Our Proud Heritage. Circle Time, Free Play, and Field Trips: Legacies of Pioneers in Early Childhood Education
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A Message of Appreciation for Charlotte Anderson
Charlotte Anderson and I have served as the initial editors of the Our Proud Heritage column since 2009. As of the July 2017 issue of Young Children, Charlotte resigned from this position. Her contributions of service and time helped launch the column and are greatly appreciated by all. We wish her well in all future endeavors and thank her for her efforts.
—Edna Runnels Ranck, Our Proud Heritage Editor
Eager preschoolers gather on the rug for morning circle time. Their teacher leads them in a good morning song and fingerplays. Next, she plays a recording. The children, listening to the directions, respond by jumping up, crouching down, and marching around the circle. The children are awake and ready to focus.
It’s another busy day in kindergarten, and the children happily go about their play. Some choose the dramatic play center, where they pretend to be shoppers; one child, the cashier, scans items with the toy cash register. Another group works cooperatively in the block center, discussing what they are building and carefully placing blocks so they will balance. On the playground, other children ride tricycles, pull wagons, and climb on equipment.
After returning from a field trip to the neighborhood fire station, the children demonstrate what they have learned through their energized play. Two children build a LEGO house with a family. One child gives the signal and the other child puts the figures into action, practicing their fire escape drill. Another group of children draws and talks about what they learned on the trip. In the reading nook, children choose from a variety of books about firefighters.
Do these scenarios sound like familiar classroom routines? Have you ever wondered about the underlying purposes of these activities? We recognize them as examples of what is now called developmentally appropriate practice, but how did these practices first find their way into early childhood classrooms? Who first tried them to determine if they are beneficial to children?
Fortunately, detailed records of early childhood educators throughout history, as well as their contributions to the field, have left us with a rich heritage of knowledge and understanding. Decades ago, practices that we now consider routine were regarded as experimental and controversial. Understanding our past as early childhood educators is key to securing a future of rich experiences for young children. In this column, readers will learn how three popular practices—circle time, free play, and field trips—originated and how they can continue to be used intentionally today.
Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852) and circle time
Translated into English, the German word kindergarten means “child’s garden.” Friedrich Froebel purposefully selected this word as the name for the first organized early childhood educational method. Established in Germany in 1837 (Cochran & New 2007), the revolutionary kindergarten provided experiences for children 4 to 6 years old, before they entered formal schooling. Froebel believed that, like a seed that has been planted, a young child needs to be nurtured in order to grow. The teacher cares for and protects a child just as a gardener tends to the growth of a plant. Like many other 18th and early 19th century scholars, Froebel believed that women, rather than men, would be better suited to nurturing children, so he trained women as teachers for the first kindergarten (Hinitz 2012), offering many of them their first opportunity to have a career (which was uncommon at the time).
Froebel’s philosophy for kindergarten emphasized a need for free self-expression, creativity, social participation, and motor expression (Morgan 2011). The first kindergartens featured games, songs and stories, gardening, and toy- and craft-like activities to stimulate children’s imaginations and develop their physical and motor skills. Froebel believed these experiences helped children transition from home to school and from infancy to childhood (Brosterman 2014).
Froebel’s kindergarten principles and practices came to the United States through German immigrants who had worked with Froebel and, soon thereafter, Americans who traveled to Germany to study his work. Materials were published in English to explain Froebel’s practices, and early kindergartens served as training institutions for teachers learning Froebel’s methods. Establishing kindergartens as part of the American educational system took time because the emphasis on children’s self-expression that was inherent in Froebel’s approach was different from American practices that stressed teaching the basics (Lascarides & Hinitz 2000).
One way Froebel’s influence is still seen in the modern American kindergarten (Reich 1994; Hinitz 2012) is the use of circle time as a means for children to play and learn through group activities. In Froebel’s kindergartens, children and teachers formed a ring and participated together in singing and movement games (Wellhousen & Kieff 2001). The day began with circle time to help children become alert and focused, and it ended the same way to reinforce classroom community. Circle time activities included music, singing, fingerplays, storytelling, marching, and movement games (Tovey 2013).
Circle time activities
Here are some ideas for implementing Froebelian circle time activities in today’s early childhood classrooms:
- Teach children how to form a circle that includes all children and adults.
- Begin and end each day with special songs during circle time to develop a familiar routine and give children a sense of security.
- Use circle time for a variety of activities to introduce new content and experiences.
- Include storytelling, fingerplays, singing, rhythm instruments, and music that initiates movement.
- Find other circle time activities written by Froebel and his followers in one of the free resources available online. (See “Resources.”)
The Snail Game
The Snail Game was a popular circle time activity in Froebel’s kindergarten. This excerpt is taken directly from the German to English translation (Froebel 1895, 254–55).
The children stand, side by side and hand in hand … in a large circle.… The play-leader now takes the hand of one child in the circle at any point he thinks best, breaks the circle, and leads this child, whom the rest easily follow, firmly clasping each other’s hands, always round the inner side of the circle till he has formed in his course a snail line, or rather a spiral line, and stands in the middle with all the children wound round him.… To this the children sing:
The Snail Song
Hand in hand, as all can see,
Like a little snail go we;
Always nearer, always nearer;
Always closer, always closer;
Always tighter, always tighter—
Till in closest union stand
All we children, hand in hand.
Patty Smith Hill (1868–1946) and free play
The childhood experiences of Patty Smith Hill, who became a kindergarten reformer, indirectly led to practices in the modern American kindergarten. Her rich play experiences as a child helped form her philosophy of early childhood education. Hill’s mother created spaces where her children could play freely indoors and outdoors. On the family playground, the children’s play materials included large boards, empty barrels, crates, and blocks. They freely explored the carpenter shop, hen house, wooded areas, and stream on the family’s property (Snyder 1972).
In the late 1800s, educators began looking beyond Froebel as the child study movement ushered in new ideas about how children develop and learn (Hall 1883). Hill was among the first in the United States who dared to suggest the Froebelian kindergarten was not aligned with the new field of scientific research on child development. She led the charge for drastic changes in kindergarten practices and engaged in open debates with Froebel disciples like Susan Blow (Snyder 1972).
Hill developed a kindergarten curriculum based on the idea of free play, or child-initiated activities; she preferred materials that could be used in multiple ways, depending on the child’s imagination and interests (Sherwood & Freshwater 2013). Teachers trained in this new approach introduced materials to children that were conducive to creativity, pretend play, and social development. Hill designed large blocks that were used to build playhouses or general stores; these were supplemented with toys such as dolls, animals, cookware, trucks, boats, and trains (Hinitz 2012).
Here are some ideas for implementing Hill’s free-play activities in today’s early childhood classrooms:
- Provide open-ended materials that children can use in multiple ways during their free play (such as shells, acorns, nuts, bolts, beads, buttons, tape, string, bottle caps, paper cups, cardboard tubes, clothespins, and more—but always be mindful of safety when giving young children small materials).
- Observe children at play indoors and outdoors to introduce materials that will enhance and extend their interests.
- Establish separate areas based on different types of play, such as block building, dramatic play, manipulatives, and outdoor spaces.
- Provide opportunities for children to play together and develop social and emotional skills through cooperation and negotiation.
Lucy Sprague Mitchell (1878–1967) and field trips
Innovative educator Lucy Sprague Mitchell built her novel practices around her belief that curriculum should be child-centered and promote not only cognitive learning but also physical, emotional, and social development. Rather than advocate for one specific method, she encouraged teachers to experiment with different approaches to teaching young children.
When Mitchell established Bank Street College for Teachers in 1916, her goal was “to study children—to find out what kind of environment is best suited to their learning and growth, to create that environment, and to train adults to maintain it” (Bank Street College of Education n.d.). Teachers-in-training were encouraged to experiment to find what methods worked best for supporting growth of the “whole child.” In 1943, the New York City Board of Education made an unprecedented request by asking Bank Street teachers to provide professional development workshops for the city’s public school teachers. In 1950, Mitchell published Our Children and Our Schools, extending her influence to educators across the country.
Mitchell believed in the power of experiential learning, in which children study “home and school in relation to the immediate environment” (Mitchell 1950, 206). The community surrounding the school was seen as fertile ground for learning. Students explored the inner workings of the school and the community through field trips, map making, and related activities. Children learned about the orientation of their classroom in relation to spaces such as the lunch room, principal’s office, school library, and playground. They created maps of the school’s relation to other buildings in the neighborhood. Field trips became a launching pad for topics the children were studying. Children’s newfound knowledge, based on authentic interaction, then became the basis for their dramatic play, art, and language experiences (Cochran & New 2007).
Mitchell’s approach to teaching social studies was considered an attack on the traditional elementary school curriculum, which concentrated on memorizing facts unrelated to children’s lives and experiences. Rather than teaching inflexible, preplanned units of study—such as community helpers, zoo animals, and holiday themes—Mitchell believed teachers should be given the freedom to generate curriculums that are relevant and interesting to the children in their classrooms (Seefeldt, Castle, & Falconer 2013).
Field trip activities
Here are some suggestions for implementing Mitchell’s ideas about field trips that require minimal resources:
- Provide small groups of children with chart paper so they can make a map of their classroom using symbols and labels to represent different areas.
- Expand children’s knowledge of the school by taking a tour of the school and investigating lesser known places, such as food preparation areas and storage closets. Cafeteria workers and custodians can talk with children about their daily routines and responsibilities. Help children create a complete school map.
- Go outside to observe the outer walls and windows of the classroom and school to give children a new perspective on how indoor and outdoor spaces align; then support the children in updating the classroom and school maps as needed.
- Plan a walking field trip around the school and neighborhood. Have the children write a story about what they observed and encourage them to draw, dramatize, or build with blocks to reflect what they learned.
Circle time, free play, and field trips are just three of the practices with long histories that are still used in classrooms today. Knowledge of their original intent invokes appreciation for the pioneers of early childhood education. More importantly, understanding the foundation of these practices helps today’s educators be more intentional as they plan educational environments and activities for young children.
Bank Street College of Education. n.d. “A Brief History.”www.bankstreet.edu/discover-bankstreet/what-we-do/history/.
Brosterman, N. 2014. Inventing Kindergarten. Grand Rapids, MI: Kaleidograph Design.
Cochran, M., & R.S. New, eds. 2007. Early Childhood Education: An International Encyclopedia, Volume 4: The Countries. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Daly, L., & M. Beloglovsky. 2014. Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf.
Dempsey, J., & E. Strickland. 2011. “Staff Workshop Teacher Handout: The ‘Whys’ Have It! Why to Include Loose Parts on the Playground.” Scholastic. http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/subarticle.jsp?id=4040 > 6 July 2011.
Field, S.L., & M. Bauml. 2014. “Lucy Sprague Mitchell: Champion for Experiential Learning.” Our Proud Heritage. Young Children 69 (4): 94–97.
Froebel, F. 1895. Friedrich Froebel's Pedagogics of the Kindergarten: Or, His Ideas Concerning the Play and Playthings of the Child. Trans. Josephine Jarvis. New York: D. Appleton.
Hall, G.S. 1893. The Contents of Children's Minds on Entering School. New York: E.L. Kellogg.
Hinitz, B.F. 2012. “History of Early Childhood in Multicultural Perspective.” Chap. 1 in Approaches to Early Childhood Education, eds. Roopnarine & Johnson, 3–33. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Pearson.
Lascarides, V.C., & B.F. Hinitz. 2000. History of Early Childhood Education. Rep. ed. New York: Routledge.
Mitchell, L.S. 1950. Our Children and Our Schools: A Picture and Analysis of How Today’s Public School Teachers are Meeting the Challenge of New Knowledge and New Cultural Needs. 2nd ed. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Morgan, H. 2011. Early Childhood Education: History, Theory, and Practice. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Reich, L.R. 1994. “Circle Time in Preschool: An Analysis of Educational Praxis.” European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 2: 51–59.
Seefeldt, C., S.D. Castle, & R.D. Falconer. 2013. Social Studies for the Preschool/Primary Child. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Sherwood, E.A., & A. Freshwater. 2013. “Patty Smith Hill and the Case Study of Betty Kirby.” Chap. 8 in The Hidden History of Early Childhood Education, ed. B.F. Hinitz, 159–180. New York: Routledge.
Smuts, A.B. 2006. Science in the Service of Children, 1893-1935. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Snyder, A. 1972. Dauntless Women in Childhood Education, 1856-1931. Washington, DC: Association for Childhood Education International.
Tovey, H. 2013. Bringing the Froebel Approach to Your Early Years Practice. New York: Routledge.
Wellhousen, K., & J. Kieff. 2000. A Constructivist Approach to Block Play in Early Childhood. Albany, NY: Delmar.
Bruce, T. 2012. Early Childhood Practice: Froebel Today. New York: Sage.
Nelson, E.M. 2012. Cultivating Outdoor Classrooms: Designing and Implementing Child-Centered Learning Environments. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf.
Vascellaro, S. 2011. Out of the Classroom and into the World: Learning from Field Trips, Educating from Experience, and Unlocking the Potential of Our Students and Teachers. New York: The New Press.
Karyn W. Tunks, PhD, is a professor of early childhood education at the University of South Alabama, in Mobile, Alabama, where she teaches courses in history of early childhood education, curriculum approaches, and early literacy. She has published four books and numerous articles on topics related to teaching young children.