Circle Time and Social Learning

Coming together in a circle has had special meaning in a range of many cultures throughout history.  When we meet together in a circle, it sends the message that everyone is of equal importance, and that together we will share this moment in time.  Storytelling, sharing ideas, and decision-making all happen when people come together to meet.  

In elementary through secondary classrooms, students are often seated “classroom style” when participating in instructional activities. The teacher leads the lessons and the students listen, take notes and sometimes participate in discussions.  The content that is being covered is usually academic in nature, and the understanding is the teacher has information to give out, and it is the students’ role to take it in. In early childhood we know that approach doesn’t work well because at this age children need to be involved at all times. Their bodies need to be engaged just as much as their minds, and they need many opportunities to join in by sharing, discussing, moving, and leading activities. When we observe high quality early learning environments, we see children interacting with materials and having many conversations with their peers and teachers, even during circle time. 

Although academics are taught in the early years,  we know the most important piece of preparing children for school is not in replicating the “classroom style” teaching and testing them on their rote knowledge. Self-help skills, being able to solve problems, advocating for their needs, showing empathy for others, cooperating with within a group, and following classroom rules are solid indicators of how well a child will succeed in school.  So how do we teach children these important skills? Why do we waste the limited time we have with them at circle going over numbers, shapes, letters and so on? All that rote learning can be done outside of group time – but learning how to take turns, express ideas in front of a group, understand how others feel and think, brainstorm ideas for problem-solving- that happens best when we come together at circle time.

So what activities can we offer at circle time to help children learn these important social skills?
One example I’d like to share is from the Second Step curriculum for preschool.  

In the first unit on skills for learning, there is a lesson plan on asking for what you need or want. It says, “It is important for children to be able to ask for help when they need it.  For many children, this requires speaking up in a strong, respectful way.  Speaking up in this way (being assertive) also helps children get along with others.” 

The activities in this unit include a puppet script, where the girl and boy puppets talk how to ask the teacher for help in getting down some paint for an art project. This is followed by a social story activity about a girl that needs help with her zipper. The students look at the photo, listen to the scenario and brainstorm ideas on how the girl can ask for help with her problem. 

The third activity is a bean bag turn-taking game, and the fourth activity is a role playing game. 
 What is great about this curriculum, is that it covers skills for learning in a classroom, empathy, emotion management, friendship and problem solving, and transitioning to kindergarten. There are meaningful topics including, “We Feel Feelings in Our Bodies,” “Fair Ways to Play,” “Saying the Problem” and many more. Each activity is planned out and easy to do, and incorporates a high level of engagement from the children.  The Second Step curriculum may be a great investment, but it isn’t cheap.  However, with a couple puppets, some pictures printed off of Google Images and a little imagination an early childhood teacher could create their own teaching stories and activities to share at circle time.

Another great use for circle time is to go over classroom agreements/rules.  Learning what behaviors are and are not acceptable is a big learning task. It takes a lot of conversation and practicing specific examples (What does it mean to use gentle touches?) for children to really understand.  Why would we  will take time to talk about the weather and the days of the week every single day during circle time, but then rarely, if ever, talk about classroom expectations?  Yet if you ask teachers what concerns they may have with their children being prepared for kindergarten, you probably won’t hear, “I’m really worried that they won’t know what day of the week it is.” Instead you will hear, “I’m concerned about ___’s ability to get along with peers.”

When we do talk about the rules, we need to be sure they have visuals that represent each meaning. Point to the pictures and ask the children to repeat the rules with you. Ask them to give specific examples of what “listening ears” means or “be kind to others.” Outside of circle time, when children have trouble remembering a rule, or need help finding a different way to solve a problem, you can refer back to the rule poster and the examples talked about in circle time. Learning and Teaching with Preschoolers has a good example of using visuals for classroom rules, as well as other great ideas.

There are so many activities you can do at circle time to enhance children’s social learning.  Check out these ideas!

The Interview Game at Preschools 4 All

 How to do Classroom Meetings at Conscious Discipline

Teamwork Games at Teach Preschool

Picture books about sharing, highlighted at All Done Monkey

We want to hear from you!  What are some of your favorite circle time activities?