By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE. I wrote a blog post last fall about themes in early learning, expressing surprise/concern that they were still a thing! It has become one of my most shared posts reflecting that, indeed there are those who continue the practice. I have always found the use of themes to be interesting. As a practising early childhood educator, I programmed around a theme chosen by me and influenced by the seasons and holidays. I planned my circles based on these themes. I was not satisfied with themes and I wasn’t pleased with the circle experiences that I provided for the children in my care. I became obsessed with circles to the point that it became the focus of a graduate thesis written in 1996. Recently, I reviewed my work and after a discussion with some pedagogical leaders in a child care organization that I, and my colleague/friend Cindy Green have been working with, I realized that circles, like themes continue to be an issue. The circle as it has been traditionally viewed and implemented may be broken. Known by many names, including ‘group time’ and ‘meeting time’, circle time has significant meaning in the early years. In my dissertation, I defined circle as the colloquial term for teacher-initiated group experiences. While a circle is a geometric shape and a common practice in early learning, it is so much more. When we see the circle as a symbol of divine energy, it does not align with circle experiences for children that are mandatory, teacher-directed and developmentally inappropriate. The symbolism speaks to openness, to peace and to comfort. Consider these words from this website on the Symbolism of Circles as source of reflection about the practice of circles in early learning.
As part of my research in the nineties, I spent many, many hours observing circles. Some were so disturbing that I felt the experience amounted to mistreatment. Others seem like a waste of time and an exercise in frustration for all. When circles are offered in the traditional way with the calendar, the weather and the day’s events being the focus, they can be downright boring. Children who are not wired to sit still and listen, can squirm, play with their shoes, talk out of turn, or engage in behaviours deemed inappropriate. One of the saddest circles I ever witnessed, involved a child being sent away from the circle because he could not sit still. When the teacher conducting the circle noticed that he had sat down at a table and was playing with some toys, she instructed her colleague to remove them as he needed to learn a lesson. One of the most memorable circles I have ever witnessed was in Stockholm, Sweden. I had the privilege to see Suzanne Axelsson of Interaction Imagination and a group of children engage in a philosophical discussion while seated in a circle formation. Fortunately, there was another English-speaking teacher involved so the dialogue was translated for me. I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Suzanne. I shared my reflections of that visit in a blog post about educational somersaults. Suzanne has also shared her thoughts about circles in this blog post and as usual her thoughts and reflections offer important perspectives.
Circle experiences are broken when they do not work for children or adults. I began my career in education, as a preschool teacher. My first teaching job required circles. I remember being hyper-focused on this time in the daily schedule. My worst fears were that children would not be interested, and my colleagues would be judgemental. When these fears became a reality, I knew that I had to seek advice. The director of the program offered a simple formula that has stayed with me to this day. What I realized then and still believe now is that if circles are to be implemented that they be joyful experiences that are spontaneous or planned but always interactive. Circles do not have to be long and if you begin the experience with a hook such as a song, fingerplay or book children will gather around you. If they choose to continue playing, that should be their choice. Children should never be forced to participate in circles. If they are not interested or bored more attention should be spent on planning circles that are playful and engaging. Older children can be asked for input and involved in the planning. Speaking of input, Cindy offers her insights about circles! Throughout the years, in addition to the time when I (Cindy) worked directly with children with varying, special or exceptional needs and rights, and during my tenure at our local community college visiting students in their practicums, I had many discussions with educators about children who would rather roam around the room than sit down for circle. Teachers often felt frustrated because of this child’s inability to conform to sitting in the circle. I offered “perhaps this child IS highly engaged, in his or her own way. Perhaps movement is enabling the child to listen and observe, even for brief periods”. Sometimes I heard push back, “if I don’t insist that all the children sit down then they will all want to roam around”. Of course, this is an unfounded fear as many children will choose to partake in circle as they hear you begin, especially if it is joyful and engaging! Recently Cindy and I shared this planning form based on that simple advice I received many years ago, at a training session with Learning Jungle, a global provider of educational child care.
When I was writing my thesis, I hesitated in referring to this time of large group experiences as “circle”. The word conjures up negative images for many but whatever it is called it seems like it is a frequent routine for preschool and kindergarten programs. I hope that it is not part of infant and toddler programs. I love seeing teachers read to our youngest learners in small groups. I cringe seeing 18-month-old children being forced to sit in a circular formation, legs crossed “criss-cross applesauce”, listening when their bodies need to be moving. Furthermore, why is it that teachers feel that children of any age need to sit in this teacher-chosen formation? Shouldn’t posture be chosen by the individual as comfortable body positioning is as unique as each one of us? Is it still a circle if children are sprawled on a carpet sitting anyway they want? I have so many questions still about circles. How important are they? What would happen if large group gatherings were eliminated? Why do teachers feel that they have to conduct circles? Where does the term come from? Is it based solely on the children’s seating arrangement? From my research, I learned that circle time as it exists today owes it origin to Friedrich Froebel’s kindergarten pedagogy. Froebel was deeply religious, and his educational philosophy was an extension of these beliefs. Being in a circular configuration was to have profound significance as a symbol of infinity and communion with God. I have seen large group gatherings with children joined to together, singing in unison and I see the spiritual connection. The circle continues to be a symbol of spiritual significance in many cultures. It continues to resonate with me as a symbol of my educational journey.
In my thesis, I wrote about a spiralling path ahead rather than a circuitous journey that represented a closed circle. It is important to keep our circles open metaphorically and literally! I have circled back to circles as my journey now involves widening my sphere to include learning about Indigenous ways of knowing and experiencing ceremonial, spiritual circles. I feel like I have come full circle back to what I was passionate about when starting my journey as an early childhood educator. While the literature cited in my thesis is now dated, I offer you some links for circle consideration that are more current. I look forward to your comments!
In sharing our thoughts about circles, it is my hope that rethinking will occur, and the status quo of circle time will be disrupted.
The one thing we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles”