Transforming Circle Time for Mixed-Age Groups
By Rahima Baldwin Dancy
I have found that the “typical kindergarten circle” learned in Waldorf early childhood training needs to be simplified and changed in different ways for a preschool group of two- and three-year-olds or for a mixed-age group of children. At Rainbow Bridge we had a mixed-age group of twelve children from ages 1 through 5 years. What worked would have been different if we had had only younger children, or if we hadn’t had three adults. With both toddlers and many three- and four-year olds (and even one five-year-old most years), we tried to meet the needs of both the younger and the older children: First, we made the time shorter, simpler and livelier and saved the story or fairy tale for the lunch table, when the littlest children could be busy eating and just let the story wash over them. While we didn’t emphasize the “form” of the circle (as one might in a kindergarten), we were also clear that everyone needed to participate and to sit up–with the youngest children often moving into an adult’s lap.
We always started with movement and our gathering song, “Let’s make a circle, make a circle like the sun. Let’s make a circle that includes everyone.” Making sure the adults were ready, we would all start singing and gathering the children together, strategically taking hands with and bringing in the littlest children—and for months I would make sure I was next to Daren when I started so I could bring him into circle rather than let him go off on his own. As one of the bigger boys, his participation was vital not only for the success of the activity but—I felt—for him developmentally. I felt sending a child on to kindergarten who had experience successfully participating in circle every day was as valid and valuable an achievement as any goals listed on more academic “core competencies.”
With children from one- to five-years of age, we wouldn’t stop to see whether our circle was round or perfect, but would immediately transition into our greeting song (“Good morning dear earth,” with gestures). Not every child did the movements, but that was all right. Then we would immediately start to move again with “Ring-around-the-Rosie.” We did this every day forever—some of the children did this every day with us for four years, until they went on to kindergarten. I think one of the keys is that “Ring-around-the-Rosie” is a game that young children never tire of playing—from the very youngest through kindergarten age. We would play it three times, the first normally, the second time with deep voices and taking steps like a giant or some large animal, and the third time very softly, like butterflies or fairies.
Children enjoy these typess of variations, which conveniently would end on a quiet note with all of us sitting on the floor. Our circle was pretty lumpy, but the minimum expectation was that everyone would sit up. Sometimes the toddlers would snuggle into an adult’s lap, or one of us would go between two children who were having difficulties. After doing a fingerplay, we would then be up again with a song or movement game that related to the season when possible (such as “The autumn wind blows open the gate: St. Michael for you we wait…” or “Caterpillar wind about….” in spring); or we would sing “an old favorite” such as “Sally Go ‘Round the Sun” or “Oats, Peas, Beans and Barley Grow.” These variable songs in the middle would usually repeat for about three weeks at a time.
To end the circle, dismissing the children one at a time made for a much more peaceful transition! There are many ways to do this—the key is finding one that is fun and then sticking to it so the children always know what comes next. Our children loved to play “Nicka-Nacka,” in which each child would be called over to guess which hand held a raisin for him or her before going on to the next activity.
You’ll want to think through what would work for your own group of children, given their ages, temperaments, whether you have more than one adult, and other factors. Here are the “basic principles” behind what we did:
- Start moving and singing to gather the children (remember imitation and modelling!).
- Don’t be afraid to have the opening, favorite game and the closing be the same every day, year after year.
- Keep it short, simple and lively, alternating large and small movement, sitting and standing, etc.
- Don’t be a stickler for form, but have clear expectations; use yourself and your assistant strategically.
- Understand and value all the skills you are teaching the children but, above all, have fun! Children love to move, and by repeating the same songs and games, you’ll start to see and hear them in the children’s play.
Rahima Baldwin Dancy is a LifeWays board member and author of You Are Your Child’s First Teacher.