Structuring School Opportunities

Small Group Activities

Some, if not all, children benefit from a regular meeting time with an adult and 2 to 4 other children.

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.

MLVSmall 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 gather young children as in one large group, which usually means more than six children.

When a group is small and has consistent membership, all of the children can have the opportunity to participate as well as listen to their peers. Gradually their small group becomes comfortable for each child to contribute freely and regard the effect of their contributions. One of my most treasured 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 are supported, documented, and developed.

But this page is not about the schools of Reggio Emilia. This discussion of small group time addresses what might be thought of as precursors to that sophisticated project work. If you have watched the Reggio films or read the the stories, you are probably as impressed as I am of the beauty and the sophistication of the children’s interactions with each other. Unfortunately, remarkably few children in this world enter school with the skills and confidence to participate in small group investigations and representations.

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 a new language, discover their first friend, and enjoy interactions with an adult outside of their family. The purpose of these small group activities is to enable every child to belong to a group that listens and cares for them.

I assume we all know children who most need successful and fun opportunities. I offer the results of my exploration of how to enable children to engage in group activities with comfort and courage. I promise this stuff works, often amazingly so.

Choosing Groups

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 come to expect to spend 10-15 minutes with the same group of children and the same adult facilitator. A group that size is small enough so no child can continue to remain silent. Gradually the group develops its own norms and routines in predictable and intensely engaging activities. If the membership is consistent, then the comfort of a 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 what I call their level of blabber, which I assume you understand. I put the quieter, more introverted children together and the most extroverted, talkative ones together. The remainder, “in-betweens” have their own groups. Sometimes children have yet to find a friend at school, so I try to group them with someone who might become a friend. In many friendships an introvert and an extrovert naturally draw together.

Small Groups for Cognitive and Personal Development

Here are guides to create four kinds of experiences to offer children in your own classroom. 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.

Since the success of a group time is the responsibility of the leader, Ismallgroupthumb offer a leadership convention for the adult to follow—the agenda for the session.

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 there and download them to show to others if you wish.

Leadership Agenda

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.

Picture Story Books

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.

Natural Progression Experiences

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.

Transformation Experiences

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.

Routine Walkabout

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.

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