By Nancy Jo Mannix

Why do we include whole and small group learning in preschool classrooms? How can we maximize community building and incorporate student choice in both?

Week 1, Day 1 of Pre-K

In many Pre-K classrooms, too many children spend too much of their instructional time in whole group experiences. Some, as young as four years old, are expected to join a large group of children and stay focused and engaged, sometimes for up to forty-five minutes. Whole group experiences of this length often start on Day One, continue throughout the school year, and in full time programs, are often scheduled two or three times every day. The practice continues to live on, as experienced teachers model this for new teachers.

So, when is whole group teaching and learning best with four- and five-year-olds? And, if we need to transform the different approaches to replace over-using whole group ones, what are the solutions?

This three-part series will consider these questions and unlock best practice strategies for introducing whole and small group learning in preschool. This series includes “visits” to the public preschool classroom of co-teachers–Sophia Griffin and Claire Staines–as they share how they crafted the first six days of school. They want to ensure students will be happy and successful and the structure of their day will build the foundation for introducing whole and small group learning. Some of the reasons why they make these choices can be found in the tips and research offered at the end of each article in Ideas for Increasing Children’s Engagement.

Behind the Scenes: As the first day of preschool approaches, Sophia and Claire have set clear goals for the initial two weeks of school. Their primary objectives are to help the children feel at ease in their classroom environment, get accustomed to daily routines, and encourage them to explore various learning opportunities while building friendships with their peers in Pre-K. The co-teachers are working hard to create a learning environment where children will feel secure, safe and have a sense of belonging. They’re making sure to set up a comfortable, well-designed physical environment, to help children engage and take ownership of what’s offered. They want to provide places, spaces, and materials for their preschoolers to be readers, writers, artists, builders, scientists, dancers and singers. They made a simple sign about how and where children are to put up their belongings and posted this near Room 114’s entryway. The co-teachers labeled individual spots on the classroom carpet using the children’s names and photos they’ve gathered ahead of time from families. They used colored footprint cut-outs to form a guide for the children to line up to the front door. Every child who attended Meet Your Teacher was introduced to the sign and locations for where to put their lunches or snacks, backpacks, and other belongings. The co-teachers also showed children their spots on the carpet and colorful footprints forming the class line.

Let’s visit Room 114 on Week 1, Day 1 of school. The children are learning about their morning routine.

Children are greeted by their teachers as they enter the classroom. They take steps towards independence as they successfully handle their first morning “job”—putting away their belongings. Sophia and Claire make sure to work with the children who didn’t attend Meet the Teacher so everyone knows what’s expected as they enter their classroom. After that, children select an activity for their “Morning Choice.” They feel comfortable because there are many choices attached to these explorations–where to go, whether or not to work independently or join others, and what to do among the several, open-ended activities. While the children are engaged, Claire takes attendance and looks for family communication. After, she jots down brief notes about what a couple of the children are doing. Sophia circulates around the room and talks with the children. At their lunch break, Sophia and Claire discuss how things are going:

SOPHIA: I can’t believe how so many children remembered what to do when they first came into the classroom. Even those who were just introduced to this today, caught on so quickly.

CLAIRE: They couldn’t wait to get the fun materials put out for their Morning Choice!

SOPHIA: It’s amazing that just about everyone was able to find a space, choose an activity and even decide whether or not to work by themselves or with friends.

CLAIRE: They may not realize it, but they’ve formed their first small groups.

SOPHIA: That’s right, they have, and I think we can build on their decision-making by including choice in centers and other small group learning times.

CLAIRE: Tomorrow, let’s include a whole group meeting in their morning schedule. It sure would save time to introduce routines and materials with the whole class at once, and I’m wondering, isn’t it the best way to build classroom community?

SOPHIA: I agree. Let’s do it.

In planning, the co-teachers decide their first whole group meeting will celebrate what so many are doing well, model and introduce how to handle the class books, and demonstrate a routine to help them know when it’s time to transition to another experience. They work out who and what each one will do.

Ideas for Increasing Children’s Engagement in Whole and Small Group

Begin right away. Even though we may not label them as such, when you introduce a child – or two or three children – to their personal space, how and where to put their belongings, where to sit and where to line up, you have introduced small groups. Everyone benefits when these tasks are handled on Meet the Teacher Day, or Day One of school. Hint: Before you introduce these personal spots, label them with names and photos.

Include visuals. Whether it’s a song or chant that signals it’s time to transition to a small or whole group, be sure to include visuals. As a reminder of what’s being offered, consider creating a “What’s My Choice?” planning board for Exploration Stations. Check this one out, as an example. (More about this in Part 2.)

Use the K.I.S.S. strategy– Keep It Short and Simple. Children will remain focused if you keep all groups simple and short–no more than 10 minutes–especially in the beginning of the school year.

Provide opportunities for more meaningful talk time. For children to develop the language they need to be successful as readers and learners, they need to be involved in conversations that are meaningful and require taking turns listening and responding to what someone else has said (Hadley, et al, 2020). Repeating, confirming, elaborating, and building on what children say, increases individual child language outcomes.

Read More About It: Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Volume 63, 2nd Quarter 2023)

Use open-ended materials. These types of materials can be simple and free–like a bucket of shells, items collected at recess, etc. Open-ended materials encourage creativity, problem solving, independent thinking and assure the experience is appropriate for each child. Before you change these out weekly, consider how children find new ways of investigating materials with more time (Hill, Stremmel, & Fu 2005; Daly & Beloglovsky 2015).

Read More About It: The Power of Open-Ended Materials

Find creative, different ways to invite children to the first whole group time, often called “circle time” and keep them actively participating. This block of time can be used to present new ideas and a place to discuss problems.

Read More About it: Successful Circle Times