Why Circle Time at Preschool Gets Overused When Small Groups Are Better
Circle Time Has Grown Too Long and 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 ignore the research that shows youngsters benefit more from small group activities and extended 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 during 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.
In "Circle Time Revisited: How Do Preschool Classrooms Use This Part of the Day," the authors argue that most circle times are not language-rich experiences for young children. The teacher does the vast majority of the talking, using words that are simple and repetitive. When the children have an opportunity to speak, it's typically one-word answers in response to the teacher's questions. Conversely, small group activities allow for high-quality dialogue with questions being asked, ideas getting expressed, and new vocabulary words being learned and used in context.
As an early-childhood educator, I’ve clocked many hours in many preschool classrooms, and I have found that I can pretty quickly take the temperature from the looks on kids’ faces, the ratio of table space to open areas, and the amount of conversation going on in either.In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication.They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.— Erika Christakis, author of "The Importance of Being Little"
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.
Professor Barbara Wasik of Temple University extols small groups activities over whole group ones in "When Fewer Is More: Small Groups in Early Childhood Classrooms." She writes: "Research in the field of early childhood supports the fact that the more quality contact the young child has with a competent adult, the greater the positive impact it can have on learning and development. Small groups create the opportunity for children to have more access to these quality interactions with adults. A teacher having a conversation with four children can hear more questions, provide more direct feedback, can be heard more accurately, and can attend to children's reactions in a more effective manner than when a teacher is interacting with 18 children in a group."
Since these best practices are widely known and accepted, why do preschool teachers then 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 are impressed by it. They're easily fooled into believing circle time is when 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, small group sizes and low student-teacher ratios are strong indicators of a quality program. This is especially true when paired with a curriculum that promotes developmentally appropriate practices and positive child-adult interactions. Furthermore, a quality preschool program accommodates children with special needs by further lowering the student-teacher ratio so the adult leaders aren't spread too thin.
Every parent of a preschooler should watch this video about the decline in play and the rise in mental illness.
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.
Play is often perceived as immature behavior that doesn't achieve anything. But it's essential to their development. They need to learn to persevere, to control attention, to control emotions.— David Whitebread, psychologist and early years specialist at Cambridge University
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 main 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.
What do you think?
Why do you think circle times are getting longer and more unwieldy?
Read This Book Before Choosing a Preschool for Your Child!
If you're a parent looking to get inspired and empowered, this is the book for you. There are so many forces out in the world robbing our children of their innocence and creativity – video games, cell phones, violent movies, commercialism – but this book shows us how to protect our youngsters from those influences. While everybody is over-programming their kids in sports, music lessons, and dance, this book talks about the value of down-time and imaginative play. I highly recommend parents of young children read this before choosing a preschool.
- What to Look for in a Preschool: 50 Characteristics ...
When looking at preschools for their child, what should parents consider? A former early childhood educator and mother of 2 lists 50 characteristics of a high-quality preschool.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
My daughter's preschool teacher is always talking to the kids at circle time about getting ready for kindergarten. My daughter doesn't even know what kindergarten is, and certainly doesn't care about being ready for it. What should I do?
If I had to guess, I'd say your daughter's preschool teacher is new to the profession and is under a lot of pressure from her boss and from parents to prepare the children for kindergarten. You're correct in your opinion that her comment is meaningless to a bunch of 5-year-olds who don't know what kindergarten is. The teacher is revealing her own anxiety and, in the process, is transferring that to her young students. They're getting a vague notion that kindergarten is something to fear.
Unfortunately, this is the climate at preschools today in the US. Too many of them have become just prep stations for kindergarten with kids doing a whole host of activities that aren't developmentally appropriate: writing in workbooks, keeping journals, doing math equations, sitting for outrageously long circle times, and enduring too many teacher-directed lessons. Many parents consider this “real learning” and are pleased that their kids are getting ready for elementary school. They're unaware of the research that shows preschoolers learn best through play, social interaction, and hands-on discovery.
I strongly recommend you talk to the teacher about your concerns. Tell her that you do not see your daughter's preschool year as preparation for kindergarten, but it's own unique and magical experience. She'll probably be relieved to hear that not all parents see preschool as just a means to an end.Helpful 15
What ways can I improve my circle and small group activities with a lot of children? I am a teacher and have seen circles as a whole group activity where we learn the date and share the weather. I also have a question of the day to generate the child's imagination. I am looking for ways to improve all the time. I put my heart and soul into small groups, but it's hard because of the ratio. What ideas do you have to improve circle and small groups with a lot of children?
You sound like a caring, motivated preschool teacher and your students are lucky to have you. When it comes to circle time, shorter is definitely better because the children's attention spans are only about 15 minutes. Studies show that teachers' vocabularies during whole group activities are very limited, repetitive, and do little to promote literacy. Language development, articulation, and conversational skills are best developed during play time and small group activities.
I've seen circle time done effectively at Waldorf preschools when they do “movement circles.” These are typically based on the seasons and the children are on their feet, moving, singing, marching, and participating the entire time. Through song, they learn new, rich vocabulary in a fun and meaningful way. Here's a link to a video on You Tube that shows a winter Waldorf movement circle: https://youtu.be/urd7LksiYx0
As for small group activities, keep them simple and child-centered with lots of age-appropriate materials that the kids can use in creative ways. This is their time to explore freely and deeply with no adult-set agenda. They will learn from experimenting by themselves and interacting with one another. If you have a parent volunteer or two, you can use them during this time—not to present information but to keep the conversation going among the children by asking probing questions.
Small group activities should be process orientated, not product oriented. I've seen too many preschool teachers trying to do too much during this time: elaborate craft projects, complicated STEM activities, and involved writing lessons. It becomes an adult-centered experience, not a child-centered one. The teachers get frustrated, exhausted, and overwhelmed and the kids get little from the experience. Less is more when it comes to preschoolers who are discovering things for the first time.
I've written an article entitled, “5 Things Children Learn at Preschool That Are a Waste of Time and Not Developmentally Appropriate.” I discuss why preschoolers get little out of calendar time and other common preschool practices. Best to you and your kiddos!Helpful 4
My son's teacher is committed to reading 3 books each day to the group at circle time. The kids seem totally checked out. Is this a good practice?
No. If I were to guess, I'd say your son's teacher is influenced by the “whole language” approach that dominated education during the 1980s and '90s. I was earning my teaching credential at that time and remember kindergarten teachers dedicated to that same practice of reading three books each day.
The goal of the whole language was to expose youngsters to a plethora of rich language experiences through stories, books, poems, songs, and reading aloud. It was believed that this exposure would turn them into efficient and enthusiastic readers. Eventually, however, the whole language fell out of favor because some children weren't learning how to read. Most experts today advocate a balanced approach that combines both whole language instruction and phonics.
As you suspect, reading aloud to a large group doesn't result in the best experience for the children. They can't see the illustrations very well, decreasing their involvement with the story. They can't interrupt to ask questions when they don't understand the plot. They can't talk about an event in their own lives that's similar to what the characters are experiencing.
That's why reading to your son at home, one-on-one, is far more effective. You can ask questions of him throughout the story, checking to see if he's comprehending and clearing up any confusion. A teacher with a large group can't keep starting and stopping, or the continuity gets lost, the youngsters lose interest and grow restless.
You may want to read my article, “5 Things Children Learn at Preschool That Are a Waste of Time and Not Developmentally Appropriate.”
Sadly, many preschools today are teacher-centered rather than child-centered. Reading three books a day to the class would be an example of that. It's something the teacher enjoys (and it's easy), but the kids get little from it. Most parents never question this practice so good for you for being so perceptive!Helpful 3
I have twin four-year-old boys who are in the same pre-k class together. They love playing with their friends at school but can't sit still for calendar activities. They're often put in time out. Should I be concerned?
Sadly, many preschools today do a long calendar routine at circle time. Research shows that children under 6 are not developmentally ready to grasp the concepts of time that are discussed such as yesterday, today, and tomorrow. That's why it's not surprising that children like yours get bored and restless. Math concepts that are covered during calendar time (counting, patterning, sequencing) are better learned through hands-on activities with math manipulatives. I've written an article on why the calendar is not appropriate in preschool called “5 Things Children Learn at Preschool That Are a Waste of Time and Not Developmentally Appropriate.”
Your twins sound like typical 4-year-old boys who find it hard to sit still during circle time. However, you should consider waiting until they're 6 before starting kindergarten. During the last 10 years, kindergarten has become much more academically-focused and less child-centered. Many are now full-day with little time for playing, pretending, socializing, and doing hands-on learning. Unfortunately, there's a long list of Common Core skills that teachers are expected to present and assess. Kids are expected to learn how to read by the end of the year even though there's no evidence that shows benefits from early reading. You should also consider alternative kindergartens that don't push early academics such as Montessori and Waldorf.
This is a tragic time in early childhood education but, hopefully, things will turn around soon. Too many youngsters (especially boys) are getting labeled as “immature,” “disruptive,” and “hyperactive” when they're just normal wriggly kids. Too much of preschool instruction is geared toward preparing kids academically for kindergarten with narrow skills and not getting them excited about discovering the exciting world around them with its infinite possibilities. We need to look at countries with successful school systems and see how they let kids be kids in kindergarten with lots of play, exploration, and time to use their imaginations. I wrote an article called “30 Ways American Kindergarten Should Become More Like Those in Germany, Japan, and Finland” that you'll find eye-opening.
Some experts believe that the higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide we now see in young adults, teens, and even children are connected to a lack of play in the early years. Children learn best when guided by their own curiosity. When preschools are kid-centered, youngsters become self-directed learners, and that is key to a lifetime of joyfully acquiring knowledge.Helpful 3
© 2015 McKenna Meyers