Why Choice Time?

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
Director, New York Hayden Planetarium

This week, I received emails from two teachers, each asking for advice and information about Choice Time. They want to know what kinds of Choices to offer, systems to keep Choice Time from becoming chaotic and unfocused, how often to schedule Choice Time, what they should be doing during Choice Time, how many choices to open at one time, etc. These are all important questions that I want to answer so as to give these teachers as much support as possible. But, that said, I think that it’s important to first explain why I value Choice Time and why I spent so much time planning for this part of my kindergarten and first grade curriculum.

Choice Time provides a point and place, during the school day, for children to make sense of the adult world. So much of what happens in the classroom today is driven by a standardized, scripted curriculum. Teachers are bound by pacing calendars and quantitative assessments. Because of these mandates, children have less and less opportunities to make decisions, even down to being able to chose what they will be writing each day. That is why it’s important to provide time for children to explore, theorize, create, and experience the frustration of learning through trial and error.

My ideal Choice Time involves an active teacher who, by listening closely to children’s conversations and monologues, becomes aware of many of their understandings, misunderstandings and wonderings. This invaluable insight into their world provides the teacher with the seeds for planting future classroom dialogues and inquiries.

In planning choice time centers, I would suggest keeping in mind your big goals for the year. I wanted children to develop independence and self-confidence. Making interdisciplinary connections and beginning to generate personal lines of inquiry and exploration is another important goal. I provided many opportunities for children to use reading, writing and mathematics in ways that would support their own, self-directed projects and activities. Children should understand that they could use classroom equipment and materials in new and innovative ways. There should be many opportunities within the center for children to expand and deepen their use of language to express ideas, discoveries and confusions. When there was a sense all of this happening, then I knew that I was on the right track and my Choice Time was becoming successful in meeting my goals.

In setting up choice time centers, I planned to leave opportunity for children to ‘set their own agendas’. In September, the centers were usually rather basic: blocks, dramatic play, play dough, an art center, water explorations, a science table perhaps with shells to explore. These were a few of the possible early centers. As the year proceeded, centers became more focused on the children’s particular interests and on class inquiry studies. For example what began in September as ‘water explorations’ might possibly become a ‘water-machine invention’ center where children were experimenting at constructing water machines. At the playdough table, instead of making traditional flour and salt playdough, children might be creating their own innovations on the traditional recipe, adding sand or sparkles to the batter to see what would happen.

Although I was setting up the centers and deciding, initially, what materials to include, my ‘message’ was “I wonder what interesting projects you are going to come up with?” We would have interesting class discussions centered on “what can we imagine doing with this new paper?” or “Are there any thoughts on what we might explore with our new microscope? What new materials will we need to bring to the science table to help you with your science investigation?”

Generally, there wasn’t a specific ‘task’ to be completed although, sometimes, there might be a particular focus for a center. For example, one year when my class was studying the waterways in New York City we read about landforms and how they affected the creation of these waterways. This topic fascinated many of the children and they asked if they could use our sand table to make their own landforms using the Plasticene that we had in our art studio. I emptied the sand from the table and each day a group of children went to work on this project. There was a big basket of reference books and some photographs of landforms such as mesas, buttes, mountains and valleys. The children decided on how this project would proceed and, on some occasions, a few disagreements erupted, such as on the day when Alex decided to add spikes to her butte. She adamantly insisted that buttes had spikes. When the children came complaining to me about this, I suggested to Alex that she defend her decision to add spikes by finding some pictures of buttes in the book basket. I walked away and left the group, hoping that they would come to some mutual agreement. When I came back, I saw that the other two children, looking through the photos with Alex, convinced her that the buttes should be ‘spike-free’. Through their dialogue, conflict, and rhetoric the children pulled apart an idea, experimented with different strategies and eventually arrived at a point of compromise and satisfaction.

There’s so much more that I will be writing about Choice Time in future entries…helpful routines for making it run smoothly, ideas for new centers, the role of the teacher during choice time, assessing the work that the children are doing in their centers, dealing with problems like scheduling and clean up time, making connections to the curriculum, how it looks different across the year and from grade to grade…and any other choice time questions that come up over the course of the year.

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.

14 thoughts on “Why Choice Time?

  1. Maureen Morriss

    Renee, The blog is fabulous – I have just finished reading the posts for the August, ‘The door is open’ , submission and find myself wanting to be part of the professional conversations and thinking that seems to be arising. Then popped up your next one. … How do you feel about me using your September post to initiate a conversation amongst my K teachers next week. The use of choice time as a label has inherent within it something that we want to nurture in our students. How the teacher understands and enables this is as you suggest key. I know that you utilize choice time for ‘inquiry projects’ ,which I support but I am wondering whether smaller inquiries could be a starting point – moving from what has been coined ‘ literacy centers’ to ‘choice time’ to ‘inquiry projects’. I know that children are able to take control and also need a supportive adult to facilitate their leads…it is quite an art to do this in a way that respects the individual learner in classes that I see this year are growing well above the 20 student mark. I am looking forward to joining in the discussion here.
    Thanks for making it happen.

    1. Renee Post author


      I always learn so much from our conversations. I would be honored to have you share the blog with the teachers you work with and I hope that they will enter in to the conversation with thoughts, questions, doubts and enthusiasms.

      I understand what you are saying about the need to move slowly along a continuum however, I would eliminate ‘literacy centers’ from this particular line of development. I’m not necessarily saying that they should be taken out of the curriculum. That is a personal choice of the teacher. What I mean is that they really don’t have a relationship to what I am defining as Choice Time. Literacy Centers are all about tasks. The teacher has an expectation of what will be happening at the center and what children will have completed by the end of the period. Choice Time, on the other hand, is directed by the child’s play. What happens with math manipulatives or a table filled with water or at a name study center will possibly be different each time different children go to that center. It is this innovative play that we want to encourage. I understand that this can be challenging for a new teacher or for a teacher new to this idea and so, just as we begin slowly when we introduce something new to children, we, as consultants, can help teachers to begin this process slowly. That is something that I want to spend a lot of ‘blog time’ writing about this year! What are your thoughts on this?

  2. Ed Miller

    Hi Renee. Congratulations on your fine and important new blog. Your latest posting made me think about the phrase “choice time” itself, which I have always disliked. Why “choice time” indeed, when the activities you are writing about are so much better described as play? We know the reasons, of course, why this inelegant euphemism was invented: ignorance of the nature and value of children’s self-directed play and the politics of education policymaking, which has made “play” and even “developmentally appropriate practice” synonyms for soft-headed and discredited liberal notions like “self-esteem.” See today’s lead article in the Week in Review section of the NYTimes, in which Elisabeth Rosenthal argues that the way to make sure young children succeed in school is to test them all the time.

    I’m not suggesting that we stop using the phrase “choice time”–that’s not politically feasible. At the same time, let’s not be afraid to talk about play.

    1. Renee Post author

      Hello Ed. I’m so honored to have your involvement in this conversation. Your voice is such an important one in protecting the rights of young children.
      I understand your concerns about Choice Time but I also think that so much rests on interpretation and implementation. One thing that has been disturbing me since I’ve been doing my consulting work in New York City public schools is the lack of outdoor play time that children have each day. If they are lucky, children get 20 minutes in the school yard after lunch, supervised by school aides, perhaps a cluster teacher or two and when they’re lucky, some parent volunteers. This is not what I would call appropriate outdoor time for young children. I am always urging teachers to go outdoors with their classes for a period each day. It’s important for the teacher to be there at this time. I always learned SO MUCH about my children by watching them free play in the schoolyard. There’s also those magical moments that can be continued in the classroom, like finding a spider’s web or a beautiful wildflower growing in between the pavement cracks. It truly bothers me that this is not considered as important as word study, math, writing, etc. I think that teachers and administrators are ‘missing the boat’ on an important part of the young child’s day.

      Now, in terms of Choice Time in the classroom, I don’t believe that it’s a positive experience when it’s all free play. This is especially true this year when the classes are so large. Twenty five (or more in some cases) five year olds going from one activity to another without some sort of plan is an invitation to chaos. I hope, as I continue writing in this blog, you will feel more comfortable with my idea of the play that takes place during Choice Time and that you will have ideas to contribute that will illuminate all of us.

  3. sylvia and john hyland

    dear renee
    i wish i was a kid in your “choice time’ settings. so fabulous and exciting to explore , play and discover. i can see how thi could be incorporated into middle school relating themes to the academic subjects being studied. how rich!!!!

    1. Renee Post author

      Hi Sylvia

      I know that you taught middle school, but I always thought that you would have been an incredible kindergarten teachers. Your energy, life force and creativity would have been just the right start for young children. Well, of course, middle school children also need an inspiration in their lives and there you were for them. I agree with you that middle schoolers would do very well with this type of inquiry infused into their curriculum. I know that there are schools that do this with great success. There’s a program in California (the name of it has slipped my mind but I’ll try to look it up) that bases its work on inquiry. These schools (which are free public schools) go from elementary through high school. The high school program sounds particularly interesting. I think that the schools are in San Diego. Maybe you can visit them when you go to your home out west!

  4. Connie Norgren

    Renee, Hooray for launching this blog!! It will send your always mind-opening ideas for letting children’s minds blossom out into an even bigger universe of hungry teachers….I love your questions to children – “What interesting projects are you going to come up with?”, “What can we imagine doing with this new paper?” That’s something crucial to remember in teaching — ask the children…. listen to the children….

    1. Renee Post author

      Hi Connie
      I must tell everyone that they will be hearing many references to you this year because so much of what I’ve learned about teaching comes from our 40 (!) years of discussions and our collaborative teaching at P.S. 321. And the funny thing is that we still have so much more to figure out together, don’t we? Teaching seems to be a constant learning experience!

  5. Simon Dinnerstein

    Your blog makes me think of the group in Farenheit 451 that gathered together, against
    all odds and great danger, to read books. Individuals, in this tale, choose to read, albeit in the forest. Here we see people taking a stand. Isn’t this the type of individualism that we are saying reresent the heart and backbone of our country.

    1. Renee Post author

      Simon, you’re so right! It’s not easy for teachers to go against the tide, but they also have an obligation to do what is right for children. I have a lot of faith in the heart and wisdom of early childhood educators.

  6. Kathy Collins

    Hey Renée,
    I am SO very glad that you’re doing this. I only wish we had a time machine to go back to the days you were in the classroom and capture some videos that would show the power, pleasures, and purposes of choice time for your kids. I am so fortunate and grateful that I had the chance to see it first hand! I look forward to your posts and also to the readers’ comments. What great company to keep…

    1. Renee Post author

      Kathy, you have been encouraging all along and I thank you so much for that. I hope that you can share this blog with the teachers and administrators that you work with ( and maybe, even, with your TC cohorts!). I’m looking forward to hearing your voice in this conversation…as a teacher, consultant and mother!

  7. Zoe

    What a great post. I agree with Connie about your question, “I wonder what interesting projects you’re going to come up with?” Such a simple thing, a question, but how empowering for kids to be not only invited to make decisions and follow their interests, but expected to do so. I bet that kind of questioning does a lot to create the kind of dynamic, engaged community that I imagine your classrooms to embodied. I also love the story of Alex and the spiky buttes. Love that the kids were using that sophisticated word. It also strikes me that the way you helped them resolve their disagreement was wonderful in a couple of ways – not only were they given a strategy for how they might figure out the problem independently, but that strategy was directly connected to the issue at hand and helped them to move into a new understanding not only of how to solve a problem together but of what buttes are like. Seems like often that kind of management issue is handled in a top-down sort of way – either, “let her put the spikes on the buttes, already,” or “nope, buttes don’t have spikes.” Which doesn’t leave room for the kind of growth that group of kids experienced.
    I’m loving these posts and also loving reading the comments – so glad you’ve created this instant community!


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