Shhh! You walk into the room and 15 small children, all sitting cross-legged in a circle, turn to look at you and then return to the matter at hand.

Circle time, as it is known in playgroups and nurseries throughout the country, is an opportunity for small children to focus on a very important matter: communication. Of course, they wouldn't put it like that.

Instead, they might say: "Phoebe's talking about going on a plane."

The most interesting thing about circle time is how focused the children are.

There are simple, understandable rules (don't children love the security of rules?):

1. Only one person speaks at a time.

2. No interrupting.

3. Everyone makes eye-contact with the speaker.

4. Everyone listens.

It is an enormously useful tool for a teacher or playleader because, if the circle isn't broken (and it rarely is in experienced hands), she or he will have the children's complete concentration, which is vital for delivering important messages.

A circle is a universal symbol which children can understand. It is unbroken (no interruptions); there are no leaders, so it reinforces equality; it encourages togetherness, the beginnings of social groups.

More prosaically, it is used to encourage children to share their experiences with their peers. Speaking in public is number one on the stress lists of most adults and yet it is a skill which four-year-olds nationally are mastering.

Just as important, circle time reinforces active listening (keep your eyes on me), which prompts questions (hands shoot up) and the genuine sharing of experience.

Through this, children learn that other people are similar to them but different, with different experiences, different backgrounds and different cultures.

Despite this, they are all entitled to be treated with equal courtesy and respect. That is the function of the unbroken circle.

This apparently simple exercise encapsulates three of the Early Learning Goals: communication, knowledge and experience of the world, and personal, social and emotional development.

It is all too easy to think of communication in educational terms as referring only to reading and writing, but it includes conversation - talking and listening to find out about how other people live and the ways in which they are different from and similar to you.

These are learned skills, requiring concentration which the children develop through exercises as talkers and listeners.

Think how difficult it is for the listeners not to interrupt but to hold back their contribution until the end.

They are learning self-control and that other people have rights that deserve our respect.