ANITA MORTLOCK shares her research about the common practice of ‘mat time’ in New Zealand schools.

Teaching a class of children on the mat is a common practice in our schools. In fact, a survey issued to teachers in year 2 classrooms as part of my doctoral study showed that many children spend approximately a quarter of classroom time sitting on the mat; however, despite it taking up a significant percentage of a child’s day, we know very little about its use. The following article reports the findings of my project and is based on classroom observations, interviews with teachers and children, and a large-scale survey.

Teaching and learning

Teachers used mat time mostly for discussion of rules, explaining a learning activity, and curriculum instruction. Their key goals were to enhance children’s language and listening skills, to improve their social understandings, and to foster a sense of group cohesion.

Although each of these goals and uses are useful, only 18 per cent of the teachers indicated that children were consistently attentive at mat time. In addition, a significant number of teachers reported that some children routinely do not participate; therefore such children might not be taking on the desired learning or practising the language skills necessary for speaking in large group situations.

Helping children to pay attention

Many teachers indicated that they used reward systems to encourage children’s attentive behaviours. International literature suggests that rewards can be an effective strategy; however, they must be maintained. In fact, as soon as reward systems are withdrawn, children appear to be less attentive and more disruptive.

The children themselves offered some useful insights into why they might not always pay attention. Some children found the mat uncomfortable to sit on, which caused them to fidget. The majority of children found the disruptions of other children distracting. In fact, this was their most cited dislike of mat time. Another issue was that children found paying attention more difficult the further away from the teacher they sat (unless they were seated in a circle). In addition, the children unequivocally wanted to take part in active ways rather than merely listening, unless they were being read to.

Active participation was a significant theme, particularly when children referred to whether or not mat time was interesting. Whereas teachers identified interesting topics, children often talked about interesting activities. Activities that were most attractive to children were those that enabled their active participation, such as singing, or pair discussion.

Involving everyone

Even though the children wanted to take on active roles there were several things that prevented their participation. One was the difficulty of teachers’ responsiveness to individual children’s needs. For example, when teachers asked a question that required a specific correct answer, only certain children were able to answer it quickly.

This meant that the participation of many other children was automatically precluded. It also meant that there was an element of competitiveness, which deterred several children. Mia, one of the study children, most eloquently described her anxiety by saying, “When I get something wrong everyone kind of looks at me and I don’t really like it. The main thing is that I think people might tell everyone.”

This shows that we need to ask questions that require all of the children to engage in critical discussion, rather than requiring a small number to answer a question quickly.

Some of the time, teachers asked the class to form pairs or small groups in order to foster discussion. While this also had the additional benefit of involving everyone some of the children found themselves left over. At times, this had a profound impact on those children who were affected, making them feel rejected and without a sense of belonging. However, when the teacher selected the pairs or groups it assisted such children in forming relationships and gave children the opportunity to find common interests. The importance of this was illustrated by one of the study children, Areta, who said, “Some people get some more new friends.”


  • Mat time is often used for a range of purposes in junior classrooms but few teachers claim that children are attentive.
  • We can enhance children’s attentiveness by facilitating activities that involve everyone.
  • Involving everyone might also improve classroom relationships.

Source: Education Review

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