So much of what happens in schools is focused on individual learning. What does this or that child know and by when? We test them and grade them and compare them to one another, but in the world outside of schools, most of what we do involves, not competitively applying individual knowledge, but pooling our collective knowledge for the greater good, with individuals coming together around projects and figuring out how to work together to get things done. Indeed, it can be argued that the most important skill anyone can possess in life is the ability to work well with other people.
Play-based education, in which children spend the bulk of their days coming together around their own projects, is the natural preparation for this aspect of the real world. It’s an opportunity for children to cooperate, collaborate, negotiate, and bicker, all of which is an ideal, hands-on preparation for the future. Circle time is an important part of that preparation.
Traditionally, circle or group time has been used by teachers as an opportunity to read stories, sing songs, and engage in games, and those are fine things, but limiting this time to discussing teacher-directed activities, is also to miss an opportunity to allow children to practice their community building skills. Below are a few ideas for going “beyond” stories, songs, and games.
I often start group time by simply asking, “What do we need to talk about?” This typically opens the door to child-led discussions on matters that most interest them. This might include anything from Grandma’s upcoming visit (or other exciting news from home), recently learned details about dinosaurs (or whatever else has peeked a child’s interest), or the information that red is someone’s favorite color (or pretty much anything else that pops into their minds). These things may not seem important to the adults in the room, but rest assured that they are to the children. Often one child’s share will spark a dialog that includes all the children as they, in turn, share their new from home, their interests, and their favorites. This type of discussion is a fantastic way to practice the listening and turn-taking that makes up much of what humans do together
Circle time is the best place for group discussions about problems or challenges that have come up in the classroom. Too often, the adults impose rules about sharing or turn-taking or other undesirable behavior when the children themselves, as a community, are perfectly capable of addressing them on their own. I will often start a discussion by simply stating the problem as I see it (e.g., “We only have one blue car and five children who want to play with it. What should we do?”). Preschoolers, especially as they get to be three and four years old, are both capable and eager to engage in problem solving. Not only that, but they are much more likely to stick with the solutions if they have had a hand in creating them.
Rules and agreements
And on the subjects of rules, every group of children three and up that I’ve ever taught has made their own classroom rules. We start with no rules at all, but it didn’t take long for someone to complain, “She hit me,” which is my cue to say, “You didn’t like that. Does anyone like being hit?” No one ever does, so then I say, “How about we all agree not to hit hit one another. Then I write the rule on a sheet of paper which we hang on the wall. Usually, then, other children propose further agreements like “No biting,” “No kicking,” and “No taking things from other people,” which we add to our list. This has the benefit of including children in the process of deciding what kind of community they want and means that instead of constantly scolding children into obedience, I can simply remind them, “We all agreed that we wouldn’t hit.” Children are always better about adhering to agreements in which they’ve taken part than they are our commands. Rule making, or agreements, gives children a genuine sense of agency and often becomes one of the most popular circle time activities as time goes on. Be prepared, however, that you’ll likely wind up needing more than one sheet of paper!
Planning and ideas
One of the most challenging things about being a preschool teacher is that we must always be planning a variety of motivating activities and provocations. Why not use circle time to let the children do that work for you? Quite often I will simply ask, “What should we do today?” allowing the children to decide. I’ve often planned entire weeks in this way and you can be certain that the children will be engaged because they are the ones who planned it.
“Experts” often insist that preschool aged children have short attention spans, cautioning that circle time should be limited to no more than 10 or 15 minutes, and that’s usually the case when the adult is in charge. But when the children lead, they often remain engaged for a half hour or longer as they come to see circle time as a central part of their day, a time to learn to build their community and work productively with others on matters that they find personally meaningful, which, after all, what life beyond school is all about.