Whole Group Circle Time in Early Years:
Vital context for teaching and learning or purposeless and inefficient convention?
As an early years consultant and trainer, one of the aspects that is always central to my message is ensuring that educators are clear about, and can articulate why, they do what they do. Our time with children is precious and limited and we need to always be clear about the purpose and intention of the actions that we take.
Gathering all the children together for a ‘whole group’ time is a good example of how we sometimes get drawn into doing what is ‘expected’ of us without really being clear of its purpose – or we end up rejecting something without fully considering its genuine beneficial value.
Whole group times can be invaluable; they can be part of a familiar and predictable routine that gives some children a welcome and reassuring structure. It is an opportunity to create a sense of group identity, share with each other, model turn taking and respect, listen to different ideas and have other ways of thinking and seeing modeled directly by peers. It is also an opportunity for significant whole group input; direct teaching of a skill or knowledge, stories, rhymes, songs and games that work and succeed because of the slightly larger numbers of children involved.
Alternatively, whole group sessions can be an unwelcome interruption to sustained and significant children’s activity. It can become a dreaded, relentless grind of desperately trying to keep children’s attention as the ‘wander off’ mentally and sometimes physically. Armed with a box full of props; a list of intentions are motored through with little visible benefit to anyone. Adults get stressed, children get bored, individual needs are not met and the whole spectacle ends, to everyone’s relief, when the children are allowed go back to what they want to do.
So here are some things to consider:
- Does the children’s age and stage of development influence your approach to whole group time? It should! There is a maxim that children should sit as a group listening to an adult for their age in minutes +1, which is a good place to start. If you are going to deliver a whole group session have a rough timescale in mind – even if you end up deviating from it either way. Jennie Lindon wrote about having a ‘sofa-full’ of children rather than a school type circle or group especially for much younger children, as this gives them the security and intimacy they need, and therefore a more effective context for the same type of teaching.
- Are you ‘tuned in’ to the children’s participation and engagement during the whole group session? If its clearly not benefiting the children, then do you make the professional decision to stop? Group times are not statutory – even if we believe that they are ‘expected’ – so it is up to each educator to use them; or not; as they feel is appropriate.
- Have a clear simple focus for what you are going to do and be clear with the children about what that will be. Don’t over-elaborate the event and get so carried away with props and dramatic performance that the children loose sight of what you are intending to teach them.
Teaching early years is a complex activity that relies on the educators being confident about what they are teaching but also – and just as importantly – how they can teach most effectively for the individuals and groups that they work with. Understanding why we do (or don’t) use whole group times and being responsive and reflective about their use can only enhance the effectiveness of what we do.