5 Reasons Why Circle Time Is a Waste of Time at Preschool and Small Group Activities Are Better
Circle Time Has Grown Longer and More Unwieldy
Each day across this great nation of ours young children gather on rugs, sitting quietly criss-cross applesauce, as their preschool teachers take center stage to conduct Circle Time. Circle Time is now an established part of the preschool day as the entire class assembles for various activities such as listening to stories, counting on the calendar, and doing show and tell. What, in heaven's name, you might wonder could be wrong with that!
As a former preschool and kindergarten teacher, I've seen Circle Time change over the years: becoming longer, more frequent, and quite unwieldy as teachers use it as their primary platform to educate young children. By relying too heavily on Circle Time, teachers are ignoring the research that shows young children benefit more from small group activities and open-play periods when they experiment, explore, and learn by doing. Circle Time is harmful when it's used instead of the more effective hands-on approach.
Why Are Preschool Teachers Going Overboard With Circle Time Activities?
With research to the contrary, why then are preschool teachers doing longer and more frequent Circle Times you may wonder. Let's look at 5 reasons Circle Time is being used for all the wrong reasons:
1. Teachers Love to Be Center Stage at Circle Time
Have you ever attended a theatrical production where the actors on stage are having the time of their lives while the audience members sit in their seats—bored, frustrated, and wanting to bail? Go to any preschool to watch Circle Time and you'll probably see a similar state of affairs. Some preschool teachers—thwarted thespians at heart—use Circle Time as an opportunity to perform for a captive audience. Their young students—eager to wiggle, play, and talk—harness all their powers to sit quietly and listen passively.
A 4-year-old child's attention span is about 15 minutes according to child development experts. Therefore, 15 minutes is a reasonable duration for Circle Time at preschool (25-30 minutes is reasonable for kindergarten). However, it's common for teachers to conduct Circle Times that go on for 45 minutes to an hour. Because Circle Time is their favorite part of their jobs, teachers ignore children who are zoning out and continue with their theatrics.
2. Circle Time is Easy-Peasy Compared to Planning Small Group Activities
According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), teachers should not expect youngsters to sit quietly for long periods at Circle Time. The NAEYC recommends teachers work with children individually and in small groups throughout the day, not just the entire class during Circle Time. In fact, many early childhood experts argue that small group instruction is one of the most effective but underused strategies at preschools. The NAEYC also recommends that youngsters use most of their time exploring materials and playing with other children, not sitting criss-cross applesauce as their teacher speaks.
Since these best practices are widely known and accepted, why do preschool teachers rely so heavily on Circle Time instruction? Quite frankly, it's because small group activities take more planning and effort than Circle Time activities, which are often repetitious (e.g. calendar and weather) or are done on the fly (e.g. going over classroom rules and talking about everyone's weekend fun).
At the preschool where I worked, teachers received an hourly wage for their classroom time but no compensation for the innumerable hours spent planning activities, preparing materials, and readying projects. Teachers like me put in unpaid time because we took pride in our work—wanting our classrooms to run smoothly and the children to have happy, productive days. However, putting in hours and hours of work for no pay is unsustainable for most of us. That's one reason why the average annual turnover rate for childcare workers in the United States is a whopping 30 percent!
Circle Time Allows for a Higher Student-Teacher Ratio, Increasing Profits for the Owner
Preschool owners love Circle Time for two reasons. First, Circle Time is peaceful, quiet, and orderly and parents get impressed by it. They're easily fooled into believing Circle Time is where the "real" learning takes place. Second, Circle Time allows for a higher student-teacher ratio. Teachers work with the entire group at once instead of moving from child to child or from small group to small group. Circle Time is like a college class in a lecture hall with as many bodies crammed in as possible.
The obvious difference being lectures are not a suitable strategy for teaching young children. Kids need hands-on experiences, facilitated instruction, cooperative learning projects, and plenty of time to play. All this is possible with lower student-teacher ratios.
Many preschool owners go above recommended ratios to increase revenue. The owner at the preschool where I worked would start in September with a reasonable ratio but continued to add children throughout the year. We'd often reach numbers too high for optimum learning to take place while also compromising the safety of the children and threatening the sanity of the teachers.
According to the NAEYC, smaller group sizes and lower student-teacher ratios are a strong indicator of a quality program. They point to a curriculum that promotes developmentally appropriate practices and values positive child-adult interactions. Classes that have children with special needs call for an even lower student-teacher ratio, and parents should be keenly aware of this.
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4. Circle Time Costs Nothing
Preschool owners are always trying to keep costs low. Their profit margins are often small with money going toward rent and salaries. They rarely have funds to cover teachers' extra expenses. Therefore, teachers use their own cash to buy fabric paint for Father's Day ties, pipe cleaners for tissue paper flowers, or goldfish for a science unit. Because the average wage for preschool teachers is only $11.95 an hour, it's understandable they don't want to shell out too much of their own hard-earned cash. Both owners and teachers love Circle Time because it costs absolutely nothing.
5. Parents Are Impressed by Circle Time, Not Play Time
Parents are typically more impressed by Circle Time than any other activity at preschool. They watch the teacher take command of her class and feel a sense of comfort that a capable adult is in control. They feel their children are learning when spoon-fed information from the teacher.
Sadly, parents are rarely impressed during self-directed play time. Some see it as a waste of time as children explore materials, create open-ended art, and experience the joys and struggles of dealing with peers. Some ask: Why am I paying for this?
The well-informed parent, however, sees self-directed play as the most crucial part of the program—the time when youngsters learn how to solve problems, make choices, investigate deeply, and socialize with friends. Circle Time accomplishes none of this.
Final Thoughts: Cutting Back on Circle Time
It's very easy to let Circle Time become the focus of the preschool day. When that happens, Circle Time is harmful. However, with a commitment to best practices in early childhood education, preschool owners and teachers can decrease whole group instruction. In the process, they can increase small group activities, open-play periods, and one-on-one instruction. This creates a healthier and happier environment where students gain initiative and independence while having fun and making friends.
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© 2015 McKenna Meyers