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Going round in circles: Do we need to ditch the traditional circle time?

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Is it time we ditch the traditional circle time?

Way back in my early days as a pre-school lead, one of the routines I really looked forward to was the morning circle time. It felt like one of those points in the day where I had some control over a group of unique, varied, dynamic and unpredictable little people.

Days of the week, months of the year, weather, songs and stories all featured heavily in my twenty+ minute sessions and I was proud that the children learned to sit and focus for that period of time. Looking back though, I really have to ask myself whether the children got very much from this imposed part of their day or was it actually just a means to an end so that they could get on with real play. I am not saying we didn't have fun, laugh, dance or share moments of connection but my objective was not right. It was about my insistence at their "readiness" rather than responsiveness to their needs, interests and motivations.

So as time went by, I reduced my circle times and tried at all costs to avoid the "everyone to the carpet" so that daily transitions such as clean-ups could be completed.

As an advisor, I have watched hundreds of circle times that mirrored what I did. Discussions were always highly contentious and uncomfortable. I realised that there was no point telling someone all the reasons I no longer believed in circles times but to give them enhancements or alternatives to the morning tradition that still dominates our under 5 provision...

Whatever the weather...go above board

In my opinion, we have to abolish the weather board during circle times. They are often Twinkl/felt based clip art imitations of something we already have readily available in abundance. Most of us hate the English weather but what we can be grateful for is that we get all variations which is great for teaching children in a multi-sensory and multi perspective way. The board would be much better used as a "information sharing" sign near the outdoors, and you could ask children to update it every day so that other children know what to expect. Discussions about weather are then much more authentic and meaningful to the context, "Oh hey, the rain sign is up, do we need umbrellas or coats with our hoods up?" or "Can someone volunteer to help me to the risk assessment outside?"

Equally, days of the week and months of the year can be spoken about in context, and referring to specific or relevant routines is way more useful to children... For example, "We know it is Tuesday today because the bin man comes to collect all the rubbish, have you got your recycling ready to hand over?" (also can be framed as a question).

What's the story morning glory...

I often speak to people who stress the importance of circle time being an opportunity for group stories. However, the story is often one sum of all the circle time parts. And this can lead to a lacklustre story because we are trying to fit in lots of different elements. Instead, choosing a story a day and planning it meaningfully is way more important and it does not have to just be in morning circle time. It may be spontaneous or you may set the "scene". Often, when children are told they have to listen to a story, they immediately put their backs up, because they associate it with must rather than should or could.

It should also go without saying that our story time choices should be linked to children's interests, their requests and their motivations. Though as educators, we will use books as provocations, we should be giving as much autonomy to the children as possible. I always say to key people to imagine how they would feel if they could only read books that were in no way linked to their genre of passion. Well, they likely wouldn't read them or develop a love of reading.

Back in one of my settings, I developed a ritual that worked amazingly, I would simply set myself up in an area with a book and some props and I would just start reading aloud. One thing we can rely on is children's curiosity, and more often than not, by the time I was only a few pages in, I had a whole group of intrigued children.

As story tellers, we often go beyond the book and the turning of pages and show children that stories can come to life. It is also vitally important that we can improvise with stories, using our bodies, imaginations and intonation to create story visions for children.

Sticking to sitting

One of the most common things I still see in circle times, is children either sat on chairs or huddled on carpets being asked to follow the "Golden Rules". I have said many times that children do not learn to sit still by sitting still. This expectation leads to fidgeting which is the brain and bodies way of trying to focus when the body is sedentary for too long. And children are often reprimanded for doing this.

Fact - Fidgeting is good for us

Bringing the group together is a great way to form connections, to work together and to learn social cues and guidelines. But it doesn't need to look the same every single day. When I was a key person, I would host a series of group times, all in replacement of the traditional circle time, for example:

Dance Magic Dance - free style dancing and movement with materials with different textures and sizes to encourage creativity

Let's get loud - exaggerating and dancing out nursery rhymes

The Magic Carpet - travelling to an imaginary far away land for acted out stories - great for non-verbal communication, imitation and imagination

Live it out - immersive story telling across the different environments, for example, travelling around to go on a bear hunt

All of these experiences can be personalised, differentiated and linked to current learning intentions

Rules are made to be broken

If I asked you to sit on the carpet and enforced the following:

Sit still

Cross your legs

Fold your arms

Face forward

Have your listening ears on

Put your finger to your lips

Don't fidget

Don't shout out

Raise your hand

Don't talk to your neighbour

Don't bring toys into the circle space

How would you feel? I do this activity in training and key people are often shocked at how unable they are to "sit still" so they break the rules pretty quickly. But the biggest thing they notice during this activity, is that in my insistence to enforce "Golden Rules" the potential learning is continually interrupted and lost.

You may be sitting reading this and thinking "this isn't an accurate reflection of my circle times" and it is important to stress that I have seen some phenomenal group experiences with high levels of involvement and engagement but it is not always the norm.

I always encourage peer observations or filming of circle times for reflection. Identifying the key elements that work and those that need developing or eradicating will lead to much more meaningful group times!

Reception teacher to child

Teacher: Why don't you like sitting on the carpet during circle time?

Child: It's a waste of time, it wastes my life.

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