The Broken Circle: Rethinking the Practice of Circles in Early Learning

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!

Why Circle Time at Preschool Is a Waste of Time and Small Group Activities Are Better

Successful Circle Times with Young Children

Children’s Experiences during Circle-time: A Call for Research-informed Debate

“Sharing Time” with Young Learners

Our Proud Heritage. Circle Time, Free Play, and Field Trips: Legacies of Pioneers in Early Childhood Education

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”


14 thoughts on “The Broken Circle: Rethinking the Practice of Circles in Early Learning

  1. Our “circle” Meeting time usually takes place during lunch time. The children really enjoy bringinh forth their ideas and thoughts at this time. It is during this time that we gather their ideas and thoughts about we have explored during the morning and our next steps.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You are speaking straight to my heart with this. What a great way to start the last day of the week as I head in to once again try to honour the children in my class while facing up to the scrutiny of people who just aren’t on the same page. It is reassuring to know that others have thought about this deeply and come to similar conclusions. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Just wondering about First Nations talking circles. I use a talking stick to signify who is talking, respecting and listening to that person.
      I find when I gather with my students on the carpet, as long as there is purpose (talking about our plan for the day, what they are wondering or curious about, sharing what they are excited about) it works! They always have the choice to stand, lie down, have a fidget to occupy their hands. From my experience, as long as I honour how long it is appropriate for them to be at the carpet, it is good learning time for us to collect together as a group. It is also a skill to learn to listen to others!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a thought provoking reflection on the purpose of a circle. If we take the “curriculum” out of it and first appreciate it as an opportunity to meaningfully engage and connect with one another…the essence of our need to connect and be seen and heard, then hopefully what we bring back in to the experience- the “activities”, will have more purpose.

    It’s the “how” to transform current practice… to help teachers reflect and deeply connect to what is a very unknown way of ‘being’ as a teacher that challenges me. This is in contexts riddled with dydactic teaching based on personal experience and pedagogy. It is a good challenge for me and I press on, as it can be so transformative.

    I shall share and reflect some more.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I too have struggled with circles. With s smaller group it can go well if it is short and the children’s lives are incorporated into the discussion. Decisions, celebrations, plans,- these are all authentic reasons to get together, if coming together is joyful, then children will learn to associate the circle with joy. If it’s uncomfortable, boring, or disappointing because you never get to talk, the circle will be associated with negative feelings, I always try to keep the circles meaningful, authentic, and joyful. Also, much better to meet 4 times a day for 10-15 minutes, then once s day for 45. Also, much more productive!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree circle time is boring for all. Getting up and moving on a train or bus is much more fun as you drive around and sing or be silly.


  5. I have identified with the topic and insights. As a young preschool teacher, circle was centre of the day.
    In days when resources were scarce or poorly offered “circle time” was important strategy for “teaching”.
    As the result of experiences careful studies and observations we have understanding how circle can be a pit of anti-social, forceful, boring and wasted “teaching experiences”.
    However, as mentioned in your article and in some of the comments, there are situations, and people where time in the circle become open, pleasurable, safe, magical place and time.
    Thank you Diane for important reminder of importance who we are as individual and how we improve our profession.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that children should join in of they choose and not conform through coercion or be forced to as we know that to ensure a quality level of engagement it must be self motivated. Be inspiring the small people will come x

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for this Diane. I remember my circle days. I had a boy who would hit children around him if he at in circle. He would go off and play with lego as the rest of us would have discussions. Although he was not sitting with the rest of us, he always contributed a great deal to our conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: From Broken to Open: Inspiring Circle Experiences for Young and Old | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  8. Thank you for revisiting the concept of circle time. It is within the context of educational expectations this practice seems to continue under the guise of meeting expectations and tradition. Perhaps, it is finally time to consider the evidence collected and presented by academics to support the move towards abandoning a practice of decades of restraint in thinking and critically analyzing practices. Young children do not derive satisfaction nor deep learning opportunities from circle time e.g., young children do not understand the concept of time and therefore using the calendar to gather young children is a disservice to their growing understanding of concepts. This is an exercise in compliance – you will sit and listen. Nor is this an exercise requiring and soliciting engagement. The teacher directed and expectation focused demands of ‘sit and get’ has long been relegated to ineffective teaching practices not only for children but adults. Although my comments may seem harsh and direct, please consider the effort and energy one exerts to perform tasks with little benefit. Children learn concepts of time through experiences in play and interaction with others including adults. It is a reciprocal exchange of ideas experienced through the senses while making meaning. Cognitive processes and learning are enhanced and teased out as the child is a willing participant in the exchange of ideas and concepts through knowledgeable others who are engaged in the experience. Beliefs of the child as capable and competent brings knowledge from within the child and the other person into the arena of processing and meaning making when they are engaged not as an act of compliance. Diane, you eloquently highlighted in very practical terms how ‘a circle’ forms when an educator is also considered capable and competent through observation and listening and knows when the opportunity arises to bring forward actions such as, reading a picture books, strategically and critically and creatively providing materials for exploration for children who are working in collaboration (notice I did not state cooperation as this condones a space of compliance, monitoring and surveillance) with others. The learning is the space of reciprocal interactions as we learning from, with and through one another.


  9. Pingback: Show and Tell: Tell Me Why, Tell Me Why Not? | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  10. Pingback: We are Circling – Trails Traces and Threads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s