms such as the theme of your party, the materials you might have to create with, or the resulting decoration or room size or area you wish to find ideas for (sample search terms: DIY, window paint Valentine’s ideas, crepe paper ceiling, haunted house cardboard box, paper party backdrops, party twinkle light ideas, chicken wire party backdrop, New Year’s tinsel decorations, large space party ceiling decorations, giant candy party props, outdoor party tree decorations, cowboy party decorating, etc.) Most ideas are easily adapted from one type of party to another. Local artists may be able to create something for you such as a mural or themed prop. Our library is fortunate to have local artists who have helped us over the years, both for a small fee and who have donated their time, as well as classroom art teachers who loan us their work for displays. Many of the creative classroom and educational websites that contain seasonal bulletin board and door decorating ideas can be adapted for large scale parties and public spaces. We also purchase book and character themed posters, available through online and specialty vendors. Party, wedding, prom and special event retailers that sell cardboard props are a source for ideas you might be able to adapt or make yourself, though we have splurged for some of these specialty props from time to time.

Be MineOnline tutorial videos abound from theater prop experts, parade float designers and regular crafters and party planners who post their free how-to advice for beginners. Often, you can buy supplies in bulk from the same suppliers they use, resulting in cost savings. Items on sale can be used in unexpected ways. We recently used translucent blue and white snowflake bakeware doilies (priced at 80% off after the holidays) to create a six-panel window display. We regularly create props out of appliance boxes, large containers or foam board. A pair of electric scissors can be a handy tool for this. Furniture boxes have become houses the kids can play in, or photo stand-up boards. A large cardboard drum was turned into a Cat in the Hat prop. A Hoberman sphere toy has served as the frame for a truffula tree/Dr. Seuss birthday party prop and later for a New Year’s party ball with lights. Cheap yards of fabric can create ceiling canopies, boxes can be built into castles and chairs can be lined up to make a pretend train.

Cookie Mouse; Bounce HouseAfter-holiday sales often yield inexpensive materials such as gift wrap, tinsel, wire mesh netting, curtains twinkle lights, tablecloths, garland and holiday décor that can be suitable for the next party. Other prop items we have created from scratch over the years have included a spider web ceiling canopy, giant Big Ben clock, cardboard stand-up cacti, mystery trunk, walk-in gingerbread house and a Western fort. These have doubled as props for many parties as the years have gone by, with slight re-theming. We regularly use balloons and recently purchased an electric inflator which will be a convenience and time-saver over the long term. An easy way to create a manageable hanging balloon swag is to inflate 30 balloons, insert 3 balloons each onto individual paper clips, then string those 10 clips of balloons together on yarn, ribbon or string. Adjust and slide or nestle them together as needed once you hang and position your swag from above. These can be made a few days in advance.

Youth Services EventsWe enjoy the change of seasons and the programming and parties that revolve around them throughout our library calendar. While some of our events repeat from year to year, we continuously challenge ourselves to find new ways to interpret them and host and decorate for them through materials or methods we have not tried before. We are delighted to have families and young visitors who continue to participate in our programs as the years go by.

We hope you can join us at a library program soon, with your family!

-Laura G.


Popular posts from this blog

Ocean-in-a-Bottle Craft for Kids

Neil Gaiman Ruined My Life

N.Y.C., What is it about you?