Making Circle Time Successful

Last week I had an opportunity to meet to many GREAT SLPs who work in preschool settings who asked me if I had new ideas to use for circle time. It’s since prompted an idea for another book… but I can’t start that one until the current one is out of final edits! So until then, here’s a reminder of what I’ve already published here on the website way back in 2008. It’s still relevant! Take a look….


Making it through circle time at preschool or daycare is often a challenge for toddlers with developmental delays. Here are hints for teachers, therapists, and parents who are looking for ways to make young children more successful during this schedule standard.

Promote Participation and Attention at Circle Time by:

1. Using developmentally-appropriate activities.

Too often I go into toddler classrooms to work with a child who is language-delayed and having difficulty participating in the circle time routine, and I cringe at what the teacher is trying to pass off as an activity interesting enough to hold the attention of 10 two-year-olds.

HINT – HINT – If 8 of the 10 children are not able to participate and pay attention, you’re doing the wrong kind of activity!

Naming flashcards, reciting the alphabet, days of the week, or months of the year, and saying the Pledge are NOT appropriate for this age group! For 4 & 5-year-olds yes (well, maybe), but 2- and 3-year-olds, forget it!

What activities are developmentally-appropriate for younger children??

  • Sing simple songs with hand motions, or better yet, songs with lots of whole body activities (think Hokey-Pokey, London Bridge, If You’re Happy and You Know?It, Itsy Bitsy Spider, The Wheels on the Bus, etc…) Try to mix 1 or 2 old favorites with one newer song that’s related to your weekly/monthly theme. Sing the same songs for a week or two to build familiarity, then move on to new ones to match your theme.
  • SHORT Flannel Board Stories or SHORT Stories told with Props  OR
  • VERY SHORT stories from books with lots of pictures related to your theme read with LOTS of enthusiasm.  By short, I mean 2 minutes tops! By enthusiasm, I mean?using your voice and your facial expressions to convey the meanings of the words. This is sooooo important for children with language delays who may not understand all of the words, but can follow the plot pretty well if you’re giving them other visual and verbal cues to help them.
  • Include only activities that the children obviously enjoy.  If you’re losin’ ’em, lose the activity!
  • Build routines into circle time such as singing the same opening or closing song so that children know what to expect.

My favorite opening circle time song for toddlers is?letting the children take turns hiding under a blanket and singing:

“Where, oh where, oh where is (child’s name)?

Where, oh where, oh where is (child’s name)?

Where, oh where, oh where is (child’s name)?

Where can (name) be?”

Then help the child uncover and everyone says, “Boo.” This has been a big hit with every class I’ve ever introduced it to from about 15 months all the way through 3 year olds. It also helps children learn their friends’ names.

2. Making? the length of circle time match your group’s attention span.

In the beginning of the year, circle time may need to only be 5 minutes long and then expand to no more than 10 minutes for 2 year olds and 15 minutes for 3 year olds. Why? Because you may lose the attention of even the best-behaved and brightest young children after this amount of time. Very compliant children may still remain seated longer than this, but if they’re not actively participating and learning during this time, why bother?

3. Scheduling circle time AFTER a gross motor activity.

So many preschools schedule circle time for the very first activity of the day. This is GREAT IF your children have been given the opportunity to run, jump, kick, catch, throw, and play rambunctiously for the first 10 or 15 minutes they have been in the classroom, but often this is not the case.

If you don’t have the luxury of planning your own schedule or the facilities to do this, then always?begin circle time with a?2 minute dance to “get the wiggles out.”Or you could have the kids”march” around the room or “hop like bunnies” to pick up and put away toys before beginning circle time.

Many teachers are afraid to do this?thinking that it will hype the kids up. Actually, it’s the opposite. After kids spend some time moving around, their little brains and bodies are more ready to attend.

I love it when circle time is after children have been outside or have had gym time. Not only have kids gotten to move around, they’ve also walked to and from the other location between activities.

4. Providing better seating arrangements for younger children.

Toddlers need to know where and how to sit for circle time. Using an arrangement that promotes visual boundaries is the best way to make sure children stay where they should, instead of wandering around the room or?invading the space of their friends.

Many programs use colored shapes taped to the floor as a guide, but often times the shapes are too small to serve as a boundary for where sprawling legs and wiggly feet should stay. I prefer carpet squares or bean bags. Toddlers with sensory processing disorders will also get a “sensory bump” from using either of these since it provides much more tactile feedback than sitting on floor.

I know storage is a problem for some facilities, but most every room has an empty corner. If you have the children retrieve them from a stack in a corner as the beginning activity for circle time and then stack them back in the corner when you’re finished, you’ve also provided a movement activity PLUS established another “routine” for your classroom. You’ve also extended circle time by at least 5-10 minutes for children with even very limited attention spans since most 2 year olds can be taught to get and return their carpet square or bean bag just by following the examples of other children.

I place minimally verbal children and highly distracted children directly across from the teacher so that they can SEE what’s going on. I also like to place less verbal children between other more verbal kids so that they hear better language “models” BEFORE it’s their turn to respond if we’re going around the circle to answer a question, and so that they can see a peer seated next to them who is (hopefully) on track.

5. Giving kids who can’t participate yet enough support to make them successful, AND a way out.

If the length of your circle time is too long for him, a child could be allowed to sit for the first song/activity of circle time, then be allowed to go to a quiet or calming spot (definitely better than time out for not participating OR disrupting the activity for the rest of the group!) You could gradually extend it so he sits thru the first 2 activities, then he can opt out. Still make the child return for the clean up part if you are putting carpets away since I know from personal experience that most all children CAN learn to do this part.

One other way to help a young child learn to sit and attend is to provide “fidget toys” so that they can get some tactile feedback while being expected to continue to sit. You can provide small squishy toys (think small koosh balls, smushy or stretchy animal toys, or even a Hot Wheels car). You may want to buy several options and put them in a special box so that once a child is sitting he can choose from the box every day.

You can gradually extend the time so that the child has to sit for a minute or two BEFORE he gets the toy in circle time, then he can sit and “fidget” through the next little portion of circle time. When he gets up, the toy has to go back in the box. This works well for kids who are tactile or visual seekers because they want to sit to get the “treat.” If you know there’s something he loves, try to find it in a little toy appropriate for holding?during this time, and I’d give it only during this time for him.

Other items that work great for me when I lead this activity are attaching ribbons to the edges of the carpet squares.  I also purchase and wear cheap bracelets that I can give to a kid during circle time if he needs it, or let him “fiddle” with it while he sits in my lap.

I do think it’s okay to hold a child who needs it through circle time, either while I’m seated on the floor or even between my legs if I’m fortunate enough to get a chair! Some teachers balk at this saying it’s not fair to hold one and not all of them, but rarely will you have more than one or two who need to be held until he can do the routine (unless it’s a special needs classroom). Use the laps of other staff members too!  If you have a kid who really needs the support, recruit a volunteer to be there specifically for circle time.

Another thing I have done if I have a child with behavioral issues (rather than truly sensory ones) who won’t sit is to give everyone who is sitting a treat like a Skittle (or even a sucker if I think I need a “bigger” incentive) or let everyone who is sitting have a special turn doing something I know this kid likes to do. Some teachers “stamp” kid’s?hands or give stickers for this too, but I usually see children who need more of a prize than that! I am pretty generous with this initially. I go ahead and give a child like this the prize too to get him “hooked” into doing this?even if he initially he just comes over and sits and waits?for the prize while the other kids are getting theirs. Then I might up the ante and remind him that he has to sit through the most of the closing song to get the prize, then all of the closing song, etc… (Often these are the children who get up after the opener, then they come back for the closer.)


You really can use these activities to “shape” behaviors for circle time, but gradually over several days, weeks, or even months, depending on how well you pick your reinforcers, how entrenched the child’s behavior is, OR how his little sensory system is affected. It will likely not happen in a week unless your issues are pretty mild, but it can happen over time for most children.

Be sure to leave a comment if you have other great circle time ideas to share! Laura

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  1. Heidi on November 4, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    Thank you for the suggestions! Our circle time is for our homeschool (2, 3, 5 and 6 year olds) and it’s a challenge with a couple speech and other special issues for two of our kids. Moira started using ASL while we sang the days of the week – we looked up the words for the rest of the song and it’s now part of our routine. Even our two year old has been signing along and it seems to keep their attention longer than just singing.

    We will be implementing some of your ideas starting TOMORROW. Thank you!

  2. Laura on November 4, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    Thanks Heidi! I added a little paragraph I accidentally deleted earlier in the seating section. It talks about where to place highly distracted children or minimally verbal children. Let me know how these ideas help! Laura

  3. Julie on November 4, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Thanks Laura, your the best…I have already given the daycare your suggestions and we are working on it. Gabe has had a good week so far!

  4. Heidi on November 4, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    Laura, YES, thank you! We have a son with vision & speech issues, and a daughter with speech & sensory issues. I’m picturing a seating arrangement in my head not just for home but also for when they attend co-op. Thanks for the tips, I’m taking notes. 🙂

  5. Renee Ernsting on October 6, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Thank you! I remind toddler teachers regularly about many of these issues. I do a lot of on-site technical consulting with toddler teachers and was wondering if I could use this article as a handout.

    Renee Ernsting
    Child Care Partneship Resource & Referral
    Eau Claire, WI

  6. Brooke Buffington on February 27, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Thanks Laura, I teach preschool on the days I don’t do home visits and theses are great tips to remember for ANY kids at circle time. I use puppets alot to keep there attention and also do fun “cheers” from Dr. Jean’s website. Making it FUN keeps them there with you!

  7. Lisa Brown on March 2, 2011 at 4:32 am

    Much like your therapy sessions I find that using a variety of voices and sounds keeps most children interested in a group session. I have also been known to start off with some music and movement (with a transition to calm them down)to get the wiggles out. Puppets are another favorite of mine. Thank you for having such an informative site.

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