From Broken to Open: Inspiring Circle Experiences for Young and Old

By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE. I use this blog to share reflections and musings about the practice of early childhood education. In a recent post, The Broken Circle: Rethinking the Practice of Circles in Early Learning I wrote about a topic that fascinated me as a beginning teacher. Currently, circles continue to spiral in and out of my thoughts as I reflect on early childhood education practice and my own journey of learning. The circle as a shape, as a practice, and as a symbol of nature provides early childhood educators with a source of reflection and a catalyst for change. The circle is a common symbol used in many cultures to suggest wholeness, inclusion, femaleness (womb), and eternity. For Indigenous communities, the circle has a spiritual connotation as the symbol of the moon and the sun.

I am inviting readers of this blog, to pause and think deeply and spiritually about circles.

Recently, I had the honour of participating in a traditional Ojibwe Opening Ceremony and Scared Fire with Grandmother Gookomis Jacqui Lavalley. As we sat in a circular formation, face to face, no one person had an elevated position. I experienced a profound feeling of inclusiveness – of being included, and as we passed around the feather, all of our voices were heard, respected and listened to. I realize that there is so much that I can learn from these traditional teachings. I am so grateful and thankful for the York Region Nature Collaborative’s recent Land as Our First Teacher: Establishing and Maintaining Relationships hosted this past spring and the Rhythm of Learning in Nature, which is coming up this summer, for offering these traditional circle experiences. I know that as I make this the focus of my professional learning going forward, I will find that the teachings will offer many catalysts for deep consideration about the relationships that can be made to early childhood education practice. That is why I am looking forward to being part of #Rhythm2019, which is an early learning knowledge retreat this summer. This past spring, I also had the privilege of visiting an Indigenous child care centre in New Liskeard, Ontario, Keepers of the Circle Aboriginal Family Learning Centre and as I look back at the photos I took, I see circles.

I work closely with my friend, Hopi Martin, who will be at the Rhythm of Learning in Nature as a facilitator and was so pleased that he too, had the opportunity to visit New Liskeard. I know that he suggested that the foundations of learning from Ontario’s pedagogy for the early years, How Does Learning Happen? be represented in a circular formation.

In my previous blog post about circles, I suggested that if the way circles are traditionally experienced in early learning is not in keeping with the idea of inclusiveness and equity, that they should be considered broken. However, I was also clear that if we share circles that are joyous for children, they can be powerful and impactful. They can be open. They can be spiritual. I am appreciative of the comments that were made when I posted the blog on the Reggio Inspired Early Childhood Educators Facebook group. I have included some below.

I like to think of circles or “gatherings” as spaces where ideas, family connections, stories of our lives together, intersect and entwine us to create a group and culture. I work outdoors as an educator and we often use gatherings to share excitement in something that has happened or access the group’s knowledge. It is co-constructed in its nature as I may bring a book to share as my offering to the group and a song may be suggested, a memory is provoked and our gathering changes from what it was before, we know a bit more of each other now. These are groups of 16 for context, ages 4-9.

I believe the keys are to remain reflective about circle time, to keep it short and joyful, to have a purpose, and to be prepared to cut it short based on cues from the children. I like a regular circle time mainly for the coming together as a group and for keeping stories as part of the regular routine for every child. If it isn’t working for a child, then you must sort out how to adapt. Daily story time is critical whether it is done formally as a group or informally and I wouldn’t want reading to be forgotten in early childhood programs.

I call it group time in my classroom and what happens changes daily. At the beginning of the year I use it to set out expectations and help the children learn each other’s names. Later we use it for discussion, or transition. Often, at this time of year, near the end of the school year, we do not do group time at all if it interrupts the play the children are building on. I love our group time and feel it is important to be flexible about it. I’m bookmarking the blog post to read the additional links. Thank you for sharing!

Thinking back to discussions about ‘circle time’ the idea of gathering children to sit and listen to the teacher’s instructions, stories that perhaps the teacher has chosen and other adult instructed activities is something that has been inherited and teacher’s thought this is what a ‘circle time’ should include. However, my thoughts for this time with children is also to bring reciprocal relationships into the group, to share ideas, perhaps to invite or provoke a question of wonder, share stories that are meaningful at the time. If circle time is to be considered as a time of conversations, building relationships, why do we feel the need to bring as much ‘material’ stuff to a circle thinking these will all keep the children focused and still? I believe in a way to be together that simply sparks joy, thoughtful sharing, listening, and being together.

Oh, circle time!!! I feel with the right teacher who is attuned with her students and has created an environment that belongs to them can have an effective circle time. However, they should be saved for preschool children. They have no place with toddlers, at least not in the traditional form. I work with 2’s. They decide when we do a morning meeting if at all. We have many daily important conversations throughout the day and within their play.

The comments reflected, the suggestions that I made in 1996 when I wrote my Master’s thesis on circles. Working with a small focus group of early childhood educators, seven face-to-face sessions were held with participants reporting back on observed, planned and implemented circle experiences. They interviewed colleagues about their circle experiences, filled out questionnaires and journaled. In our very first session, we shared stories of our best and worst circle experiences. They spoke of “painful circles” and one participant related to the group that “when circle starts, and you know you are losing them you have to do something else. You can’t just continue with what you are doing. If a child walks off you have to realize – yeah, I would have walked off too”. At the same time, we shared memories of circles that were indeed joyful. I recorded what was shared about our best and worst circles. The best circles involved laughter, physical movement, music and group participation. Children were interested in the topic as it was relatable. The pace of the circle varied and what was seen as “behaviour” was ignored. The area was large and comfortable. Circles were planned and props were used as well as interactive stories, action songs, games and puppets. Circles were short. On the other hand, their worst circle experiences were too long. The group was too big. The circles were not planned, and the timing was off. They felt a lack of confidence and their own disinterest in the “theme” were mirrored by the children’s lack of interest. The circles were mandatory and therefore dealing with children’s lack of attention and “behaviour” became difficult. They were unprepared and the area was too small. They were nervous and/or being watched by parents and/or supervisors. There was too much teaching.

Together we came up with a list of tips that we could share with others that include:

  • Begin the circle as soon as two children are ready, don’t wait for everyone. Finger-plays, songs, riddles, stories, and poetry will catch the attention of others.
  • Constantly scan the group, make contact with all.
  • Vary your pitch and speed of speech.
  • Use a variety of carefully chosen materials and activities.
  • Vary the length of time of the circle and its complexity as the year progresses.
  • Look for opportunities, other than circle time, to form spontaneous small groups where children can get comfortable with each other and the format.

I welcome your tips, ideas and thoughts as a way of widening the circle. I welcome your musings on the circle as a symbol and metaphor. What do circles mean to you?

Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty ~ Albert Einstein


3 thoughts on “From Broken to Open: Inspiring Circle Experiences for Young and Old

  1. I have always been drawn to circles, my favorite shape. now I teach young children in a circle that I am a part of, and I love it. great tips in your post –


  2. I love your post, Let me reflect in my own practices To me circles are part of our lives. yet we found them everywhere and anytime. I am in favor of circle time because best conversations arise from it, Many times was a successful meeting others a disaster. But I think is part of our work to deal with that and have a immediately solution. I also think the circle time is necessary for kids since is the way to be connected as a community and feel part of it.


  3. My most memorable and successful circle was spontaneous being a response to what was happening in our classroom.
    I was working in a school-age room on a summer day. My coworker and I were concerned about the mood in the room. Many of the children seemed frustrated and we were encountering many ‘behaviours’.
    We decided it was time to gather for a sharing circle (something we had implemented in our room as part of our Indigenous pedagogy). We gathered our group and brought out the talking stick.
    I started our circle by expressing our concern that we were having a tough morning.
    I passed the talking stick on, and that’s when it happened. Child after child talked about the forest fires we were having in our area, how it was affecting them and their families and how worried they were.
    It was an aha moment. No wonder we were seeing ‘behaviours’! The children were anxious and stressed about something that was totally out of their control.
    We did our best to explain what measures were in place for our safety and the safety of our community. We reassured them that fire fighters and other emergency workers were working hard to keep us safe and put the fires out.
    Luckily for us, one of the volunteer fire fighters had stopped by our centre and we were able to have him talk to the children and show them some of his equipment.
    After our circle was complete, we noticed the atmosphere in the room was much more comfortable. The children were calmer.
    Had we not stopped to share our concern and really listen to what the children had to say, the day would have been completely different! We would have been trying to put out our own ‘fires’ and we would have lost the opportunity to connect with our children in an authentic way.
    To me, this is what circles are all about – connecting with each other; sharing thoughts, ideas and feelings; not just being heard, but also listening. Circles are about the group dynamic, the give and take. Circles are the launching point for our journey with our children as co-learners. When we approach our circles as a place to share, we may learn so much from our children.

    Liked by 1 person

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