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The How and Why of Using Small Groups in Preschool

written by: Kara Bietz • edited by: Amanda Grove • updated: 9/26/2012

What is the importance of small group activities for preschoolers? What are the benefits for teachers and children? How do I separate children into small groups? Read on for the answers to these questions and more.

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    Why Plan Small Group Activities?

    Young children function best when working in small groups due to their still developing social and cognitive skills, so the bulk of the preschool day should be devoted to individual or small group activities. There are several benefits to planning learning centers for both the children and the teachers. When children work with only a few other children at a time, they learn important lessons about cooperation, compromise and the give and take of conversation. Also, when working in small groups with an adult leader, children are able to receive the more focused attention they need for completing complex tasks and activities.

    The benefits of small group activities for teachers are plenty. When children work in small groups, this will free up teachers to focus on a few children at a time. Teachers may be able to observe children more closely. Also, teachers have the choice to place children in groups based on ability or interests. This will make observation and jotting down anecdotal notes very easy for the teacher.

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    What Will It Look Like In My Classroom?

    One of the easiest ways to keep children working in small groups is to separate your classroom into learning centers. Most preschool classrooms are set up in this manner, with several learning "stations" or centers, scattered around the room. Learning centers are usually only large enough to fit five to six preschoolers, and only contain enough materials to occupy a small group.

    For example, you may have five separate learning centers in your classroom: manipulatives, home living, art, blocks and the computer. Each center will utilize shelving and other furniture to separate it from the rest of the classroom. In order to guarantee that the entire class will not be playing in the art center at the same time, try some classroom management strategies for having children move strategically through the centers during the day. For example, assign children a color as they walk in the classroom door in the morning. Assign five different colors, each designating a small group assignment for the day. The red "team" will begin at the art center, while the blue "team" will start off in blocks, etc. After a pre-determined amount of time, have children move with their "teams" to the next center.

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    A Few Suggestions

    Focused learning and cooperative play are the hallmarks of small group activities. The preschool classroom is the perfect place to begin learning the give and take of working together with other students, as well as really diving into projects and activities that you really love. Here are some suggestions for small group activities that will allow teachers to observe students in action as well as move about the classroom freely to lend a helping hand as necessary:

    Art: Cooperative murals - Provide a small group of children with a large sheet of butcher paper as well as markers or crayons. Ask them to create a street scene, or draw a picture of the school and playground. Make sure all children are able to express their ideas and children work together to create one picture.

    Blocks: Building the Zoo - To incorporate an animal theme, have children work together to create a zoo for some plastic animals. Have the group decide who will be the chief architect, as well as who will be in charge of the elephant house, the bird habitat or the petting farm.

    Manipulatives: Board Games - Small groups are ideal for introducing simple board games to preschoolers such as Chutes and Ladders, Cootie or CandyLand. Teacher made file folder games are wonderful for preschoolers, also.

    Dramatic Play: Restaurant - Open up a pretend restaurant in your dramatic play center! Allow children to work in small groups to create a menu, decorate the restaurant, set the tables and cook the food. Have children decide who will be the head chef, the maitre'd, the waiter and the customers.

    Reference: Taylor, Barbara J., Early Childhood Program Management. Macmillan Publishing (1993).