A Choice Time roadmap… not a train schedule

In the summer of 1996, I attended a one-week institute for educators in Reggio Emilia, Italy. At that conference, Carlina Rinaldi, director of the Reggio Emilia schools, said something that has reverberated for me again and again. To paraphrase her, she advised teachers that they should consider teaching using a road map to guide their instruction rather than a train schedule. A road map lets you know where you started, where you’re going and important routes and landmarks along the way. But more importantly, it also allows you to take detours for interesting explorations, always showing you how to get back onto the original road. A train schedule, on the other hand, doesn’t allow one to take more time exploring places and ideas that are particularly interesting. It keeps one from taking those detours that allow for interesting and sometimes mind-altering surprises.

Some years ago, Lucy Calkins, head of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, asked me if I would co-present a day for kindergarten teachers.. Lisa Ripperger was going to address writing workshop in kindergarten, Mary Ann Colbert was presenting the reading workshop and I was going to speak about choice time. When the three of us met to plan, Lisa and Mary Ann were able to plan together but I seemed to be the ‘odd man out’. I noticed that they were thinking about how their workshops changed and grew across the year. I began to wonder if I could use a similar paradigm to plan for a year of Choice Time. I’d like to share what I came up with. However, I think that it’s really important to consider this only as a possible Choice Time roadmap and not as a train schedule to follow.

Fall (September to December)

Since this is the start of the school year, my instructional focus for centers is on creating situations that will support conversation and also on helping children, often through direct demonstration, learn how to use and care for materials.
(I.e. unit blocks; water and sand implements such as funnels, tubes and different size cups; science tools such as magnifying glasses, droppers, shells; paint, crayons, markers, a selection of papers, glue, scissors and other possible art materials in the art center; a selection of math manipulatives; and independently using the headphones, tapes and tape recorder in the listening center).

At centers, children can explore the many possibilities for using a variety of equipment and materials. They also have time to work independently and in small groups, sharing materials and ideas with each other. I have noticed that activities and constructions, at this time of the year, are quite often ‘of the moment’ and might last only for one day. Children are usually ready to explore something new the next day. They are also just learning to work in small groups and in partnerships where they need to share materials.

By giving children opportunities to share their work and choice time experiences with the class, and by providing places in the room to display children’s work, both projects that are completed and work in-progress, the teacher is encouraging children to see themselves as competent explorers.

Winter (January to March)
By this time of the year, my instructional focus is more towards giving children opportunities to work on expanding their projects. Children are encouraged to build onto a project. A few examples are adding more details or color to a drawing or painting. They might create signs and add people and animals to a block structure. In my class and in other classes I’ve seen the dramatic play area transformed into a doctor’s office, a post office, a castle, a grocery store and even a playground. The water table becomes an exciting center for making new discoveries just by adding new materials such as food coloring, ice cubes, snow or soap suds. I remember a time when a group of children used the Cuisenaire rods and small wooden ‘people’ from the block center to create a village in the sand table. What is so exciting is that the possibilities are endless depending upon the children’s interests.

By now, children are often beginning to label projects and to use print more naturally in the different centers, such as writing telephone messages in the dramatic play center or making a ‘scientist’s observation book’ in the science center. Children might be becoming more involved in planning together before beginning their play. The teacher would probably notice a greater use of dialogue within the centers as children share ideas and negotiate compromise.

Spring: April – June
For me, this was a particularly exciting time of the year. My instructional focus for Choice Time now included supporting children’s increased engagement in dialogue and their growing ability to use writing and reading as part of their choice time projects.

During this time of year, I found that it was important for children to have more time in their centers. They often stayed in the same center for at least two days.
My centers would quite often give children opportunities to expand on classroom inquiries in social studies, science and chapter books that I read to them. Some examples of this were a group project to design and construct a bridge when we were involved in a bridge study. The group spent five days working on this project, drawing bridge plans, revising, building and using toy cars and people to play with their bridge. After I read the chapter book, My Father’s Dragon, the children asked if they could make their own 3-D map of Wild Island. I gave them a large piece of cardboard to work on in the art center. Different children worked on this project each day, referring to the book to be sure that they were putting everything in the right order. They labeled the different parts of the map, made arrows to show what came first, made ‘pop up’ people and animals and, as you can imagine, had many opportunities to resolve conflicts within the group!

The science center, one year, led to an interesting child-created project that combined science discoveries, literature and art. After a few of weeks of open, self-directed explorations with magnets in the science center, a group of children thought of adding a story box center to choice time. The children used empty shoeboxes to recreate scenes from favorite storybooks. They folded paper to make people who could stand up and glued paper clips to the bottom of each figure. They then used their magnets to move the figures in their boxes, creating magnetic theaters. This activity was inspired by my daughter’s store-bought magnetic theater (she called it her ‘Magnetic Land’) that I had shared with them earlier in the school year.

By the spring, children tend to work independently and more self-sufficiently. Now the teacher has more opportunities to observe children working at their centers during choice time. At this time of the year, I’m consistently impressed by the incredible progress children have made in working cooperatively and in using classroom materials with so much creativity. Now when children use print within their projects they are using more conventional spelling for the high-frequency sight words that we have been exploring during shared reading and writing workshop. I also notice the dialogue that takes place during share meetings becoming more sophisticated and descriptive. Children listen to each other more attentively and, in their responses, exhibit a greater ability to partake in the give and take of conversations.


This is, of course, only a road map and not a train schedule for planning Choice Time across the year. To make all of this work well, I assume the involvement of a teacher who enjoys observing and listening to children at play.

This teacher is eager to develop a lively, interactive and stimulating classroom. She/he values individuality and improvisation, and understands that there are many playful, age-appropriate roadways leading towards developing children with strong literacy and mathematical skills. This teacher has also created a classroom environment that has allowed children to develop positive self-images. Through a year of working cooperatively in inquiry-based Choice Time centers, they have learned to value and respect the contributions of the group. These centers provide a road map to the world around them, which offers endless opportunities for being inspired.

CLICK HERE to make a comment.

16 thoughts on “A Choice Time roadmap… not a train schedule

  1. Pingback: Sharing! | Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play

  2. marcy

    I’d love to hear more about what a Math Center looks like at Choice Time. What materials are available to children? How does the work look in contrast to the childrens” math workshop? Is there an opportunity inside of Choice time to play games introduced in the math workshop?

    1. Renee Post author

      Hi Marcy

      I realize that I haven’t written very much about the math center and I’ll try to rectify that in future blog posts. Just for now, however, I would say that the math center should have enough materials for about 4 – 6 children to work at one time. What I mean is that it shouldn’t store all of the math materials being used during math workshop. The reason for this is that we wouldn’t want it to be an overwhelming amount of materials there and we also want children to be independent in accessing materials. I think that it’s a wonderful opportunity for children to play some of the games that are introduced during a math workshop. It’s also an opportunity for them to improvise on games and ‘invent’ new games. One year I had a donation of a bagful of old keys and I added it to the math center. Children came up with wonderful ways of using them – making patterns, playing “Guess My Rule” (they recorded the new rules, using a lot of invented spelling and pictures, on a chart that we put up in the center. Every time that a group of children came up with new rules, they added it to the chart.
      I think that materials in the center can be rotated. Also, there should be ways for children to record information. For example, if I put out geoboards, then after a couple of weeks of exploration with this material, I might add some pre-dotted paper for children to record their designs. These could be put in a folder that other children could access to replicate. I put geoboards by the computer when I had some program where children moved a “turtle” on the screen to create lines and designs. The children worked at the computer in partnerships. One child was making computer designs and the other copying it on the geoboard.

      Math activities also were included in other areas. For example, my class was following changes in a tree in Prospect Park. One time we brought some string and measured the trunk of the tree. At center time, children used all different kinds of materials of their choice (paper clips, plastic teddy bears, their hands, etc.) to measure the string. They made guesses (estimates) wrote them down, and then measured and checked.

      A really favorite choice was “survey”. The group came up with a question, surveyed the class, used tally marks and then decided on how they would represent their findings. These children usually stayed at their center for more than a day. They LOVED this center!

      I know that there’s much more to write…organization of the center, etc. More to come, but I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas!


  3. Pingback: Improvisation | Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play

  4. Pingback: Awakening Joy in Creative Expression | Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play

  5. Pingback: A Learning Partnership | Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play

  6. Pingback: Getting Started | Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play

  7. Pingback: The door is open! | Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play

  8. Pingback: Why Choice Time? | Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play

  9. Anita Brehm

    Many years ago, back in the ’80’s, I had found films of Dorothy Heathcote (pronounced Hethcut)while looking for ways to expose my college students to ways of integrating the curriculum. After seeing her in action on these films, I was privileged, honored to go to Idaho where she was holding a 3 week workshop. I then worked with her when she had a 1 week workshop in eastern NC. She had not been trained as a teacher and was not held back by teaching tenets. She did not teach; she guided children to learn and discover on their own through the use of drama. The dramas were decided by the children. She would ask them, what characters would they need to bring in, etc., what they wanted to happen next. I didn’t do too well. She said it was because I was too didactic, as most trained teachers tended to be. It was all child centered, but according to what was happening, she would suggest activities which would would develop understanding about the various curriculum areas. She would have them develop written material, research relevant topics, map study, etc.,all relevant to the drama.
    Any teacher who wants to help children learn rather than “teach” them needs to look
    at her films and read her writings. It is not an easy way to impart information, but the children will never forget the experience nor the concepts they developed.

    1. Renee Post author

      Hello Anita

      Thank you for introducing me to this work. I watched some of it on youtube after reading your note. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5jBNIEQrZs&feature=related
      I’m going to suggest that some of the teachers I work with look at it. I was aware of Vivian Gussin Paley’s work with drama. Zoe Ryder White, who taught at P.S. 321, was doing it with her kindergarten children and I got to observe her. Have you read any of Paley’s work? I’m wondering if she was familiar with Heathcote’s work!

      I just need to share with any readers how you and I know each other. When I was in the 6th grade at P.S. 260 in Brooklyn, Anita Brehm taught kindergarten and I was her classroom monitor. I made all sorts of excuses to get out of my class so that I could go down to “Mrs. Brehm’s” kindergarten. I loved being there. Anita, you were a wonderful model for me and I’m so glad that after over 50 years, we have reconnected!

      1. Zoe

        I watched the clip you sent the link for, Renee, and I was hooked – watched the entire film. Thanks for sending the link, and thanks to Anita for mentioning Dorothy Heathcote. Incredible, and very like Paley’s work in many ways. One thing that struck me was a scene in which the interviewer is asking children who comes up with the ideas they dramatize – they were so eloquent about why it HAS to be their ideas, how it wouldn’t be the same experience at all if they were told what ideas to have along the way. Which made me think a lot about a lot of things – it seems like sometimes in spite of ourselves teachers (even very well-intentioned teachers) are telling kids what ideas to have. Which strips the power from the learning and from the kids and completely turns them off. Watching those boys in action was like watching the most beautifully intense kind of play – I don’t mean drama, but play as in playing, having fun. They were so focused, so absorbed, so committed. I think choice time can be such a great way to guide kids into that kind of discovery.

        1. Renee Post author

          I’m working in a school where the kindergarten teachers really don’t have much experience with Choice Time. I decided to start with little baby steps. I’ve asked each teacher to pick one center that they would like to concentrate on. Once they did this, we set some big goals for the center, thought of materials for starting out the center, planned for ways that they could introduce the materials and we also thought of the potential for this center. After we did all of this, I asked the teachers if they would just observe the ways that children were using the materials. That’s where we are now. My next visit, we’ll discuss what they’ve observed, what they think is working well, what needs to be added to the center, etc. Then we’ll move on to another center. I’m hoping that after doing a few centers together, the teachers will be ‘hooked’ on this approach and will run with it on their own.

          In terms of the drama/play…can’t you see this all through the grades. I want to sit down with my son-in-law, who teaches fifth grade, and watch these videos together. I’m wondering if he will be enticed to try this out with his class.


  10. Gwen

    I wish you could get through to teachers like my son’s kindergarten teacher. She’s been piling on the age-inappropriate homework after a 6-hour session of mostly seatwork since the first full day of school. If my child makes it to age 5 without burning out and losing his love of learning, it’ll be a miracle. She tells me that she fully realizes that much of the work is not age-appropriate for 4 to 5-year-olds (which kindergarteners are in NYC in the fall semester, because of the very late age cutoff used here), but that she is mandated to conduct her class this way by the Board of Ed.’s mandates. Many of the parents share stories about their children’s behavioral regressions, tear-filled homework sessions, etc. Unfortunately, many of the parents equate rigidity and tons of homework with a “good” education, and support nonsense like expecting 4-year-olds to write full sentences within a few weeks of starting school.

    1. Renee Post author

      Your entry makes me want to cry for the children in this class, for you and also, possibly, for the classroom teacher. I have a feeling that she doesn’t have much say in how to run her classroom, and that is such a terrible shame. She is most probably being told, by her administrator, that she must teach this way.
      Let me quickly address the issue of the Board of Ed “mandate”. There is no mandate that says kindergarten children need to have a day of only academic drill. I work in many NYC public school kindergartens where we are doing social studies inquiry studies and where the children have a very rich, explorative ‘choice time’. There ARE new core standards for each grade, but the standards do not give any instructional mandates. They only address what it is that children should know by the end of the school year. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of the expectations, I do know that children can learn much of that information through social studies and science explorations as part of an inquiry project and also through the investigative play that they do at Choice Time.
      I think that you should download the standards and become familiar with them. If you read them carefully, you’ll see that there are so many age-appropriate ways of teaching to them. For example, under phonological awareness it says “recognize and produce rhyming words” A child can be drilled on this…or they can sing Down By the Bay and Jenny Jenkins!

      I would love to write about your dilemma in much greater depth in my blog. I have a feeling that there are many parents and teachers who are as upset about this as you are. Would you feel comfortable if I make reference to your note in a blog entry?

  11. Peter N. Névraumont

    Hi Renee, Well, this is a bleak old day and maybe finds you curled up with a good book. I actually remember the exact moment when I first was able to comprehend written words. Our kindergarten class in San Francisco was sitting in a semi-circle in front of one of those over-sized Dick and Jane books. Up until this day, the words on the page were just undecipherable black marks. As the teacher read from the book, suddenly the individual words popped out at me and I could read each of the sentences. There was no in between. One moment it was all gibberish, and the next I could understand everything and from then on I could read anything that was put before me—of course, I don’t mean Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which still defeats me to this day—but any and all books in our school library, and I began my life-long love of books which I have continued to devour. Anyway, I hope you are enjoying a good book this morning. Peter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *