Small Group Activities
Small groups are safe harbors for children as they acquire dispositions to confidently express themselves, to play verbal games of thinking, to participate in the joys of literature, and to investigate and represent what they notice in the world at large. Small group times enable children who have not had these experiences in the family to become socially engaged, be heard, and be validated.
Small group time is a distinctive context, like no other in education, and surprisingly one of the most neglected aspects of most preschools I have seen. A few have evolved projects in small groups as do the Municipal Schools of Reggio Emilia, but most have large group times with more than six children. When the group is small with consistent membership, children encounter each other in a spontaneous way, listen to their peers, and hear themselves contribute. One of my most dog-eared and well marked books, Making Learning Visible: children as individual and group learners (Reggio Children & Project Zero) goes into detail about the power of small learning groups where children’s contributions, conjectures, and theories can be supported, documented, and developed.
The resources I offer below, however, are precursors to that more sophisticated project work. These are guides for leading small group experiences with a focused intention to creating a planned, routine opportunity for each and every child to learn a new language, make their first friends, and find an adult outside of their family experience who listens and cares for them.
We all know children for whom social connections have to be established before they can participate in a more generative way — precisely the children who most need me. I offer below the result of my exploration of many kinds of activities to engage children and allow them comfortable with me and with the other children I promise this stuff works, often amazingly so, over time. Carefully presented, routine, small group times can open playful opportunities and allow each reticent child an opportunity to express themselves in a calm, safe community.
A small group time, as I define it here, is a regular meeting time for an adult educator and 3 to 5 children in a group with consistent membership. In this context a culture can be built over time where children come to know each other well, develop their own norms and routines, and encounter predictable kinds of activities. If the membership is consistent, then that culture can develop at optimum speed. In the schools where I have taught, we had a small group time each day, but, of course, small group meetings can be held less often, even only once a week. Grouping: I select the children whom I think would work best together, often grouping them on their level of blabber as I call it. I put the quieter, more introverted children together and the most extroverted, talkative ones together, and the “in-betweens” together. (The one exception that comes to mind is to pair a child without a friend with with someone who might become a friend to give them a routine time to discover each other.)
Small Groups for Cognitive and Personal Development
You will find here the guides to create these experiences in your own classroom should you find it appropriate. First I offer a leadership convention for the adult and then four types of activities that I have found beneficial, fun, and engaging to young children ages 3 to 5. I would never wish to be prescriptive, of course, my wish is to share what I have learned in trying to do this. I offer these guides as a way to learn to lead four kinds of small group activities, each with entirely different challenges for children. When rotated throughout a week, the challenges are both familiar and fresh each time. I have put what I can on a one-page .pdf document you can download by clicking Small Groups.
Note: the videos included are stored at the Vimeo website. They play embedded on the page or you can click on Vimeo in the lower right corner to go directly to where they are and download them to your computer. The four-divergent-arrow symbol toggles full screen mode.
The first linked page presents the four stages of each small group time — warm-up, engagement, activity, and closure. It includes the Picture Story Books topic, because they share the same video example.
I describe and demonstrate the Eliciting Method of presenting a particular kind of book — usually wordless books or books with a pattern in their story line — in a way that does not read the text. Sometimes I wish I could have been with Russ Whitehurst as he developed Dialogic Reading, because the small differences in the Eliciting Method (avoiding questions and selecting particular kinds of books) would have been an improvement, I think. Since the Leadership Agenda is demonstrated along with the Eliciting Method of presenting a Picture Storybook, I put them on the same page to present the ideas simultaneously.
The children may know a lot more than they can talk about. For example, they may know how to open a jar of bubble mix, take out the wand, and blow bubbles but may not know the vocabulary or be able to describe the sequence in words. The same might be said of using an adhesive bandage, eating a banana, putting on shoes, or making toast. Natural Progression is a convention for challenging the children to put their experiencee into language in an engaging and humorous way.
This is a very brief science activity for children where an easily observable change occurs — something starts out looking a certain way and then changes before your eyes. I offer another convention — a protocol or basic structure — for presenting the transformation experience, a video showing this with five-year-olds, and a list of ideas to give you a start on leading these yourself.
This is a convention for conducting a mini field trip, indoors or out, looking for something in particular. The plan is to find categories of things that challenge children to look at the familiar in a different way, mediated by language. The walkabout uses a three step sequence: plan, do a mini field trip, and represent it in some way.