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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Focus at mat time, plus a funny handwashing song

Today I walked into a preschool I'd never been to before.  I asked the staff my usual questions about the kids- how old the children were and what their names were, who had special needs, who would need help to focus at mat time and so on.  I was told that mat time was something of a problem, as several children simply wouldn't sit still and ran around the room, distracting all the others, and that the staff were wondering how best to deal with this.

By the time 'mat time' actually happened a couple of hours later, I'd done some pretty intensive preparation by learning all the children's names and trying to form some basic relationships, particularly with the children who had been identified as needy or 'difficult'- and just as well, because I ended up running that mat time by myself.

How did I form relationships with 18 kids I didn't know in a few hours? 

By listening to what they said to each other, and to me.
By going over to children who were crying on arrival, asking them questions, listening to the answers and trying to put their feelings into words for them.
By helping them when they asked me to, or offering help if they were obviously struggling with something.
By diplomatically extending on their own play ideas or starting up something new in a quiet corner, and then standing back and butting out- like making a simple ramp for the kids who were playing with the cars.
By initiating conversations and always being really honest with them- like telling them I was having trouble because I was new, so could they please tell me their names?  And who's that kid over there?  And do you know why Amie is crying?

You won't run effective mat times by sitting on your backside drinking coffee or chatting with your colleagues while the children play, believe me!  You have to BE THERE with the kids, interacting and being completely enthusiastic and authentic, gaining their trust and discovering their interests.

Anyway... back to mat time.  You'd better have it worked out in your head before you start... and you'd better be prepared to change your mind, divert and rethink on the run!

The best way to get kids to the mat is to do something intriguing.  Sometimes I start singing at the top of my voice.  Sometimes I start a game of Copycat.  Sometimes I walk around like the town crier with a bell, announcing a puppet show or similar diversion.  Sometimes I flick the lights to get attention, then start walking to the mat talking to the kids about something fascinating... Whatever you choose to do, remember you'll get more flies with honey.  Walking around telling kids to go to the mat NOW and getting cross with those who don't is a recipe for the wrong atmosphere. Do something mad, and do it with complete confidence.

Today I started with a copycat song- to the tune of London Bridge... some of the kids had worked out that it was mat time and were already sitting, so to get attention I asked them to do the opposite!

Everybody standing up, standing up, standing up,
Everybody standing up, just like me...

I sang loudly!  I stood extravagantly, with my hands up in the air! And within moments I had 18 kids standing on the mat.  Now, get that energy out.  A few more verses...

Everybody hands on heads... hands on knees... hands on cheeks... wiggle your hips...

...all the time doing the actions to match, then ending with...

Everybody sitting down... a VERY QUIET VOICE, and SLOWLY.

Result? 18 kids sitting down quietly on the mat.  Go on playing copycat, but start doing actions which aren't what I'm singing- like everybody hands on lips  and put my hands on my ears instead.  Hysterical laughter as they get it wrong, then fix it... 18 kids still focussed.

Act II: Time for my favourite co-ordination game...  all recited to something of a rap beat, complete with swaying body...
Touch your knee... (one hand on knee)... touch your knee... (other hand on other knee) 
... swap hands!   
Touch your knee... (one hand on knee)... touch your knee... (other hand on other knee) 
... swap hands!  
Touch your knee... (one hand on knee)... touch your knee... (other hand on other knee)
... swap hands! ... swap hands!  ... swap hands!  And swap, and swap, and swap, and swap, and STOP! 

Repeat with a few other body parts... tell them how great they are! Crossing the midline: tick. Self-esteem boost: tick.

Act III: I told them I've got a secret!! Irresistible.  I'd prepared a mystery guessing game by putting something inside one of the 2-piece Duplo animals.  We played a version of 20 questions, with me giving clues as to what the whale had for lunch...  it's an animal... it's grey... it goes <trumpeting noise>... 18 children still focussed.  Cognitive development, communication and problem solving: tick.

Once they'd discovered the elephant inside, we sang '5 Grey Elephants' using the other 3 elephants I'd hidden behind me... oh, hang on! I don't have enough elephants! We'll all have to be elephants! (Off we go, expending some more energy walking along a line like elephants balancing; the moment they start to lose focus, I speed the song up and race back to the mat- 18 children sitting down laughing.) Gross motor, locomotor: tick.

Then the whale reappeared and we sang 'Slippery Fish'- my version ends with the whale getting so fat he falls over, which I attribute to him eating too much McDonalds (more laughter).  Expressive arts/music: tick. Health- food: tick.

Time to wash hands for lunch!  I used this great song, which the kids ALWAYS adore.


(start by buzzing- bzzzzzzzzzzzz..... follow imaginary bee with your eyes... then cup hands together as though it's caught, and stop buzzing!)

I caught a little baby bumblebee,
Won't my mummy be so proud of me?
I caught a little baby bumblebee-
(spoken) OUCH! It stung me!!!

(clapping hands in time to squish the bee)
I'm squishing up my baby bumblebee,
Won't my mummy be so proud of me?
I'm squishing up my baby bumblebee-
(spoken) EURGHHHHH! I've got squished-up bumblebee all over my hands! What'll I do??

(class will say WASH THEM!)

(go through motions of turning on tap, wetting hands, getting soap...)
(palms) I'm washing off my baby bumblebee,
(backs of hands) Won't my mummy be so proud of me?
(between fingers, wrists) I'm washing off my baby bumblebee-
(spoken) Oh! My hands are all wet! What'll I do??

(class will say DRY THEM!)

(go through motions of getting paper towel, drying hands...)
(palms) I'm drying off my baby bumblebee,
(backs of hands) Won't my mummy be so proud of me?
(between fingers, wrists) I'm drying off my baby bumblebee-
(spoken) Oh-oh! I threw the paper on the floor! What should I do??

(class will say PUT IT IN THE BIN!)

(spoken) Now I'm ready for lunch! (hands up in air) YIPPEE!

You can find the tune here:

baby bumblebee tune

Self-help- hygiene: tick.

Mat time done... off they went to the bathroom, and the other teachers had even been moved to take photographs (to prove to the teacher I was replacing that all these kids who 'wouldn't sit down' actually DID sit down for a good 10 minutes).

It's all about enthusiasm, preparation and knowing the mood and interests of the kids.  And did you notice how much laughter was involved?  Don't take yourself too seriously!  Kids will remember things better if they had fun.  Mat time can be the best time of everyone's day- it's certainly my favourite!


  1. This is wonderful! Right now, I'm only a substitute teacher but my favorite grade is preschool! Thank you so much!

  2. Thanks Amber- I'm glad you found it useful. If you like I can put up some more mat time activities- my brain is full of them!! What do you find most handy- songs, activities, the categorisation of learning... or the philosophy behind it all?

  3. I am a director of a nursery school,I enjoyed your mat time, will share with my teachers

  4. Thaks Chris- I'll put some more ideas up soon.

  5. Can't resist replying to another of your postings - am addicted!! I love the bumble bees song, my Norwegian friend taught me it & we love singing it in my class. I agree that when you start teaching in a pre-school setting the carpet/mat/story room time is the most daunting aspect - they never do show you how to have up to 26 3-4 year olds give you their undivided attention for 30 mins when you're training now do they. Most substitutes struggle with this part of the day. Good to find someone else on the same wave length :)

  6. I loved this little post and loved your hand washing song idea, squishing the bug and all. Thanks for sharing.
    For Healthy Kids, Ms. Dawn

    PS If you or any of your readers need some fun hand washing activity sheets and more, by signing up @ my blog they come to you free. A nice little creative outlet for me that helps provide a quick alternative activity for early childhood educators. They are educational too...

  7. would love more mat time ideas please am wuth 4 1/2 - 5 year olds and its a half hour mat time :-)

    1. Half an hour is quite a long mat time, Vickie! -but I used to get up to that length sometimes if the kids were focussed still. One thing I often do is read the same fairytale each day for a week. Then the next week, I 'make mistakes' when I'm reading the story and the kids 'correct' me, with much hilarity. So for example, Goldilocks walks out of her house and meets the Big Bad Wolf on the path... it takes a little bit of rehearsal, but the kids love it.

      Acting out the fairy tales is another one- get a child volunteer to be the wolf in Three Little Pigs, for example, and let them say the lines like "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down". We had great fun doing this with The Three Bears and talked about high, low and medium voices for Baby Bear, Father Bear and Mother Bear.

      Hope that gives you some more ideas!

  8. This is awesome! I teach Sunday School in a tiny room full of kids. Only a couple of them will sit for the lesson. What would you do? They have to listen, but the ones that are, can't because the others aren't listening.

  9. hi there and thanks so much for these wonderful ideas. you certainly are an inspiration. I would along with others love some more ideas for mat time and ways to keep children focused. Cheers lisa

  10. Today it's hard to imagine a world without our much loved and loyal friend, the teddy bear. The teddy bear has only been with us for just over 100 years, making his first appearance in 1902. Then, in one of those impossible to explain coincidences, the teddy appeared in the same year on opposite sides of the world - in Germany and the USA. adorable teddy bear names


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