Why Circle Time at Preschool Is a Waste of Time and Small Group Activities 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 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.
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 are spread too thin.
Every Parent of a Preschooler Should Listen to This 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?
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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 13
© 2015 McKenna Meyers