When Ethan was three, he sat in the circle with the other children, but didn’t sing even though he knew the words to “Wheels on the Bus” and other songs. Ms. Lynn, his teacher, encouraged him to sing and talk like some of the other more exuberant kids, but more importantly she made him feel part of the group even when he didn’t want to participate. This early circle time experience helped Ethan feel safe and accepted for who he was while also learning how to be part of a group. Only a few years later, Ethan proved to be the first to volunteer information or to demonstrate a pitch on his baseball team. If only Ms. Lynn could see him now!
Young children may not realize that a circle is an ancient, universal, and simple symbol of unity and wholeness, and that circle time, as an activity for groups of children, has been around for about a century. Since there is no beginning or end, every individual in a circle is equal and belongs to the whole group. Expanding on this idea, the most successful circle times include acceptance, openness, and non-judgmental expression of ideas.
What Children Gain from Circle Time
Since the opportunities for reading, discussion, and play in circle time are endless, so too is the opportunity for children to learn and grow. How to behave appropriately in a group is a learned skill, which prepares young children for more formal education, for other group activities, and for many experiences in adult life. Everything from social skills to language to empathy can be gained with practice in circle time. For example, when children:
are allowed to express feelings and ideas to a group without judgment, they gain confidence.
practice taking turns listening and speaking during circle time, they learn valuable skills in positive communication.
are introduced to a wide variety of concepts, people, and ideas in circle time, they learn acceptance.
Elements of a Successful Circle Time
There are just five things to keep in mind when planning circle time:
Prepare for a consistent transition into and out of circle time. Repetition of a simple song, movement, action, guessing game, activity, or icebreaker to signal the start and end of circle time helps children learn the basics with greater ease. Tape a circle on the floor, create a circle of carpet squares to sit on, or place names around the circle so each child knows where to go.
Length of time and group size should be appropriate: Toddlers should only have five to 10 minutes of circle time; preschoolers can participate for 10 to 15 minutes. For best results, the group size should not exceed 20 children.
Use a variety of techniques to hang on to children’s attention. These techniques include humor, suspense, varying the tone and volume of your voice as you read and speak, including children in the story or an activity as much as possible, and choosing topics that are of interest to young children.
Choose a wide variety of topics, themes, books, songs, activities, games, experiments, movement, fingerplays, and props that are appropriate for the children’s age and stage of development. Over the course of a week or month, plan to touch on each area of development so children have the opportunity to learn new skills, practice developing skills, and learn more about the world they live in.
Be prepared with a back-up plan. If a story, song, or activity is not of interest to the children, have another in mind to save the day.
Books at the Center of Circle Time
In general, you want to choose books that are large in size and have large pictures that can easily be seen by the whole group. Books that invite participation are typically successful and can encourage involvement in many ways:
Where is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox, What Time is it Mr. Crocodile? by Judy Sierra, and other books with repeating questions or phrases invite children to chant the repetition with you.
The Racecar Alphabet by Brian Floca and other concept books invite children to locate and identify letters, numbers, colors, etc.
Actual Size by Steve Jenkins offers the opportunity for children to guess and predict by asking, “How large is the eye of a giant squid?” or ”How small is the smallest fish?” before showing the picture of the actual size.
Those Messy Hempels by Vanessa Hié encourages children to figure out where a series of familiar, misplaced objects belong, as do other guessing game books.
I Spy Shapes in Art by Lucy Micklethwait invites children to locate shapes in reproductions of great works of art by playing “I Spy” together. Most books can be turned into a game of “I Spy” by locating some familiar objects on the page, stopping the story for a minute, and asking if the children can spy the shape or color or object.
Books can capture children’s attention in other ways, as well. Pop-up and lift-the-flap books such as Life on Earth by Stephen Holmes offer the element of surprise when you dramatically reveal what’s underneath. A great story read with exaggeration and flair will captivate children, too. Since some books are just more fun or compelling, consider reading stories or poems that touch you. Children won’t be able to resist the frivolity, joy, sadness, comfort, or endearing emotion in a story when you share your enthusiasm for that special book.
Shelley Butler is co-author with Deb Kratz of the award-winning book, The Field Guide to Parenting. For more information or to contact the author, please visit her website at www.fieldguidetoparenting.info.
Resources for Circle Time
The Giant Encyclopedia of Circle Time and Group Activities for Children Ages 3 to 6 edited by Kathy Charmer. Available from Gryphon House, Inc., PO Box 207, Beltsville MD, 20704, 800-638-0928, www.gryphonhouse.com.
Terrific Transitions: 50 Easy and Irresistible Ideas that Keep Children Interested, Engaged, and Learning as They Move from One Activity to the Next by Ellen Booth Church, Scholastic, 2001.
Gayle’s Preschool Rainbow (www.preschoolrainbow.org) is an online source for teachers to find and share theme-related activities.
Jean Warren, author of many good resources for teachers including the 123 series, and the Preschool Express website, says that her favorite circle time activity is to act out the story, Too Much Noise by Ann McGovern, as if it were about a class of noisy children.
Great Props for Circle Time
Flannel- or story-boards and fingerplays or finger puppets have long been favorite props for circle time and continue to be successful. Photographs, pets, instruments, parachutes, objects from real life, puppets, stuffed animals, dolls, trucks, cars, and other toys make great props to illustrate stories or activities, too. In fact, preschool teachers are using a wide array of materials as props in circle time and having great success with variety rather than relying on only one or two kinds of visual aids. The Giant Encyclopedia of Circle Time and Group Activities for Children Ages 3 to 6 (Gryphon House) holds over 600 ideas by teachers from all over the country which include:
• Feathers to conduct races demonstrating how air moves objects, relating to
the book Air is All Around You by Franklyn M. Branley.
• Makings for a scarecrow such as a plastic pumpkin, shoes, clothes, and
filling, which extends the fun in a book like The Little Old Woman Who Was Not
Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams.
• A cereal box, paper clips, card and envelope to talk about how and where
things are housed after reading, A House is a House for Me by Mary Ann
Many books suggest props and activities to go along with reading. I Fall Down, the latest offering in the Science Play series by Vicki Cobb, outlines several easy and interesting activities, which could be completed during circle time using everyday objects like soap, sponges, rubber bands, shoes, and a spoonful of honey to illustrate the concepts presented.
In reality, almost any book can be turned into a fun activity with a little creative thinking. For example, after reading Tissue Please! by Lisa Kopelke, a fun story about a frog who learns the value of using tissues at school, children might enjoy taking turns dancing to the tissue box, waving tissues in the air, and then dropping them in the trash basket, just like the frogs in the story. Not only does this activity encourage movement, but it also teaches about cleanliness and prevention of spreading colds through play and reading.
The Circle That Never Ends
For more than a century, teachers have been using an old concept to reach new, young minds. Keep in mind that a circle never ends, just like the influence of a good teacher.