Exploration is what you do when you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s what scientists do every day. If a scientist already knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t be discovering anything, because they already knew what they were doing. (Neil de Grasse Tyson)
I’ve been hearing so many reports about Kindergarten teachers not being allowed to include Choice Time in their programs or only giving children 20 minutes at the end of the day for play. This is so upsetting and harmful to young children. Because of this lack of opportunities for play, I’m taking a new look at and reviewing an older blog entry. Hopefully teachers and parents will read what I write and share it with their administrators.
Choice Time is not a time to give children tasks. So then, what, in my opinion, is Choice Time?
It is a wonderful opportunity for children to direct their own play and therefore, their own learning. The teacher, of course, plays an important role by carefully setting up centers with materials that provoke investigations. However, it is the child who discovers and determines ways of using the materials.
Consider the block center. If you watch a group of children building towers, spaceships, and castles in the block center, you will see them developing in so many important ways—physically, mentally, and socially. First, children building with blocks are physically active. Often, children are in almost constant motion—getting blocks, arranging blocks, and playing with the castle while it’s being constructed and after it’s built. They are also mentally engaged as they propose and revise plans, “What if we put the big blocks around our spaceship to protect it?,” and also as they reflect on what is and isn’t working, “See, the big blocks are working. The small blocks aren’t falling!” And like all children who build together with blocks, there are interpersonal challenges and opportunities for learning to collaborate and negotiate with others.
Children who are building with blocks are also developing many conceptual, disciplinary understandings related to their play. They experiment with balance, stability, and aesthetic appreciation as they arrange blocks on top of or next to one another. They practice mathematical and scientific thinking as they classify blocks according to size, weight, and shape or as they search for just the right piece to add to a structure. They become familiar with geometric shapes such as triangles, arcs, rectangles, and squares. And they practice communication skills as they collaborate and negotiate while building a structure together.
Many classes seem to short-change the science center, creating only an attractive display. It’s my experience that children find fascinating ways of exploring if it’s set up and introduced well. When planning the science center, it’s helpful to think about your students and the experiences they will most likely bring with them to school. This is important because if children can access prior knowledge, it will help them feel successful in their first explorations in the center. Since geographic location is the one thing all your students will have in common, it’s a good place to start planning. A seashell exploration made sense for one particular group of students who lived so close to the ocean. However shells are probably not the best choice for children in the middle of rural Iowa. A soil or rock exploration might possibly be a better fit in such a location.
For this center, materials can be those that are easy to obtain, inexpensive, and open-ended enough for children to be innovative in their explorations. It’s also important that children be able to work with the materials both independently and safely. If the teacher has to hover too close as children use the center, they will come to be dependant and less likely to guide their own investigations. While every group of children is different, here are some tried and true materials and topics that reflect the interests and curiosity of most children: seashells, snails, and hermit crabs; magnets; seeds and pods; leaves, branches, tree pods; plants and flowers; water; color; sand, pebbles, and rocks; life cycles (butterflies; frogs; mealworms); baby chicks in an incubator; bird feathers, bones and nests; shadows; insects; snails.
Without a doubt, after just a few weeks in school, teachers will have all kinds of ideas for science explorations that make sense for their particular group of children and their interests. The possibilities are really endless and very often new ideas arise from children’s questions. For example, in April of 2010, one my first-grade students brought in a newspaper article about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. As we discussed the article, the children were both disturbed and fascinated by the challenge of cleaning up the water. We decided to become oil-clean-up scientists and conduct experiments in the science center. We filled pans with water and dripped varying amounts of oil into them, then tried to clean the oil from the water using a variety of materials. The most successful straining implement turned out to be a bird’s feather, which led us to wonder what happened to the ducks in the water. Did the oil stick to their feathers as it stuck to the feather in our experiment? This question led to more questions and research on the effects of oil spills on the natural environment. In the end, a group of children conveyed what they’d learned in a letter to the oil company responsible for the spill!
In my book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, I focus on more centers and a lot more information on setting up centers and observing children at play.
When interest in a center wanes, it opens up a few possibilities. A new material might be added to the center, provoking interest. If shells are at the science center, a tank with hermit crabs or snails can be introduced.
It might be time to retire that center,at least for the time being. Perhaps the teacher could present the children with observations of how she noticed a lack of interest in the center. The children might come up with ideas for “remodeling” that area to make it more interesting. They could brainstorm for different ways that the center could be used; what might take place at that activity? Perhaps at a Read-Along center the children might suggest having drawing paper so that they could draw pictures that the story brought to mind. The teacher might suggest adding an iphone or tape recorder to the center so that children could tell and record stories for other children to hear. On the other hand, they might agree that the center is no longer interesting to them and suggest putting it away.
One year when my kindergarten class was in the midst of a long and exciting study of bridges, I noticed that the bridge constructions were becoming more and more intricate, taking up all of the space in the block center.
Abutting this area was our very under-utilized dramatic play center. I thought that it might make sense to close up the dramatic play area and extend the block center. I was so sure that the children would appreciate this change since they practically never went into dramatic play during this period. I shared my thoughts with the class and to my great surprise there was an uproar of dissent. Absolutely nobody wanted me to take away what we called “the pretend center.” One child suggested that we make it a smaller pretend center. I questioned whether there would be anything that they could do in a small pretend center but the children thought that it could be a little store. After two days of discussions, it was decided that we would open up a little bookstore and that we could make the block area a little bit bigger. Unexpectedly, we were now beginning a mini-inquiry study of bookstores!
We visited a bookstore in the neighborhood, interviewed the workers and the bookstore owner, sketched and discussed the arrangement of the books in the store and stood outside the store observing, drawing and photographing the way the store looked from the street. A few weeks were spent transforming the dramatic play area into a bookstore. Because it was a little bookstore, children who chose the writing center were busy writing little books. Our classroom library was searched for little books to add to the store collection. Children built an awning, made signs, constructed a cash register and made paper money, and wrote labels for the shelves, organizing the little books by subjects, just as they saw when they visited the neighborhood bookstore. This exciting curricula detour lasted a few weeks and shows what can happen when children are challenged to consider and solve a classroom problem. The students were taking ownership of an important classroom issue.
Choice Time is part of kindergarten because it is essential that children have opportunities to play, investigate, explore, socialize, collaborate, think out of the box, play with a box, create…. have fun!