Getting Started

“The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy.”
Maria Montessori

Two years ago I had the opportunity to visit a class of 5 year olds in Reggio Emilia, Italy. They had just finished their morning group meeting and were beginning their ‘work period’. Twenty- four children were scattered around the classroom, which included a loft area containing unit blocks and a large bathroom with a washbasin that children used for water explorations. Block building, art, dramatic play, math activities, water play…all of this was happening in a room that buzzed with the sound of happy and engaged voices. What particularly amazed me was that this period lasted for two hours and children did not appear to be wandering from one activity to another. Occasionally, a child would walk over to another area to observe or chat with the teacher, but then he returned to his own activity, seemingly ‘recharged’ by the encounter.

Although I’m not suggesting a two- hour choice time, I do encourage teachers to expect children to stay at their chosen center for the entire period, rather than shifting from one activity to another. Concentration and focus are important elements in the learning process. It is logical for teachers to expect that children will become engrossed in an activity over an extended time period. However, as we well know, this doesn’t ‘just happen’ in a classroom setting. It takes a lot of teacher preparation, expectation, instruction and patience.

At the start of the year, I scheduled a relatively short Choice Time. I wanted children to be asking for more time rather than wondering what to do at their centers after ten or fifteen minutes. Little by little, the period was extended to an hour, sometimes longer. By late winter and spring children were often so engaged in their play and explorations that they usually continued at the same center for two, sometimes three, consecutive days.

I suggest that teachers always begin Choice Time with a class meeting. Think of this as a group planning time. Perhaps the discussion might be on how a new material might be used in one of the centers. It might focus on a problem that the teacher has noticed or one that the children have complained about. Clean-up time immediately comes to mind as a challenging activity for a group of young children. This might require a discussion and plan that takes place over a few pre-choice time meetings. The crucial word here for these discussions is ‘brief’ because children are eager to go off and play in their centers.

I know that many teachers rightfully will wonder how they can maintain a Choice Time where children are naturally focused and engaged in one area and where they don’t lose interest and walk off to join another center. There’s probably also questions about the child who has a meltdown after getting ‘closed out’ of a desired choice. These concerns and questions, (and I’m sure that there are many more that I haven’t mentioned), are very understandable and need to be taken very seriously. I’m going to attempt to share many of my ideas, experiences and suggestions in the next few weeks.

For today, I would like to share some thoughts about setting up and maintaining centers. The organization of each center is so important for encouraging extended explorations and innovative work. Think carefully about what might possibly happen in the center. What are the basic materials necessary for beginning explorations? Start simple. For example, in the art center, be sure that there’s a variety of paper, enough scissors for about 6 – 8 children, nice, new crayons, glue sticks, and maybe some colored chalk. Don’t put out an overwhelming amount of materials and add new supplies, little by little. You might want to have a whole-class art lesson on using paper strips for collage and sculptures. Then you could tell the children that there will be a basket of paper strips in the art center just in case they want to try something new during Choice Time.

You could introduce a water center by first giving partners a small pan of water to explore, using stirring sticks, sponges and straws. The entire class could do this exploration and then, after collecting the materials, you might give children a chance to share their ‘discoveries’. Having perked their interest in water, you could tell them that you will be setting up a water table (you just need a plastic baby-bath basin on a table) for Choice Time. After children have had more opportunities to play and explore with the sticks and sponges, you might begin introducing new materials like funnels and tubes.

The idea is that the centers start out simple enough for children to explore and play without being overwhelmed but they are also ‘open’ enough to keep adding new materials to extend the possibilities.

All of the centers should have appropriate materials for writing such as paper, blank booklets, memo pads, list paper, chart paper, crayons, pencils, markers, etc. There also could be a space at that center where children might post or hang up work. My centers all had at least one basket of books that  somehow related to that area of concentration. I told the children that these were books for ‘inspiration’.

I tried to incorporate my classroom tables into the centers, rather than having a cluster of tables in the middle of the room. This served two purposes. Having the table in the center gave the area a more permanent ‘studio’ or ‘laboratory’ ambiance. Also, it was much easier for children to independently get started as soon as Choice Time began, rather than have me ‘assign’ tables or room spots for each center.

Room design is so important. The room set up literally speaks to the child, but that is yet another discussion!

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.

6 thoughts on “Getting Started

  1. Margaret N

    Thank you so much for your blog! I will be teaching a new type of pre-k class this fall (Tuition based pre-k at a public school) after being a stay home mom for 5 years. I taught 1st and 2nd grade before that, but have always been a big believer inquiry! I am a huge Reggio fan and I’m jealous of your upcoming trip. I have been reading everything I can get my hands on and your blog is the perfect mix of theory, examples, and encouragement! I will be the lone pre-k teacher at the elementary school and I am in serious need of a partner to discuss things and ideas as I set up this program. I am in Columbia, SC and I noticed one of my old professors will be making the trip to Reggio with you. Heidi Mills is awesome. So, I guess my question is, what books would you recommend for someone like me? I have been re-reading Regie Routman, Katie Wood Ray, Sharon Taberski, Brian Cambourne, Fountas and Pinnell, and Brenda Parkes because I just love them. I am new to discover Reggio Emilia, but I feel like I now have a name for the type of teacher I am. Thank you again for sharing your experiences with fellow teachers!

    1. Renee Post author

      Hi Margaret.
      I am really excited about meeting Heidi Mills. I love reading her works.

      Brian Cambourne has been my education idol for years and he came to my workshop at NCTE this past November. My knees actually began shaking when I saw him! He was really lovely and took my card afterwards. Since then he has used my powerpoint presentation with teachers in Australia. I feel so honored by that!

      In terms of books, I would recommend “Young Investigators: The Project Approach to the Early Years” by Judy Harris Helm and Lilian Katz and also “The Power of Projects” by Judy Harris Helm and Sallee Beneke. The teachers that I work with find these books to be really helpful. There’s also a lovely book called Beautiful Stuff (I can’t remember the author right now) that walks you through some possibilities for a lovely project on using recycled materials in your classroom.

      I hope that you will keep us posted on this blog on how your year is going!

      Best wishes,

  2. Margaret N

    Thank you so much! I am looking forward to my summer reading. :). I will have to share some of the projects my students come up with!

  3. Renee Post author

    I went to a workshop that Cathy Topal led at Lesley College a few years ago. It was wonderful! I wonder if she has a schedule of workshops? I think that some of the teachers that I work with would really like going to hear her.

    1. Amy Meltzer

      She is wonderful. I did the wood sculptures project with my kindergarten this year, and I use her kindergarten art curriculum that she wrote for Davis. I don’t know if she has a schedule – she has had a busy year with family stuff. I’m going to tell her about your blog and you can get her contact info through the Smith College campus directory. She teaches a great class there on teaching art to children.


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