Why should babies and toddlers in nursery and in Children's Centre Stay and Play groups be expected to take part in circle or group times?
There was an interesting debate about this amongst a group of nursery managers and trainers I was with recently. The starting point of the controversy was the American-designed Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale (ITERS), which awards a low score in part of the “Progamme Structure” scale if children under three years old are obliged to take part in a group activity. The implication of the scale is that it is better practice to allow toddlers to come and go freely, depending on their interest.
I agree with ITERS. Toddlers and babies can very much enjoy action songs, rhymes and books in small groups, and these can all contribute to their sense of being part of a group, and to their language development. But I do not feel that it is necessary to oblige them to join in.
Often, in a toddler room, if a member of staff starts to sing, children will naturally be drawn over and will enjoy taking part. Other children will gain a lot from watching from the edges. Even those who carry on with their play will probably be aware of the group time and, sooner or later, will start to take an interest.
But would such young children gain anything useful from being told off if they did not pay attention and take part? There is an argument that they need to be prepared for these sorts of activities, which will become more common as they become older. I do not find that convincing. If they have a negative experience in a group, might they end up being put off group activities in the future?
In a way, it is even worse when staff bring immobile babies into group times, sat on their laps. The babies have no way of expressing any sort of choice at a time like this. At least toddlers can show what they think, by moving themselves away. Babies can cry, I suppose - but then they risk being thought of as tired, teething, or hungry, anything rather than fed up of circle time.
It may seem strange to think about the importance of such young children being able to make choices. But to me, it is even stranger to expect very young children to conform to unnecessary routines in a nursery day. Babies and toddlers do not, in general, enjoy being in large groups or following instructions. I think it is much better to go with them as they are. Why force them into another way of being? In this respect, ITERS makes a very important point.
A version of the piece was first published in Nursery World