BELOW: The Pondhawk Natural Area’s StoryWalk path featured ‘Little Skink’s Tail,’ by Janet Halfmann, in late August. The library changes the book every two months. ABOVE: The Mayes family from Boca Raton follows the story and the trail next to the Spanish River Library. The walk combines a reading activity with exercise for young children and families. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
As they walked along a trail in Pondhawk Natural Area, Kyle Mayes and his four children declared themselves fans of the Boca Raton Public Library’s StoryWalk program.
“I like StoryWalk,” said one of his sons.
“It is out in nature,” said a daughter. “I recommend it for something more nature-y.”
The program places enlarged pages of children’s books in weatherproof enclosures mounted on posts along walking trails, allowing children and their parents to read the books as they walk by.
The Florida League of Cities recently awarded Boca Raton its top City Spirit municipal achievement award for the effort, launched last year as the coronavirus pandemic kept kids cooped up indoors. The program gave them a reading activity that could be done safely outside.
Ellen Randolph, manager of library services, said she and her staff decided in 2019 that they wanted to launch StoryWalk. But they soon accelerated their plans.
“The pandemic made it obvious we needed to get this done,” she said.
The public reaction has been very positive, Randolph said.
“Everyone who has seen it is blown away with how nice it is. It helps families get kids outside and walking around,” she said. “It’s really been a hit all the way around.”
Mayes agrees. “It is an amazing idea,” he said.
Pondhawk, a county nature area, was selected for the first StoryWalk because it is located next to the city’s Spanish River Library at 1501 Spanish River Blvd. and has walking paths. Books displayed there are aimed at children about 4 to 6 years old.
Library staff collaborated with the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management, the city’s Department of Recreation Services and Friends of the Boca Raton Public Library, which helped fund the initiative.
They later opened a StoryWalk at the city’s Serenoa Glade Preserve, a nature area at 1101 NW 15th St. in George Snow Park, next to a popular playground. It focuses on books for toddlers and children in strollers.
Librarians select the books. For older children, they pick those with a good story to hold interest, illustrated with bright colors and likely not already familiar. Books are changed every two months.
When the Mayes family visited in late August, the featured book was Little Skink’s Tail, by Janet Halfmann.
Little Skink, a small lizard with a bright blue tail, was happily eating a breakfast of ants when she was attacked by a crow. Fearing for her life, she snapped off her blue tail to distract the crow and hid under a log.
When the danger passed, she began looking at other animals’ tails, pondering if she would prefer one of them. But the rabbit’s tail was “too puffy-fluffy,” the squirrel’s “much too bushy,” and the skunk’s “stinky.”
All ends well when one day she sees that her tail, the best one for her, has regenerated.
Besides telling a story, the displays provided information on what skinks are, their habits and food preferences, which parents can share with their children who do not yet read.
They also suggested questions to keep children engaged as they walk to the next page, such as “what should Little Skink do now?” Parents also could share with their kids information on how some lizards can regrow their tails and why animals have tails.
For now, Randolph does not expect to add more StoryWalks, although she might offer pop-ups at city-sponsored events.
StoryWalk is not unique to Boca Raton. It was developed in 2007 by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vermont, in collaboration with the Kellogg-Hubbard Library.
The idea really took off when the pandemic hit, as a way to help kids keep up their reading skills and engage in physical activity. StoryWalks exist now in 50 states and 13 countries.
The League of Cities loved the program and hopes other communities will adopt it.
“The city of Boca Raton’s nomination was excellent and your effort in engaging citizens was extraordinary,” Shwanda Barnette, the league’s membership relations ambassador, said in a July 26 award ceremony at a city meeting.
The league recognized that, though not unique, Boca’s was the right program at the right time and can be done at low cost, Randolph said.
“And it shows there can be a good outcome of seeing a need and reacting to it and being the right solution for the time.”