Everything you need to know about group learning in early childhood blog header

Everything you need to know about group learning in early childhood

There are many ways to keep children organized while in your classroom. Research has shown that while small group instruction has a lot of benefits, it is one of the most underused and ineffectively implemented teaching strategies in early childhood classrooms. 

Surrendering some control over to young children as they learn together can be an intimidating concept. It’s understandable to feel like this format of teaching can add an element of chaos to your preschool classroom – yes, herding cats comes to mind! 

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However, giving children an opportunity to learn together can take your classes to places that you might not expect and turn out to be a rewarding experience as you can tailor your education to the needs of a smaller group.

What is group learning in preschool?

Before focusing on small group learning, let’s unpack what group learning is. It sounds straightforward – children learn together as a group. Aren’t we already doing that? 

There are two ways that educators can practice group learning:

  1. Whole group learning is the standard model of instruction where the educator leads the class and the group learns as a collective. This is the traditional, teacher-centric way of educating. 
  2. Small group learning is where the class is divided into smaller groups, led by an educator, to work on specific skills together. This involves input and collaboration from the children. 

How to organize a small group in childcare

Source: Giphy

Now that we’ve covered what small group learning is, let’s go over what it looks like in practice.

Structure of the group activity

Group learning does not mean unstructured learning. Here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • Educators should be involved in directing the activity
  • Take a step back and let children work through the activity – this is a great opportunity to document your observations and track the progress they are making  
  • Children should be socially engaged and work together
  • There should be a collective product that results from the group work 

Space and group size

preschool classroom sandbox

Keep the group size small by having a designated space in your classroom for these activities. A table that can accommodate 3 to 6 preschoolers is ideal – the group size should be so that you can give individualized instruction while children are working together. Having a designated space can also cue the children that it’s small group activity time and know what to expect.

A key thing to remember when working in smaller groups is to make the activity involved and engaging. This will minimize the opportunity for behavior problems that are a result of boredom. Transition into the activity prepared with a learning objective and materials. Being organized is really helpful to keep the children focused on the same thing. 

It’s also important to modify the activities to fit the needs of each group. The activity should be appropriately challenging so that your children aren’t breezing through it, but it shouldn’t be too hard that they feel frustrated. 

Mix it up! 

Keep things interesting by mixing up how you organize the groups or vary the group size. You can group children together by:

  • Similar abilities – so the group can work on improving together
  • Mixed abilities – where more advanced children can teach their peers
  • Interest – to help children build relationships within the peer group
  • Self-selected – let them choose from time to time too!

Benefits of group work in the classroom

There are many benefits to incorporating group learning into your daily schedule. Depending on the size of the group, educators can use this as an opportunity to support children based on their needs and skill levels. Individualized attention can have a positive impact on the rate that a child learns a skill.

Small group activities are also great for building healthy relationships in the classroom, regulating emotions, and developing empathy. Children learn through observing how their peers solve problems or interact with each other. In a mixed ability group, children can practice leadership skills as well as teamwork. 

Source: Giphy

Although these seem like intangible outcomes, they are key to supporting the socioemotional development of young children. In the long term, children that have learned to work together from a young age will be more confident, emotionally secure, and better decision-makers and problem solvers!

Preschool small group activity suggestions 

Here comes the next question: what activities should you do during small group time? Technically, all activities can be adapted to suit a small group setting by adding an element of collaboration. Here are a few suggestions based on some different learning areas.

Language and literacy

Building names or words with manipulatives shaped as letters – this can be magnets, letter beads, blocks, painting letters on rocks, or anything that could be shaped like a letter. This is a good way for children to learn spelling and help each other out in the process. 

Dramatic play

The children can play pretend as a small group. Pick a theme such as dinosaurs and fill up a sensory bin with sand, some plastic dinosaurs, paintbrushes, cameras, flashlights, toy chisels, and protective hats. Provide different roles for the children and have them work together to match the roles to the tools. Then, watch them dig up some dinosaurs!

Arts and crafts

Have children work together to create an art piece using the materials provided. Set up the space with a central sheet of paper. Then, have the children decide what they want to create as a group. This can be a fun way for kids to explore different media together – try paint, markers, oil pastels, crayon, stickers, and stamps – you can get really creative with these.

Now, you have everything you need to have small group activities in your classroom! How often do you incorporate small group activities? Do you organize them by ability or randomly? What are your favorite activities to work on in a small group setting? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!  

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!