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Ask The Expert - Circle Time: A Tool for Supporting Children's Development
By Judith Colbert Ph. D.

Ask The Expert - Circle Time: A Tool for Supporting Children's Development 

By Judith Colbert, Ph.D.


How can I encourage shy and even language-delayed children to participate in group activities? 

                                                                   ~Diana Shumaker, Cedar Rapids, IA 


In most child care settings, a typical daily plan includes “Circle Time.” Circle time provides a regular opportunity for a story, some show-and-tell, and an exchange of the “news of the day.” In fact, circle time may be such a familiar part of the day that its full potential as a tool for teachers remains unrealized.    

As a vehicle for learning, circle time in early childhood settings fosters a sense of community. Although it supports the development of all children – each child, regardless of ability, can experience a feeling of belonging to the group during circle time. Circle time can be of special benefit to children struggling to learn a new language or who feel shy and awkward in a group setting. 

Much of the effectiveness of circle time comes from the fact that its power is not fundamentally rooted in language. Communication occurs through the physical presence of other children, the joining of hands, and the synchronization of movement and gesture. Even so, circle time promotes the development of communication skills. It provides many opportunities for language learning that is pleasantly embedded in singing, where it is often supported by gesture as in the “eentsy weentsy” spider, or in listening, especially when stories are illustrated with colorful pictures. 

Circle time is an excellent tool for supporting language-delayed children or children who do not speak the language of the program as well. During circle time, each child can choose to make a contribution or remain silent. For the troubled child, the companionship of others can break down barriers and foster healing and communication. Consider how circle time benefited five-year-old Hasan who spoke only Persian during his first few weeks in an English-speaking preschool:  

  • On his first day, Hasan arrived during circle time. With the help of the teacher, all the children in the group welcomed him by singing a song, “My name is …,” each child singing his or her own name “solo” in turn around the circle. 
  •  A few days later, when it was time for Show and Tell, Hasan was not able to participate but his face lit up in recognition when someone introduced a familiar action figure. He put up his hand in excitement and blurted out one of the few English words he knew, “Spiderman!”
  • As time passed, Hasan clearly recognized the songs the children were singing and although most of the words were beyond him, he knew almost all of the gestures and enthusiastically produced them on cue. 

Teachers can ensure that children like Hasan have opportunities to participate in non-language-based activities during circle time. They can also reinforce the calming effects of circle time by associating coming together in a circle with a particular song or with some other signal. Just as flicking the lights usually means “It’s clean-up time,” so hearing the signal song means, “Let’s make a circle!” 

“Circle time” does not have to occur only at the times listed on the daily schedule. Consider a group of children on the playground who seem to be tiring of their activities and beginning to wander aimlessly. At such a moment, the teacher can give the signal for circle time and gather the children together for an impromptu group activity, like a game of catch, to focus the children’s attention and give them back the sense of community and togetherness associated with being in a circle. By using circle time to create a community where everyone feels they belong, including children experiencing special circumstances, teachers educate children in the best sense of the word and lead them towards participation in a world where they are valued as individuals. 

Judith Colbert, Ph.D., is a consultant who specializes in early care and education. She is the author of several articles on topics such as group size, curriculum and the child care environment. I wish to thank the LINC Childminding Program at St. George’s Adult ESL Center in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, for repeated opportunities to observe circle time under the skilled direction of  preschool supervisor, Soraia Heck.