Circle time is an unquestioned tradition of early childhood education in the USA. A Google search of “circle time” on the web quickly produces a host of curricula, sites with songs for circle time, and suggestions for circle time activities for toddlers. Even early childhood educator forums discuss the topic in great length.
However, at the risk of being labeled an educational heretic, I am going to ask some questions about circle time. Where did it get its start? What is the empirical evidence that circle time actually accomplishes the things that everyone says it does? It possible that circle time, this so honored educational tradition, also may be a mechanism for crushing creativity?
First though, what is circle time as it has been experienced in my daughter’s educational experience?
During circle time the children sit down, “pretzel-legged” in some semblance of a circle on a rug, and sing calendar songs, days of the week songs and weather songs. Often each child is assigned a duty (calendar, weather, etc.). They are led in this activity by a teacher who may be sitting on the floor with them or who may be sitting in a chair above them.
When my daughter was in the prekindergarten, her teacher reported that she had issues paying attention during circle time, and she often didn’t participate in the songs. She wasn’t disruptive; she just wasn’t participating. I found this astounding since often she would sing these very same songs at home and I would ask her where she learned them. She would reply “at circle time at school.”
On one day when I was in her class observing, I noticed that indeed my daughter wasn’t singing the days of the week song, but she was counting by holding up a finger each time a day was mentioned in the song. Not only was she participating, she was analyzing. The teacher however, didn’t recognize this as participation, and she totally missed the analysis that was going on. (In the teacher’s defense, she had 16 other children to keep account of: I was focused only on my daughter.)
Where did circle time get its start?
There is much on the web about the use of circle time in the UK, as a place to develop social and emotional skills in young children, but that certainly doesn’t seem to be the way it is used in the USA in early childhood and early grades education. Certainly, the kind of circle time described in the video above would require highly trained counselors as facilitators. Other sources on the web talk about using the circle to facilitate conflict resolution with groups of all ages (from school children to professionals in business settings). The premise is that the circle creates a safe environment and places all participants in an equivalent status. In my daughter’s experience, much of the focus on circle time seems to be around setting a routine for starting the school day by going through the calendar and weather and perhaps assigning helpers for that particular day.
What about empirical evidence?
Wow, this is where things get messy. There are some peer-reviewed articles in educational and psychology journals that contain the phrase “circle time”, but most are behind a paywall, and not easily accessed. However I did find an interesting paper that I could read in its entirety. This paper by Kantor, Elgas and Fernie looked at the use of circle time in early childhood (age 3 and under). They describe circle time as a chance for children to participate in a social structure that changes as the students learn how to participate in this “group conversation” event. In their conclusion they ask if developmentally worthwhile goals for circle time can be identified. That’s a great question, and they suggest that with these very young children, circle time allows children to learn language by using language, and that part of learning language involves participating in group language. So, at least one observational study does find value in circle time for very young children.
So, what did I learn?
I don’t think we need to throw the “baby out with the bath water”. Circle time has its place in education, and even for older children I think it can provide a welcomed break from the rigid rows of desks that were the hallmark of my childhood classrooms. Group discussion is important, and circles are great for that, but I worry that circle time is a feature of our early childhood classrooms in the USA simply because “everybody’s doing it”, and nobody is questioning it.
Circle time is one tool in an educator’s repertoire; it can offer students a chance to participate in group discussion and learn in a collaborative setting, but only if it is used appropriately and participation is encouraged, not prescribed. In fact, circle time, if the circle is run by the students themselves may offer an excellent opportunity for students to come up with truly creative and lasting solutions to major societal problems like water quality issues, climate change and pollution. Who knows? If you put the students in a circle and ask them how you create an educated, thinking and literate society that can adapt and thrive in our ever changing world, they might just figure it out.