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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Circle time... to do or not to do

I have, over the years, frequently seen discussions around whether or not young children should be engaging in circle time... and really this is one of those things that cannot be a "to do or not to do", as, with most things in life, it is not about what we are doing, but why we are doing what we are doing. There is not just one way to do "circle time" and yet most dialogues about the subject suppose that this meeting of children is about a teacher talking and the children sitting still and listening. If the circle time is just a part of the daily routine... a "have to"... that is done on automatic... with the same schedule of day, weather etc etc - then maybe it's time to think why exactly you are doing that? Are the children engaged? What are the children learning? What is the point of the circle time? And when I ask these questions I also want you to think about why it is important to learn the days of the week before the age of six on a daily basis, or to note what the weather is on a calendar... The only "circle time" I have is when we meet for eating... and we chat... and also, and very importantly, for our philosophical dialogues... which have been as long or as short as the children have shown interest in... my role is to facilitate THEIR dialogue... BUT children learning to listen to each other has not come overnight... this has been something we have done through other play-filled activities to support the children's listening skills... and the better the children have become at listening to each other (have the patience, respect and interest in what another child is saying) the better the children have been in their dialogues... this I measure by their enthusiasm, how active they are (how inactive I need to be) and also the length of the dialogue itself... sometimes I see they need to break it off as they are restless, sometimes they tell me they do not want to finish yet... Circle time needs to meaningful... circle time in itself is not a bad thing, it is just another tool in the teacher's kit-box... it's just to be reflective, to know and understand why you use circle time, how you use circle time, and how you are supporting the children to be active participants of circle time... it cannot be a little activity on the side... it needs to be woven in to the fabric of what you are doing... both to support the projects, but also activities to support the circle time... I do lots of self-regulation games, listening games, listening art and self-regulation art... and also games and play outside and role play... all sorts that enable the children during our philosophy sessions (circle time)... These activities are not just for the benefit of the circle time, but also benefit the children in al their interactions with each other. They are very human skills. Community skills.

Really this is what my meetings are about (we do not call them circle time in Sweden, but samling... gathering or meeting) - for me it is about creating a sense of community. This is why I insist on all children being present at the circle time, and why it is informal and we eat fruit. The idea is that the children are empowered, that they learn to take the lead, they are in control of the meting and I only act as guide. if children are allowed to do something else because they think it is "boring" or they want to play something else... what they are then saying is that their peers are not important. So my intention with the meeting is that the children take responsibility to participate as a community... learning to listen to their peers with respect and also contributing with their ideas... as I think it is equally rude or arrogant to keep your ideas to yourself and not share them.

By allowing children to do something else we are creating exclusion... the children have excluded themselves from the community - it can feed into the sense of "otherism" of seeing people as different. By creating community the children learned about each other similarities and difference and how to support each other. This meant that the children were not as dependant on me to feel included in play. A child that has not participated in a meeting will not know what is happening during the day, as that is usually when we chatted about our plans for the day (the children being active in that process)... this means those children not participating either required a child to take their time from their play to explain, or took an adult away from an activity to explain an extra time... really its rather a selfish approach. Especially if the child does not want to participate because they are fullfilling a need to feel happy right now. I feel my work as an educator is not about making the children feel happy for the moment, but to create a sense of life-long joy, learning and community. And this can be done from the youngest of ages (I have twins, I saw community from the very first moments, so don't tell me young children cannot experience it).

So yes, I do "force" children into "circle time" - but I only ever need to do it once or twice, after that they understand that this meeting is about them... it is about them sharing their ideas, it is about them planning ad making decisions, about them learning from each other (where I can be one of those in the group sharing) - it is a meeting that is relevant, meaningful and age/maturity appropriate.

I do not do calendar or weather... unless this is meaningful to what we are doing with the children at the time... like having to make plans about what clothes we need to put on... so really, usually the weather is discussed when we are in the cloakroom putting on our clothes to go outside, or while we are outside experiencing it. I do not want top down teacher controlled circle times. This is not the kind of meeting I feel is productive to creating community. Sadly I know that this is something that is done in far to many settings across the world, Sweden included (despite having a different name, it can still be done in a child-centred way or a teacher-controlled way)

I think that we all need to be aware that we are working in an institution... no matter how child-centred we strive to be. And being aware of that fact can help you understand your interactions with the children... there are musts, and policies that have to be followed - but there are also approaches and attitudes that give the children the power to express their capabilities and competencies and that allows them to evolve.

Circle time does not prevent that. BUT how the teacher uses the circle time can.

I think practising to sit still and be quiet are not good skills, they are passive skills... but learning to be an active and generous listener, to be able to self-regulate, to be able to express ideas and make plans and solve problems - will help children in their learning now and for the rest of their lives... academically but also in their social/emotional development too. We need to look beyond the single story of the circle time, beyond the stereotype... and see that it has so much potential depending on how we form this meeting between humans. We need to change the definition of circle time so that when we enter a dialogue we are open enough to understand that not all people do this in the same way. it is not a teacher down, teacher controlled, children bored out of their minds meeting for every setting (of course this might happen in some settings). And rather than see "circle time" as something that is inherently bad, let's change what it means... lets make it the circle of a community of learners where the children and teachers meet in a sense of equality.

If we feel that circle time is not inclusive of the whole group, because some children want to continue to play or because they think it is boring, then either change the format of circle time, find out what the real issues of the child is and what they need to be able to participate in the group, or just not bother doing circle time... because the actual activity is creating an exclusive atmosphere.

As I wrote above, Three days a week our circle time was sat round a table eating fruit together, the children chatting about what they had been doing, sometimes i would chip in with a question, or if they had a question an answer, or a book or a short film so we could find the answer... we would plan our day together. On Tuesdays we had philosophy with children... which in a way is a mix between an activity and a circle time... this was where the children practiced their skills at listening, sharing ideas, and I practiced my skills at being a facilitator and not a leader... the children were very aware that I was learning, and that my role was to enable them. These sessions gave the children the skills and tools they needed to play, solve problems, make informed decisions... skills that, in fact, allowed them more play, and learning through that play, during the day. A day that would involve one meeting, one activity (that was planned teacher and children together) that lasted anything from 10-90 minutes depending on the children's interest and focus and then the rest of the day was freely chosen play and play activities (apart from the routines of lunch and snack and rest/sleep).

New children sometimes opposed to coming to the meeting at first, but once they had experienced ONE meeting the understood that this was THEIR space and not like "circle times" that they had experienced at their previous setting.

So this brings me back again to the fact that is it not the circle time that is the problem, but over-bearing adults not giving children space.

Circle time has been a gift to create a sense of democracy and equality. Where the children discovered their power and learned to appreciate their similarities and differences. And this gave them the ability to support each other, rather than on relying on me to be the person to bridge differences. The children with autism, ADHD, a different language were a part of the group naturally, rather than me needing to support them to be a part of the group. The children and I worked together to create an inclusive environment. And i truly believe that our meetings were an essential part of that. if I had allowed a child to always do something else how would this child understand the others in the group, or the others to understand them...?

The meeting could be held round a table, a circle of chairs or cushions on the floors, or on a mat, or a random piece of floor, or on some steps huddles together, or outside on a log, or bench or some stones, or on the grass... creating community can happen everywhere. We did not have a defined space for "circle time". Circle time was us. A kind of ubuntu.

I do appreciate the concerns of many people who do not like circle time... and I truly believe that this is because we are only sharing one story of what circle time looks like.

The larger the group, the harder circle time becomes, because the more teacher control it needs to help everyone listen to each other. learning to listen to each other is not easy, and to create inclusive listening is so much easier in smaller groups. I think over 10 children makes it hard for the children and the adult, but it can be done to an extent, but we have to be aware that not all children are going to be able to contribute, because that would require far to much focus and energy for the children 8and adult) to manage.

So again it comes back to what is the purpose of the meeting - learning can happen hands on, it does not have to happen in the circle. How do we create community in such a large group? And what skills do the children in your group/class need to be able to create a community of trust?

other links and under the links are some images of circle time... circle time does not look in a specific way

The story of communication... this looks at how we adults communicate... there is a second post in the series about how the room communicates... I think communication is so important when it comes to "circle time" - what is this activity communicating to the children, to the parents and to us as educators?

The Joy of learning and play - this post looks at the difference between joy and happiness. Mostly because sometimes we make decisions as adults to try and make children happy for the moment, rather than supporting them with a sense of joy that will last their life time, and to understand what is frustration, sadness, anger etc and how to manage all those emotions without an adult just letting the child do whatever they want as long as they are happy.

Lawnmower and helicopter teachers - this post explores if we are doing things to make children's lives to easy, to avoid a child getting frustrated or doing something they do not want...

Does Boredom give birth to creativity - this post explored that boredom is not productive for creativity... but that children need time and space.

The Story of Otherism... taking a look at how children are excluded, and what we can do as adults to create inclusion. Circle time is mentioned as one of the ways (as in my philosophy with children sessions... which technically IS a sort of circle time)

Do templates kills creativity - this is another post that looks at something that is often seen as a teacher control things and therefore something to avoid. What I argue is that it is NOT the template but how the template is used that is the problem... I feel this relates to the circle time. it is not the meeting that is the problem but how it is used and controlled.

The story of a stone... this post is very much about looking at the everyday in a new way... about new perspectives and not being sucked into the single story... the ted talk film about the Dangers of the Single Story is included in this post... and I highly recommend that you take the time to watch it.

The above was not an art session, but circle time... it was about turn taking, shared thinking and responsibility. Circle time can be art.

Another circle time... not a circle, in a space the children decided and lead by a child... circle time does not have to be adult lead.

Circle time is shared laughter.

Circle time can be hands on trying things out - to help make informed decisions. it is not just sitting listening to teacher's information.

Circle time can be inside and outside. it is the community not a place.

Circle time can be about challenging norms - the top left image was our circle time... all sat ON the table - the other images are from lunch. All to get the children thinking about why we do the things we do and can we do them in other ways... and what are the consequences. Here you can REALLY see that circle time is about the children listening to each other... and not about the adult imposing instructions and directions...

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