Cowabunga! A turtle-themed storytime with action rhyme

a photo of a picture book called Turtle Splash, countdown at the pond. there are turtles on the cover. they are climbing in and out of the pond and onto and off of a log.

Cowabunga! Get ready for a turtle storytime that’s making a splash! Hey there, library professionals, parents, and teachers! Today, I want to share with you a recent turtle-themed storytime I did for a lively group of 2-5 year olds as part of our Alphabet Adventures series. And guess what letter we were exploring? That’s right, the mighty “T” for Turtle Power!

Action Rhyme: There was a little turtle

Let me start by telling you about one of my all-time favorite action rhymes, “There Was a Little Turtle.” Believe it or not, this rhyme has been around since at least the 1930s. I stumbled upon it somewhere—I suspect the King County Library System website, which is a treasure trove of action rhymes with video demonstrations. You’ve got to check it out!

But here’s the kicker: this rhyme was actually composed by Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), and it was dedicated to a three-year-old named Martha Wakefield. If you’re up for a little adventure down the rabbit hole, head over to to learn more about the poetic genius known as the “Johnny Appleseed” of poetry. Ah, sorry for getting sidetracked. Let’s dive back into the poem:

There was a little turtle,
He lived in a box.
He splashed in the water
And he climbed on the rocks.
He snapped at the mosquito,
He snapped at the flea,
He snapped at a minnow,
And he snapped at me!

He caught the mosquito,
He caught the flea,
He caught the minnow,
But he couldn’t catch me!

Now, if you search the internet, you’ll find various versions of this rhyme, each with its own little twist. So, pick the one that tickles your funny bone the most.

To add some pizzazz to the rhyme, I love incorporating actions. So, before we jump into it, I usually go over the actions with the kids. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Make the sign for turtle: I start by asking the kids to give me a thumbs up. Now, brace yourself, because some children are still on the hunt for their thumbs! Give them a moment to figure it out. Then, ask them to lay their other hand over the top of the thumb so that it pokes out a little bit. One thumb becomes the turtle’s head, and the other hand forms the turtle’s shell.
  2. Draw a box in the air. Okay, you’re technically drawing a square, but you get the idea.
  3. Splash your hands in front of you.
  4. Make a climbing motion with your hands or let your fingers walk up your arm.
  5. Whenever the word “snap” comes up, clap your hands. And here’s the fun part—each time you clap, do it in a different place, as if you’re snapping at the different creatures in the rhyme.
  6. Repeat the same action whenever the word “caught” pops up.
  7. Finally, wag your finger in front of yourself, as if to say, “No way!” when we say, “He couldn’t catch me!”

Felt board fun!

Now, let me share one of my favorite tricks to keep the little ones engaged during storytime—using felt pieces to illustrate action rhymes. You may have your own fantastic method, but here’s what I’ve found to be the easiest. Print out a color picture, hot-glue it to a piece of felt, and cut it out. Ta-da! Now you have a delightful felt piece to showcase during the rhyme.

When introducing new rhymes, I suggest unveiling the felt pieces one at a time in the order they appear in the poem.

This helps prepare the children for what’s coming. Once the pieces are up on the felt board, you can let them be and continue teaching the actions for the rhyme.

During this particular storytime, I was feeling adventurous, so I also printed out the words for each picture. I wanted the kids to see the letter T for Turtle, as it was the focus of the day. However, I ended up not using the words during the lesson. It felt like throwing in one more element would overwhelm the little ones. But hey, after the program, while the children and parents were staying to play, some parents brought their kids up to the felt easel to review the words. This little trick also makes my storytimes more inclusive, especially for families who primarily speak languages other than English at home.

What reactions should you expect?

Now, here’s a funny question for you: how do the kids react to your storytelling antics? Believe me, it’s worth paying attention to! Sometimes, a new rhyme or song might flop, and that’s perfectly okay. Other times, you might need to adjust your approach. Most of the time, kids just need a little more practice.

In my experience, I’ve had a blast with this particular rhyme over the years. However, I hadn’t done it recently with the kids who attend my Alphabet Adventures program. When I finally brought it back, they were all about the actions during our practice session. Most of the toddlers gave the actions a shot and nailed it. Some parents even helped out the little ones, and that warmed my heart (more on the joys of parent involvement in a later post).

But when I added the rhyme to the mix, I saw a bunch of wide-eyed children staring at me, mouths agape. It was like their brains were processing the words while their bodies were trying to follow along with the actions. Some managed to keep up, but others seemed to be on information overload!

I made a playful comment, more for the parents’ benefit, about the many blank faces I saw. Then I explained that the children were simply processing the information, and we gave it another go.

Repetition is key for young children to learn a new rhyme, so I’ll definitely whip out this turtle-themed gem during another storytime without a specific theme (more on unthemed Storytimes and why they’re amazing in a future post).

Book: Turtle Splash: Countdown at the Pond by Cathryn Falwell

Now, let’s talk about books! I absolutely adore counting books because they’re simple, engaging, and get the kids involved. One book that stole the show during our turtle-themed storytime was “Turtle Splash: Countdown at the Pond” by Cathryn Falwell. Can you believe it’s been around for 15 years? Yet, it’s still a fantastic choice for this theme. The illustrations are vibrant, the text is simple, and the kids love counting the various birds and animals they encounter at the pond.

But here’s what makes this book even more special—it’s more than meets the eye! The text is full of delightful rhymes, perfect for young kids. Not only does it reinforce numerical awareness, but it also helps children understand the different types of animals that call the pond their home. It’s a fantastic way to expand their understanding of the world, and as a children’s librarian, I can’t get enough of books like this!

Closing thoughts on the turtle storytime

So there you have it, folks! A turtle storytime that’s sure to make a splash with your little ones. Remember, turtles are always cool, no matter how old you are. Whether you’re a library professional, a parent, or a teacher, I hope you find these ideas and resources helpful in creating memorable and engaging storytimes for the young ones in your life. Keep shining like a shell in the sun, and until next time, stay turtle-tastic!

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