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