The idea of guiding a large group of children can send some adults into a cold-sweat panic. What they may have envisioned as an idyllic reading of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” or a thoughtful conversation about the life cycle of the butterfly begins to look more like a full-scale mutiny as serene children on the rug bounce around like popcorn kernels and contribute thoughts to the group discussion that range from what they did on Wednesday (“or maybe that one other day that wasn’t yesterday but wasn’t a long, long time ago…..”), to the dead frog discovered in their driveway, and on to an impromptu performance of a funny commercial they saw this morning.
How do you manage a large group at circle time? Here are a few tips.
Remember Your Purpose and Choose Wisely
It’s tempting to put EVERYTHING in circle time. But you have to start by knowing your purpose (more about the antidote for Intention Deficit Disorder here). Each large group time has a different purpose, but there are general objectives to consider for the activity as a whole. Think about the space that group time holds. You have brought the whole group together. So, your first objective to consider would be social skills. How do we work together as a group? How do we share ideas respectfully? How do we listen respectfully? How do we build unity and community as a group? Along with that come language and conceptual skills. What kinds of discussions can we have as a group that add to those skills, building ideas and understanding together? When you realize these purposes of a large group setting, it seems silly to turn it into a “stand and deliver” activity where the children sit silently and the adult takes the stage.
Children learn to associate the social expectations of a group time along with the routine that is used. You may want to gather in your large group by singing a familiar song, which then becomes a social cue. You may choose to follow a basic outline or structure to your circle time. For example, you might begin with a song, have a discussion about the activities that preceded circle time, then share a group activity or story. Routines are great as social signals, but be sure you don’t fall into a routine rut. (See below.)
But Don’t Do Anything “Just Because”
While routines are important, going on autopilot can become defeating. I participated recently on a panel for Rae Pica’s show, Studentcentricity, along with Deborah Stewart and Heather Shumaker. The main topic was whether or not it’s time to let go of tradition and embrace what we know about how kids learn when it comes to old standbys like the weather chart and letter of the week lesson plans.
Clearly, this is a good-better-best scenario, where keeping these old traditions is not necessarily “bad” practice, but clearly isn’t the best. I love Deborahs’ take on swapping the old routine of the weather chart for some more meaningful charting.
I recently adopted her approach with a small group of co-op preschoolers who are now using her format to do personal weather journals instead of the old tradition of sticking a premade weather picture to a chart. They were instantly more engaged in the activity as well as in more meaningful conceptual discussions and preliteracy work. What are some ways you could trade a “just because” activity for something more engaging and meaningful for your kids?
When someone mentions to me that they’re struggling with circle time, the first thing I ask about is how long it is. If a teacher is having a hard time getting preschoolers to sit quietly and listen for 35 minutes, the problem isn’t with the children, but with the expectation. Just like my grandma always said, you simply can’t put a big head on little shoulders.
Start with a very short circle time and gradually increase to your expected goal. Break up that circle time with opportunities to move and engage by adding music and movement elements and hands-on engagement. Young children won’t — and shouldn’t — sit passively for more than a few minutes at a time. They are wired for engagement.
Engagement Over Focus
I recently heard a teacher of young children asking how to get her group to focus. While I completely relate to the challenge she was describing, I wondered if we were asking the wrong question.
Rather than becoming hung up on why kids won’t focus, we should ask how we can better engage them. The ability to focus is a real skill and it does need to be built, but particularly for young children, this comes with practice as kids are engaged in meaningful tasks. As teachers, getting kids to focus is a goal we have little to no control over, but getting kids engaged is a goal that can guide our planning and implementation.
We engage children with our delivery and demeanor. Are we on their level? Are we making eye contact? Are we enthusiastic and using our voices in an engaging way? Are we planning activities that are meaningful? Are we asking questions and guiding discussions? If you feel you’re struggling with focus from the children, something outside of your control, start with the things within your control and ask how you can invite more engagement.
Let Them Talk — Pair Share
As early childhood professionals, we know about the 30 Million Word Gap, based on the work of Hart and Risley. Soon after this research was shared, we began to emphasize the importance of talking to young children. But further research shows that it isn’t just words heard that are important in this gap, but also the quality of conversations that children are engaged in as active participants. That they talk with others, rather than simply being talked at.
Opening up the floor to a group of four year-olds sounds like a quick trip down a very deep rabbit hole, but there are ways to keep kids talking without having your activity spiral out of control. My favorite tool to use when I can tell that there are more children wanting to share than I have time for (a good sign of engagement!) is the pair-share.
I start by asking the children to think about a question. “When have you played in the rain like the character in our book?” “Have you ever played with a frog?” “What did you do this weekend?” Then I invite them to turn to one neighbor and share their ideas. Give a minute or two and then call them back with your signal. (I use “Give Me Five“.) Comment on some of the things you heard, or just the general fact that they had so much to share, and then move on.
When we realize that everyone having something to say is a sign that kids are engaged and making connections, we find ways to incorporate it rather than stifle it.
Give Them (Defined) Space
The environment is another aspect that can have a big impact on your large group time. Check your space for unintentional invitations that might get kids off task. For example, I once taught a preschool group where our large group space was near our book area with a large front-facing bookcase. As we sat down to large group time, I struggled to keep the children engaged as children occasionally got up and wandered over to the bookcase to peruse a book.
At first, I was frustrated and focused on the kids and getting them to stop. Then I realized, the bookcase was doing its job. It was enticing children to come read. And the children were doing their job. They were sitting down with great books. But the invitation to read was coming at the wrong time. What I needed to do was change the environment to create an invitation to engage in large group time. So I purchased a large pocket chart and some velcro and attached the chart to cover the books during large group time. Holding song lyrics or picture cards, the pocket chart became the right invitation at the right time and defined the space as a large group area.
Children also need their own defined space individually, to help them sit without encroaching on someone else’s personal space. You can invest in awesome rugs *affiliate link that help identify personal space, but what I love to use for this task are inexpensive place mats like these. *affiliate link (As tempting as it may be to get a variety of colors, I find that having a full set of just one color heads off a lot of arguments!) Besides being budget friendly, these are great for moving about the room or even taking outside when circle time needs a change of scenery. (Here’s the brilliant post that inspired me to add this to my classroom years ago.)
In the BAM Radio interview, Rae Pica asked Heather Shumaker, Deborah Stewart, and myself what circle time would look like if we were each “Queen of the World”. You can catch our answers here. My first answer, however, was that I think Deb is the “Queen of Circle Time”, so after you catch the interview, check out this link to Deb’s Circle Time Tips. Also, check out this treasure trove of Circle Time resources from No Time for Flash Cards to start your planning!
What are your top tips for a successful circle time?