How to Get Kids to Sit During Story Time

As you may know, I’ve recently become obsessed with finding out what people are searching for on my blog. Here’s the latest question: how do you get several small children who have the attention spans of a gnat to sit quietly in a circle and listen attentively to the riveting story you are reading to them?

The answer: You don’t.

Well, not totally. There are a few tricks, but we have to accept that sometimes (and for certain kids especially if they’re under two), they’re just not gonna sit. And when they do, like my Tornado did yesterday, I say “Yeay yeay yeay!!” and hug and kiss them and thank them for sitting. And then he stayed for 45 seconds and was gone.

And two of them are fighting over a toy and one is sitting on the wrong mat so the owner of said mat is screaming and kicking the other one, and you’ve already had it with circle time so why even bother?

I remember a (frazzled) provider who came to one of my trainings and really wanted to know how to do a proper circle time. I said if it’s not working just try something else for a while. She was so concerned when she told me, “But the state says it’s required.”

There are a lot of things that the state requires of two-year-olds that two-year-olds are simply not going to do.

But you should have a circle time, and it does work for certain kids. Even if you have two wandering around, let them go. It’s worth it for the kids who want to be there (the twins tell their mother every day that circle time was their favorite part of the day, even if we didn’t have a circle). And eventually the others may or may not get interested and join in, and eventually they’ll get older too and then they’ll sit down for you. As long as you have one child’s attention, go for it. It seems silly but then, so does a lot of other stuff in child care.

Here’s what you do. Have mats for them to sit on, each with their own assigned mat. For a while I was using a big pile of placemats that someone had donated to me and we spent fifteen minutes every day fighting over who got the best mat. (Of course, if you’re really smart, you’ll just get a bunch of mats that look exactly alike.) Some people use carpet scraps which is awesome, but my local carpet dealer “already donated ours to the library.” Thanks a lot.

Homemade mats and Miss M's feet

Yes I do everything with kids around

So being the resourceful and inventive provider that I am, I made mats! (Out of felt – see pic at right.)

My next trick to get them involved is singing the transition song:

(to the tune of “Have You Ever Seen a Lassie“)

It’s time to sit for circle
For circle for circle
It’s time to sit for circle so come to your mat

That gets most of them, at least the ones who want to come. If there’s a holdout, wait for the others to get settled and then announce that if someone is not on their mat you can’t sing their name in the name song! Then sing the name song to the same tune:

Oh here we are together
Together together
Oh here we are together how happy are we!
There’s Janey and Johnny and Jackie and Joey
Oh here we are together how happy are we!

If they don’t come, they don’t come – but they don’t get their name sung. As I sing their name I tickle them too, they love it.

Also sometimes I will hold the youngest one in my lap but I don’t like to encourage it because them they all want your lap and it’s not circle it’s a pig-pile.

Next I try to read a short book with good pictures. I don’t usually read all the words, but we talk about what’s on the pages. “What’s on that page? Pigs? What color are they? How many are there? Let’s count them. What do the piggies say? What are they doing? Are they happy? What’s going to happen to their food?” Or if it’s a good story I just skip to the high points, or tell it with a lot of emotion and they get interested.

I do try to get them to sit on their mats – at least fifteen times per circle. Our biggest problem is that they want to stand up and point at the pages of the books. I know it’s something they like to do, but I also know it’s something they like to do to be naughty. Because as soon as someone stands up you get “I can’t SEEEEEE” and it’s all fun and games from there. So I just keep reminding/asking them to stay on their mat. “I can’t keep reading until we’re all sitting down!”

(Keep in mind that some days – nobody will sit down. Tell them you gave it a shot but circle’s over, we’ll try again tomorrow, and move on to the next. Do not blame yourself.)

Now here’s a good trick: whoever did the best job sitting during the book gets to be the first to pick a song to sing. I got the idea for these song sheets from yet another mentor, Dolores.

Yeah, Dolores laminated hers

More examples of my awesome drawing skills!

She was the person who encouraged me to have a circle time. She was shocked when I said I didn’t. “Why not!?” she demanded. I said, “Why bother? They won’t sit down!” So the very next week she showed up with her song sheets and showed me just how they would sit down. And she was right.

After singing these songs with lots of dance and hand movements, we get to put on real music. Something I do every day is a bunch of songs from Kira Willey’s “Dance for the Sun.” It’s yoga for kids and they really do it, I swear!

And if you followed that link – yeah, I know it’s kinda annoying how beautiful, athletic, talented, and zen she is.

Then I have a ton of kids’ cds that we pick and choose from. I have a rainy day song by my friend Dennis where we jump around on construction paper puddles. (If you follow the link, click Bow Wow Baby, track 10, “The Rain Came Down.”)

Another good resource is Wee Sing because they have games that go with the songs. Or NIEHS or Songs for Teaching. You can also go to the library – hundreds of children’s CDs, if you can copy them you’re golden. (Sorry children’s music artists – we providers don’t make a lot of money.)

Honestly, singing and dancing is the biggest part of circle time. I stretch out the song charts and dancing for as looooong as I can, especially in these cold winter months. If you have those cool little egg shakers you can pass them out occasionally and play with the different rhythms. None of these activities is more important than another, it’s just the fact that you’re all together and you’re really connecting with them. (And yeah, there are a hundred learning benefits but that’s another post.)

So, good luck and I hope some of these tricks work for you. Remember if you have two or three kids sitting on mats listening to you, and two or three wandering around – it’s OK. Let the wanderers go and just focus on the kids in front of you – they’re happy to be there, they’re learning, and you’re giving them some really great preparation for when they get to school.

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3 thoughts on “How to Get Kids to Sit During Story Time

  1. It’s all about the singing – they sang the Clean Up song when cleaning their room at 5:30 am – will wonders never cease?!! I owe it all to you.

  2. I really enjoyed this idea for creating seating mats, it seems that the tape on the carpet for assigned seating gets picked off and looks pretty roughed up, in a short amount of time. I will definitely be using this idea, thanks for sharing!

    • Awesome Miss Tammy! Thank you! The felt gets pilled up eventually but these are fun, and the kids help me pick them out and sort them and laugh hysterically when I try to give them to the wrong people. This is a popular topic, I think I need to explore it again. Have fun with your kiddos!

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