by Deborah Stipek, Stanford University
It is a rare preschool that doesn’t have a daily routine of circle time, often at the beginning of the day. It provides a time for children to transition from home to school and to get settled and oriented for the day.
But how valuable is circle time? And how might teachers use it in ways that engage young children and develop their mathematical thinking?
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) encourages instruction in language, literacy, and math, as well as science and social studies. Other priorities include helping children develop fine and gross motor skills, positive personal health habits, self-regulation, and social skills. Finding time to support children’s development on all of these dimensions requires taking advantage of every minute and finding ways to get two (or more) for the price of one.
Studies suggest that circle time could be used more effectively in most classrooms. Strategies for making circle time productive are worth investigating, considering that the typical daily circle time of 15-20 minutes adds up to about 45-60 hours over a 180-day year!
Although circle time is not necessarily considered instructional, it can be used effectively to promote a wide range of competencies, including math. A study in Chicago-area preschool classrooms, for example, found that the amount of talk about math during circle time was a significant predictor of growth in children’s conventional math knowledge over the course of the school year. 
A recent question about calendar time on NAEYC’s community platform, Hello, quickly became the most active thread. Consensus was that though calendar has become ingrained in daily routine, there are better ways to support children’s learning.
The NAEYC community has this right. A recent study that observed circle time in 22 public preschools reported that, after morning message, the greatest amount of time was spent on calendar.  Yet calendar time tends to involve rote learning, such as reciting the days of the week, the months of year, or counting the days up to the present day. Many early childhood education experts have called into question the value of such calendar activities because months and days of the week can be abstract and not very meaningful to children if not put into a familiar or significant context.
If you do calendar, make sure that the mathematics are interactive, non-rote, and connect to other concepts children are learning in the classroom. “How many days until our field trip?” “Let’s see, the sunflower seed package said that we will be able to see the sunflower plant peek out of the ground in ten days. Let’s count and mark that on the calendar!” “The first caterpillar made its chrysalis today! Let’s count how many days the caterpillar ate before it was big enough to spin a chrysalis.”
What are fruitful math activities to introduce while children are gathered together in a group? Below are a few suggestions.
Choose a math activity for circle time that reinforces the math concepts being worked on during instruction. Whatever the math concept, an important goal is to engage children in conversation, taking care to encourage all children to participate. One strategy for engaging more children is to ask another child or the whole group whether they agree with the child who answered a math question. You can also ask another child to explain a child’s answer. “How do you think Shana figured that out? Can anyone think of a different way?”
Deborah Stipek is the former dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and current professor of education and faculty director of the Haas Center for Public Service. She chairs the DREME Network.
 Klibanoff, R., Levine, S., Huttenlocher, J., Vasilyeva, M., & Hedges, L. (2006). Preschool children's mathematical knowledge: The effect of teacher "math talk." Developmental Psychology, 42(1), 59-69.
 Bustamante, A., Hindman, A., Champagne, C., Wasik, B. (2018). Circle time revisited: How do preschool classrooms use this part of the day? The Elementary School Journal 118(4), 610-631.