Dorset Council Libraries: Toddler Time and Talk

Libraries across Dorset host a range of early years programmes such as Rhyme Times, Library Gets Lively and Story Times to support early language development and a love of books and reading. Following a Rhyme Time session at Portland Library, staff identified a need to develop their sessions in response to the requirements of some of their families; in the main the isolation of some parents who found it difficult to break into established groups, or who were new to the area and had not developed relationships with other parents.

The challenge

In terms of child development at age five, Weymouth and Portland exceed the English benchmark of 60.4 per cent but some locations in Portland fall short at 29.7 per cent.

Portland has a population of 13,417 and is made up of 7 Lower Layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs). LSOAs have an average population of 1,500 people or 650 household. Three out of the seven LSOA’s on Portland fall within the top 20 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. This is in contrast to other areas of Portland, which has much lower levels of deprivation. Portland’s Early Years settings are rated good and outstanding by Ofsted.

Noting that “several mums would spend time in the library and want to chat” the library staff identified the need to offer a space in the community for families to meet by developing the Rhyme Time sessions. In addition, there was an identified need to collaborate with professionals to deliver this programme and contribute to the development of the children’s prime areas of learning (personal, social and emotional development, physical development and communication and language).

Other challenges identified included:

  • connecting with the isolated parents who were not using the library
  • creating more space to accommodate the families
  • reviewing the staffing schedules to ensure that the sessions could take place at a time that suited the families.

The solution

As Portland Library were trialling, in discussion with the Development Librarians they decided to call the new programme Toddler Time and Talk. Commencing with a Rhyme Time session, families could stay to have refreshments, make friends and engage with professionals in information sharing and chat sessions. The trial sessions aimed to involve Health Visitors, the Community Dental Team, Speech and Language Therapists and enable the partners to market the sessions to their families thus drawing in a wider cohort of participants.

The Development Librarians would also be present to provide support for early reading. Many of the parents worry about ‘how to’ read with their children or support their language development and modelling such activities is a great way of providing the parents with the skills they need. The Development Librarians planned to connect with mums, dads and carers about reading to their child, the benefits of reading and share hints and tips for storytelling.

Some library shelving was fitted with wheeled castors and the service will continue to pursue opportunities to invest in our library spaces. This includes customer focused furniture and moveable fixtures and furniture.

The Library team adopted a customer focused approach and delivered the sessions at times which suited the target audience, thus increasing the opportunity to attract new families to the library.

The impact

The first sessions happened in early 2020 and attracted 148 attendees, (children and adults across 6 sessions). The concept was well received by families and the session time worked well around school drop offs and created a community hub element to the library. Unfortunately, sessions were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the last few months, the parents who attended the sessions are beginning to attend the reinstated regular Rhyme Times and feedback indicates that the support and welcome they gained from the Toddler Time and Talk sessions, has given them the confidence to come to other events and activities held at the library. In line with public health guidance, Toddler Time and Talk sessions will be re-launched.

How is the new approach being sustained?

A plan for the future re-launch is being discussed and the LGA Family Hubs Peer Review has opened up new channels for exploration. For example:

  • collaborating with the Early Years settings in Portland
  • talking about how we can develop our contribution to the Best Start in Life and Dorset Council’s: Our Children, Young People’s and Families Plan 2020-2023
  • exploring SEND engagement with colleagues in Children’s Services and Speech and Language outreach opportunities with the NHS Paediatric Speech and Language Therapy Service at Dorset HealthCare University NHS Foundation Trust
  • consideration of investment in Portland Library space, in order to enhance the offer and make it even more attractive and accessible to families in the area
  • collecting data which helps us to measure the impact of the sessions when they are relaunched. Being able to clearly articulate the impact of these sessions will provide opportunities to scale this up and offer it in more libraries across Dorset, targeting delivery in areas of highest need
  • the Library Service is represented in strategic planning as the Head of Customer Services, Libraries and Archives sits on the Family Hubs Steering Group allowing this case study of partnership working to help inform Family Hub policy and procedure.

Lessons learned


The sessions developed from an identified ‘on the ground’ need, and as such they evolved organically. Robust methods of evaluation were not built in; however, this will be rectified when the sessions are relaunched, and a formal pilot is begun. Evaluation methods will be designed to formally capture, the feedback from parents about the positive impact the sessions have both for their wellbeing perspective and the socialisation element of their child’s development.

Virtual offer

Over the last two years our virtual programmes for the early years have been very well received. Given this, we also need to consider a virtual Toddler Time and Talk session to remove some of the barriers for parents actually coming in to the library, as this is a huge step for someone if they are feeling low or isolated, and who may not have visited a library for some time.

Team approach

Working with partners in a one team approach is essential to deliver against shared goals and maximise reach to those most in need and who would benefit from parental support to enhance speech and language outcomes and school readiness. Portland Library is ideally situated for other services such as Speech and Language Therapy to work from, giving easier outreach access to families.

Book Trust Early Years Offer

The relaunch of Toddler Time and Talk will also fit nicely with Book Trusts new Early Years targeted offer and Portland will be a focus area.

Family Hubs and Dorset Library Strategy

The Library Service is aware that collaborative work and opportunities for the Library Service in Portland will take time. However, the collaboration between Children Services and the Library Service throughout the LGA Peer Review and the Family Hubs and Library Strategy development work, offer new opportunities for the delivery of shared objectives.