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 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 powerful and neglected aspects of most schools. Excellent schools have evolved projects in small groups, such as the Municipal Schools of Reggio Emilia, but the vast majority of spaces for young children have only large group gatherings, usually with well more than six children.
When a group is small and has consistent membership, children encounter each other in a comfortable way, listen to others, 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 on this site are precursors to that more sophisticated project work in the hope that all children could gleefully participate in project work someday. Below are guides for leading small group experiences to create an easily planned, routine opportunity for each and every child to acquire social competence, maybe learn a new language, select their first friends, and find comfort with an adult outside of their family who listens and cares for them.
I assume we all know children for whom social connections have yet to be established in order to participate with others in a generative way. These are the children who most need me. I offer the results of my exploration of activities to engage every child and allow them to be comfortable with me and with a few other children. I promise this stuff works, often amazingly so. Carefully presented, routine, small group times can allow each reticent child an opportunity to express themselves in a calm, safe community.
I define a small group time as a regular meeting for an adult and 3 to 5 children in a group with consistent membership. Children can always expect to have a time when they spend 10-15 minutes with the same group of children. The group is small enough so no one can continue to remain silent. 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 their unique group 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 if only once a week. I select the membership of the groups, choosing those whom I think would work best together. Generally I group children 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, since often an introvert and an extrovert naturally draw together in many friendships.)
Small Groups for Cognitive and Personal Development
Here guides to create four kinds of experiences to offer children in your own classroom should you find it appropriate. Since the success of a group time is the responsibility of the leader, I offer a leadership convention for the adult to follow—an agenda. Over a period of many years of study, I found these four activities have proven beneficial, fun, and engaging to young children ages 3 to 5. My intent is to share what I have learned in presenting distinctly different challenges for children that rotate over time, so they are both familiar and fresh each time.
I offer video examples and a one-page .pdf document to download by clicking Small Groups. 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 show to others if you wish.
The first group activity, Picture Story Books, presents both that kind of activity and the leadership convention, the four stages of each small group time — warm-up, engagement, activity, and closure. The Picture Story Books topic and the convention 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 Eliciting Method is easy to learn, avoids specific prompts, and selects particular kinds of books.
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.