Come On Over and Sit Right Down

Parents who have been to a Hopkins ECFE class will recognize the words to our gathering song for circle time.  In fact, parents who have spent time in ECFE classes can often be heard absent-mindedly singing the tunes for a great many of the songs that we sing during our group time (teachers are often heard humming as well!). Each class — infants through five-year olds — incorporates a special group time with parents; we get a chance to sit together, sing, play simple games and enjoy the closeness of each other’s company.

There are many reasons for gathering in a group and creating a bit of structure in the midst of the joys of free play. The early childhood staff thought we would share some of these reasons with you to give a sense of the academic and social benefits of this experience.  We couldn’t resist sharing some photos of the smiles, interest and excitement that happens during this time as well!

Circle time creates a natural break in the class where free time shifts to down time. Parents have the opportunity to focus in on their child in a way that incorporates a kind of play and interaction that children learn best from–engaging in activities together with a relaxed sort of teaching stemming from the songs.

What are the songs teaching? This shifts throughout the years. Infants learn to recognize the significance of their own name, learn to hear words as separate entities that have meaning, build muscle control through the bumping, popping, shifting and rocking that accompany the songs. In addition, infants get much needed and much delighted in face time with parents–one of the best ways to teach socialization is to socialize. Babies get to study a parent’s face, listen to the beloved parent’s gentle voice, and thrill in the touch of cuddling and hugging.

As children get older, they are gaining different things from song time, even though they may be hearing some of the same songs over the years. They begin to use the songs to learn the names of the other children in their class, they begin to develop a sense of how rhymes work (which sounds like a basic skill, but it is hugely important to literacy) and they begin to see that the teacher is the central figure and authority in the class–she is, after all, the one leading the songs and reading the books. In addition, the repetition and routine that accompany circle time helps the child to gain a sense of control over the process. Children learn best through repetition (although it can sometimes drive their parents crazy), and knowing what movements go along with each song allows the children to get a sense of mastery in this activity. In addition, the fact that the teachers create the same routine around circle time allows the children to get comfortable with the flow of class. They learn that song time comes before snack time, or before the parents separate, and they can relax into that routine and concentrate their energies on learning through play.

Our oldest ECFE classes find the children learning that the structured time has expectations for behavior. This is what will lead them to success in preschool, kindergarten and beyond. They are asked to sit in the circle for circle time, they are asked to take turns and delay gratification (they may see the delightful scarves and want to throw them in the air, but they need to wait until the teacher hands them out–they can not just run en mass and grab them).

Individual children may be working on specific skills within the context of circle time. Teachers are always most concerned with ensuring the safety of all the children–no middle of the circle crashes–but in addition teachers may be working with families to encourage more focused attention, or body awareness and personal space awareness, or even comfort in separation at a certain level from a parent. For this reason, in the older classes, you may see more focused attention on certain skills. If you have a question about why things are operating in a particular way with circle time, be sure to ask your teacher. They are happy to share their reasoning with you.

Parents often learn to love circle time because there is an opportunity to learn songs that engage their children. Often the time between being a child yourself and having your own children is just long enough to forget the words to many of the favorite songs children love. Parents also learn that the method of singing can have a significant effect on the way their children learn. Practicing songs in a slow, paced manner will help children attune to the song and the words. Learning the songs, the finger plays, and methods of soothing activities can help parents when they are looking for play experiences that are genuine, beneficial, social and relaxing. The children recognize the songs and games outside of class and love the experience of re-playing them in their own homes.

There is often an opportunity to gain insight into child development as well as your individual’s personality through circle time. In the early years we notice that some children tend to sit comfortably with a parent and never dream of moving–they may or may not be singing, but they are certainly sitting still. Other children enjoy getting to move in and out of the circle.  They are listening and attending to the songs even if they aren’t sitting in the circle, but they aren’t yet interested in sitting through it all. Teachers see both of these approaches as typical. Parents can gain an understanding of how their child engages with the world by watching their activity level during circle time. Often, the best approach for parents is to remain in the circle and continue to take part in the activities. The child will, in time, realize that the special time with the parent is worth staying in the circle.

Circle time is a delight for all the participants in an ECFE class. It is a special time for parents and children, as well as a purposefully crafted learning experience by teachers. Most of all, circle time should be FUN, so enjoy this special time during class with your child!