Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why We Still Do Circle Time

The only time during our school day that we expect all the children to convene together is at circle time: 15-30 minutes (depending on their ages) during which we come together and practice being in a group, raising our voices together, engaging in discussion, making decisions, telling stories. It's hard for some of the children, I know, taking turns talking, listening to the other children, sitting in a way that doesn't block the views of other kids, keeping our hands to ourselves.

There are some play-based educators who treat their circle times as optional, allowing those who chose not to participate to engage in their own pursuits elsewhere. I get that and have toyed with the idea myself, but have never pulled the trigger because I worry that something important about community building, about democracy, will be lost when some opt out. One of the principles of democratic free schools is that the children are free to pursue their own interests. There are not even classes, unless organized by the students themselves, but meeting attendance is mandatory. I have always thought of our circle times as community meetings and without them, without full participation, I worry that something vital about us will never be discovered: children may always opt out of an activity, but I just can't bring myself to give children the opportunity opt out of us.

Of course, I don't command the children to sit on our checker board rug, but I do make my opinion clear: "It's circle time. You have the whole day to play with toys. Now is when we share our time."

When children begin to talk out of turn, I say, "I can't hear everyone at once. If you raise your hand, you'll get a turn for everyone to hear you."

When children stray away from the rug one of our parent-teachers shadows them, softly reminding them, "That's closed," until they come to the books. If they would prefer to quietly flip the pages, that's an option, but one that rarely holds a child's interest, especially when we are getting things done.

In my role of moderator or facilitator, it's my job to keep things moving, of course, to keep things engaging, to not get bogged down, to make sure everyone gets a turn, to avoid lecturing, to keep in mind that this is their circle time, all without making it a kind of torture for those who need to think with their entire bodies in motion, which is why there is usually a lot of "up and down" involved in a typical Woodland Park circle time.

By the time most kids are 4, if they've been with us for the first couple years (and most have), they get circle time. Not that they "behave" perfectly, of course, but then again I've rarely been in an adult meeting when there isn't some cutting up, some shouting out, some speaking out of turn, some getting up to go to the bathroom, to get a drink or a bite, to take a call, or to pace the hallway. No, when I say they "get it," I mean that they know what we're doing is an important part of who we are, not necessarily intellectually, but at a deeper level, having internalized both the joy and importance of all of us doing something, anything, together.

Best of all is when you begin to see the children during the rest of the day, when the toys are all "open," when we aren't "expected" to take turns or raise hands, when we aren't on the checker board rug, but rather out there in the wider world of the whole school, they gather around and engage productively together. You see them using the skills we've been practicing at circle time, coming together around something they all care about, or are curious about, taking turns, making space for one another, sometimes even spontaneously raising hands. This is how democracy is supposed to work. This is how community is built.

And this is why we still do circle time. Not because we need children to practice being in meetings, but rather because there are certain skills required to build a democratic community, skills based in fairness and empathy. When they gather round the workbench or art table and organize themselves, especially in large groups, when I can step back and watch them go, these are perhaps my proudest moments as a teacher. That's when it's no longer about my expectations, but rather it's about theirs, which is the point of why we gather around.

(Note: I wrote a follow-up post to this one providing more details on what actually happens during Woodland Park circle times.)

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share


French Valley K-Prep Preschool said...

I clearly remember being a preschooler. In the preschool I attended, the children were allowed to either be in circle time or to play. Circle time scared me and I didn't want to be told what to do, so I played...alone....If an adult quietly told me that the play area is closed and coaxed me back to the group, I would have learned how to be apart of a group, a community, a family. I missed so much, because I was allowed to be alone. I could have learned how to make friends, to listen to others, to take turns, and to be apart of something greater than myself. As an adult, looking back, I wish someone would have invited me into the circle and nudged me to join. It would have helped me to grow.

Jennifer P said...

I seriously never "got" circle time before. THANK YOU!

Anonymous said...

I love your blog and all the articles. I wish I could find a teacher tom in the Philadelphia area. My 2.5 year enjoys where she is now but I would love for it to be looser and for the teachers to more into learning about other child care philosophies such as the ones in Denmark and Finland, etc. We need more educators like you!

Alka Sarkar said...

My all time favourite time - circle time!