by Teresa Narey
What is circle time?
Most early child care or preschool educators will tell you that circle time is a staple in their settings. But what is circle time, and how can we do it well? Circle time comes from the tradition of Friedrich Froebel, a German educator responsible for implementing the first organized kindergarten in the mid-19th century. For Froebel, circle time was a time for children to learn and play in group activities. Circle time then was much like it is now in many school communities—it happened at the beginning and end of each day to help children focus and to reinforce community. Circle time included music and movement, as well as fingerplays and storytelling, and in many settings, these activities still comprise the time. The word “circle” describes the position of the educator and children during the activities—they may sit or move in a circle depending on the activity.
Circle time and attention span
There are several challenges educators often share about circle time, among them are a concern about child interest and the desire for children to pay attention or remain seated. In considering Froebel’s intentions for circle time, an opportunity for learning and movement, educators may want to rethink their circle time structure if sitting is an issue for children or if the expectation is that children should sit. Child development research on children’s attention spans indicates that a reasonable attention span to expect of a child is two to three minutes times the year of his age. So, a two-year-old can be expected to have an attention span of four to six minutes, a three-year-old may have one of six to nine minutes, and a four-year-old may have an attention span of up to 12 minutes. To assess the quality of your circle time, you may want to begin by considering its length in relation to each child’s attention span. Though, time in and of itself will not remedy circle time woes.
Tips for creating meaningful circle time experiences
Have a learning goal
In their work on educational theorist Lev Vygotsky, Bodrova and Leong explain that Vygotsky believed that educators play an important role in shaping children’s shared learning experiences. One way educators have an impact, they write, is by conceiving of a concept or goal before engaging children in an activity or conversation. Without a goal, it is difficult for educators to anticipate problems that might emerge, redirect children’s focus with questions or musings, or simply respond to children’s questions. Before you begin circle time, think about how you want children to feel and what you’d like for them to take away from that moment.
Make activities interactive and hands-on
It goes without saying that learning is kinetic for children. The more they can move around, touch, attempt, and discover, the more engaged they are during structured activities. If the learning goal is for children to identify the letter O, consider simple ways to make the activity a whole-body experience. Perhaps, you write a variety of letters on a white board and invite children to erase the Os by tracing them with a finger. Maybe you would offer small trays filled with sand and invite children to practice writing the letter with a finger in the sand. Or, maybe you offer hula hoops and invite children to practice jumping in and out of the O.
Have a go-to song or movement activity
In addition to any songs and movement activities you have planned for circle time, think about the ones your children love most and choose one to help orient children when they appear to be losing focus. For example, a song like “Sticky Bubble Gum” involves singing and movement. Invite children to participate in the song and once settled, finish your learning activity and wrap up circle time.
Read a book
Research tells us that the more we read to children, the greater their language and literacy gains. Consider framing your learning goal for the day with a related story. If your science activity for the day will focus on the weather changing from fall to winter, read a book about seasons. Talk with children as you read by stopping and asking questions and drawing attention to the images. Later, when you engage in your science activity, invite children to recall parts of the book. This will help them understand how the circle time experience relates to the rest of the day and support learning connections. Alternatively, you may simply want to choose a book that captures a particular feeling or mood in your classroom. Maybe the children love dinosaurs and you just want to speak to that fascination. Tailor circle time books to children’s interests to let them know that you pay attention to and understand what excites or concerns them.
Build a rhythm
Children function better when they know what to expect. It is likely that your center or setting organizes its day around a particular structure and circle time should be no different. Choose a flow for circle time and keep it consistent. For example, you might begin with a welcome song and read a book. After the book, you might do a movement activity and then a learning activity. Keep your circle time routine consistent and alternate between sedentary and movement activities to keep children engaged.
Keep transition techniques in your back pocket
Circle time may go more smoothly on some days than others. Don’t be afraid to cut circle time short when the children seem especially distracted. You can always try circle time during another part of the day. If you usually do circle time before morning snack, try it after snack. Maybe it will work better before lunch or after outside play time. Adjust your schedule as needed. When you do cut circle time short, have a transition technique ready to invite children back into the routine. You might invite children individually to jump to the sink to wash their hands. Or, maybe you still attempt a learning experience by inviting children to move to the next activity by saying the first letter of their names or calling out a color they are wearing. Either way, honor your time with the children and make the most of each experience by taking it to the children’s level of capability.