Group times are a hotly contested topic in the early childhood sector. Some people love them, others hate them; and both sides have deep pedagogical thinking supporting them.
Understanding why group times are included in the daily routine or ritual with children in your service matters. Ask yourself:
- Why do I conduct a group time?
- Whose needs does group time meet?
- How could I do things differently to ensure all children are engaged?
Many services still have some form of traditional mat time; where children sit and listen while an educator reads a story, tells them some information, explains the activities for the afternoon, and so on.
Group times and intentionality
As a teacher working within a preschool setting, much of what I do is to ensure that the children are set up to succeed when they start their formal schooling journey. The majority of this school readiness focus is around building the skills of independence, confidence, regulation, and self-help skills. However, whether we like it or not, school readiness also includes a child’s ability to cope in a more structured learning environment, and group times is one small facet of supporting this transition.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that group times are what makes you an educator, and that these times in the routine are the only part of intentional teaching throughout the day. This is often something which parents believe to be true also. In my work, I advocate that my primary aim is to ensure that children come to love the preschool environment, and this will support them with a positive start to formal schooling. For me, intentionality is embedded in the way I respond to each child and their needs and a very small part of this occurs within group times!
Group times should be inherently linked to your deep knowledge of the children, their skills, interests, perspectives and needs.
Here are five ways to support children during group time:
1.Be skills and child-interest focused, not content focused
Often when we think of group time, we consider what we’re going to “teach” the children.
- Will our theme be sea creatures?
- Or will it be the change of season?
Although this can sometimes be valuable (particularly when aligned with the children’s interests), this is not always the most effective model.
Sometimes I can get carried away with our group times and they can become long, boring and arduous (for myself and the children).
When this happens, I try and strip it back and think about two questions:
If the goal is for the children to build a love of the classroom setting, then my primary aim needs to be in making the group time engaging, exciting and based on the children’s interests.
If the goal is to build the skills of concentration, then I need to allow movement within the group time; perhaps by doing music and movement instead of reading a book.
If the goal is around building children’s enquiry mindset, then perhaps I’ll read a story and write the children’s questions or thoughts down afterwards.
2. Find ways to include movement in group time
Research indicates that movement leads development1. To ensure that our group times are developmentally appropriate, educators can intentionally include movement to support children in developing their motor skills and engage in the appropriate amount of movement to help them regulate their bodies.
This will look different for each child, but a great place to start is having some go-to music and movement songs to use during your group times. At my service, we have our favourite “kinder songs” and we use these in place of a structured group time when the children have high energy levels, or when they ask! Don’t forget to ask the children what their favourite music is. They will have some great ideas.
In my preschool setting, there are a few children who go outside for some “exercise” prior to joining the end of the group time. We’ve found that this lets those children let off some steam, and work towards achieving their specific goals of regulation. Some children need additional support within our group times and this may mean that I give them special jobs which allows them movement whilst they participate in the experience. For example, we regularly use clapping sticks during our group times, and the children who need additional movement are in charge of handing these out and collecting them at the end.
Another minor way that I bring movement into my group times is by including children in decision making over which songs we sing. We do this by voting on a song or story, giving the children agency over the experience. Each child gets handed a pebble and puts it on the cover of the book they’d like to read. This means that during group time, each child can get up and choose a book before sitting back down. Remember, some children need more movement than others, and you may need to be creative in how you support their needs.
3. Support the children to exert power over group times
At my service, we do a lot of voting during our group times. I will generally select two books (or songs) and call the children to the mat. I will read them the title of each book, the author, and sometimes the blurb. Sometimes I’ll simplify it by labelling one book a “funny book” and the other “a book about families”. The children then vote, and we count the number of pebbles for each book.
Not only does this tick the boxes of promoting numeracy and children’s voices, it also gets the children actively involved in the group time from the beginning. When I used to work with infants and toddlers, I’d use visuals and encourage the children to point to which book or song they’d like to read.
4. Use group time to tell the children about things that matter to them
Often, we forget to tell children about the important things happening at the service, even when it might affect them.
Is there a new child coming to the service for orientation today? You could tell the children and have a discussion around how to support that child.
Are you going to stay inside this afternoon because of a hailstorm? Show the children the rain radar and explain why.
These simple strategies promote a sense of agency within the setting and support children in feeling a stronger sense of belonging.
5. Consider using physical supports to promote concentration
I am a fidgeter—always have been. This means in meetings I am often clicking my pen, jiggling my leg up and down, or drawing little pictures around my notes. It doesn’t mean that I’m not listening, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I have nothing to contribute. I simply fidget while listening and contributing.
Some children, like me, may need extra support to engage with group times.
Resources like fidget spinners, wobbly cushions, or even a heavy heat pack can support some children to be more regulated and actively involved in group times. Not all children need this, nor will this be a “magic fix” for those who do, but it’s a great strategy to try when you’re seeking to support children to engage more deeply in a group time.
1. Zarotis, G. F. (2020). The Importance of Movement for the Overall Development of the Child at Pre-School Age. Journal of Advances in Sports and Physical Education, 3(2), 36-44. Retrieved from https://saudijournals.com/media/articles/JASPE_32_36-44_c.pdf