Thursday, August 13, 2015

Circle Time and Distractions

In my classroom, the schedule always includes an additional act between clean-up time and sitting down for circle time. The teachers cover the shelves of toys to indicate that the toys are put away (or “resting” or “closed”) during circle time. I’ve been doing this for years, in different age groups, and in different schools. I always thought of this as helping the children to self-regulate. If free play isn’t an available choice, then the toys shouldn’t look like they’re available. Covering them prevents the problem of having to interrupt circle time to stop a child from fiddling with a toy on a nearby shelf. I always thought of the shelf covers as a useful visual cue to remind children that “the toys are closed.”

I never stopped to wonder why I want the toys to be “closed” in the first place.

I’ve had many discussions with other teachers over the years about what is allowed behavior at and during circle time. All toys in the room must be put away, including loveys and items from home. Sometimes children must put away their hats, bracelets, barrettes. Children must sit on their bottoms and not touch the child next to them, even to hold hands. The common reason behind all of these limits is that those behaviors - holding a toy, holding a friend’s hand, fiddling with one’s bracelet or hat, are “distractions.”

Distractions from what?

Distractions from listening to the teacher. Because that is what circle time is usually about, even in play-based preschools with emergent curriculum and child-directed play throughout the rest of the day. As soon as circle time starts, the power, control, and decision making rest squarely in the teacher. What songs to sing, games to play, books to read (or, more accurately, to listen to) are the teacher’s choice. For years, circle time was when I put on my performance - reading, singing, dancing, all with children’s involvement, but with me leading the show. The children’s job at circle time was to follow my lead and do what I’ve decided they should do. I cover up the toys to hide any distractions that will keep them from doing anything but participate in the activity that I chose.

But if my activity is so engaging, why I am I worried about distractions?

Whenever we worry that something will be a distraction, we’re saying that that object, conversation, or idea will interfere in what the adults have dictated will happen next. Which often is what circle time is. The rationale for a distinct circle time that all the children are present at is usually has to do with “learning to come together as a group” or “being part of the classroom community.” But if a child would rather look at a book independently, or do a puzzle, or draw, and we compel that child to be physically present at circle time, that doesn’t build community.

There are all sorts of times for coming together in my classroom, and I’ve often found the richest are ones that weren’t scripted or planned. When I start reading a book, I usually find half the class or more coming over to hear the story. When I turn on music and start to dance, or take out musical instruments, sometimes the entire class stops building, drawing, or playing with other toys to join in. If I start to sing a rhyming song or ABC’s, I can hear voices singing along with me all over the classroom while they continue their play. If the activity is meaningful to and engaging for the children, I don’t need to compel them to participate, and I don’t need to worry about them being distracted.

If I’m worried that the children could get distracted so easily, perhaps I should consider whether what I’m doing is all that engaging in the first place.


  1. This is SUCH an important topic. I have been reflecting on the role of the teacher self in the classroom a lot this summer, and this is another thought provoking way for me to examine that as this school year begins. I'll have to look at the Interaction Imagination post, too.

  2. Thank you for this very interesting post! It has really got me thinking about how circle times could possibly be run differently in our center. So many ideas flowing through my brain now!

    1. I'm glad you found my post helpful! Part of my purpose in writing this was to encourage us all to reflect on how our routines and goals for circle time, instead of just assuming that there's a set way it has to be. I'd be interested in hearing your ideas too!