A Wonderful Hum of Activity: Choice Time!

Since I last wrote about Bill’s kindergarten class, I’ve had the opportunity to visit two of his Choice Time periods.

Oh, what fun I had! Let me share some of the centers that I observed.

The Science Center –The children pretty much set up the center themselves. They took a big plastic bin filled with sand, pebbles, rock and shells off a nearby shelf and placed it on the table. They had all different types of sieves, cups and magnifying glasses. But one thing that’s REALLY special is the microscope that’s hooked up to a computer screen! I was so fascinated by the enlargement of materials and the children had some wonderful conversations. One of the girls at the center was practically jumping with excitement.” I never ever went to this center! Look how many pebbles I got (in the sieve). I never knew science was so much fun!” Bill put out paper, pencils and crayons for the children to record their observations. The paper had a drawing of a microscope as part of the border and I noticed that, after a while, the girls became involved with coloring in the picture, taking some of the focus away from their detailed drawings done from observation and I wondered if this would happen if there were colored pencils available but not crayons. It’s just a thought that I had. I’ll see what Bill thinks about this when we have time to talk.

The Block Center: This year, when Bill set up his room he devoted much more space to the block center and this has had a noticeable impact on the quality of building being done and on the collaborative work that the children engage in. They spend more days working on structures and each day revise and add to the work done by the previous builders. It will be interested to see how the building work starts to reflect the playground trips that they will take as part of their playground study. I think that it might be a good idea for Bill to set up a display of playground books in the center as “inspiration”.

Dramatic Play: Rather than have a traditional “kitchen” set up, Bill stacked hollow blocks against the wall by his meeting area. There’s also a small bookcase that has bins with various ‘props’. The day that I was there, the children first seemed to be building a house. Then one of the boys discovered a sailor hat in the bin and before you could say “presto”  the house turned into a boat, a sort-of houseboat! This changeable environment allows the children free reign in setting up scenarios. Having this center located on the rug also frees up more space in the room for other activities and it gives the children a large area for their dramatic play.

Star Name – Bill has been doing a name study based on the work of Patricia Cunningham. The Star Name Study Center gives children the opportunity to play around with names and letters. They have class lists with photos of each child, blank books, letters, pencils, marker, and paste. I remember observing this center in Bill’s class some years ago and he added alphabet grids for the children to use along with clipboards. I saw the children using these grids to ‘survey’ the class…How many names from our class go in the ‘A’ box?, etc. The children were not told what to do with the grids. They came up with this survey idea on their own. I wonder if he will add something like this to the center this year? When I was teaching kindergarten, I had mystery name puzzles in little clear plastic zip-up bags at the center. I’ll ask Bill if he thinks his children might find the puzzle idea interesting. Perhaps they could make up their own name puzzles on thin cardboard!

Duplos– I was particularly interested to observe this center. It’s an area where I often experienced difficulties. I found that children used the materials to make weapons and that they had a tendency get out of control. Many of the teachers who I work with face the same problem with Duplos and Legos.

On the day of my visit, it was all boys at this center (3). They seemed to be totally engrossed in their constructions. It was parallel play but they were conversing with each other. After a few minutes, one child realized that he wanted a ‘door’ that was part of the other’s construction and it looked like there might be an explosion! However, he stopped arguing and came up with the idea of building a door. This was so interesting to see. I think that as teachers, we sometimes tend to jump in to mediate before giving children time to work things out on their own.

I asked the boys if they would like some sticky notes to write signs for their building and this idea took off for a few minutes.

About midway through the center time, the boys lost interest in their constructions and began throwing the Duplos at each other and around the carpet. Bill had to stop in to calm down the situation. I don’t think it was unusual for this to happen with these particular materials at this time in the school year. I’ve found that if this construction is done on a table, rather than on the floor, the children stay more focused for longer periods of time.

Also, it’s helpful to give them a large cardboard to work on and encourage them to come up with an idea for working together. (i.e. a space station; a playground; a city, etc.) They can have other materials to supplement their construction such a sticky notes, crayons or markets for writing on the cardboard, little figurines and even some books as ‘reference’. Doing this will often encourage more collaborative and inventive play. If it’s on a cardboard, it can be brought to the share meeting after Choice Time, a sort-of mini- celebration.


Easel: When I was there last week, there were two children working at the easel. Only black and white paint were out. I wondered about limiting the colors at first, but it actually was quite fascinating to see what the children did with only these two colors. There was a lot of mixing, forming all different grades of grays. Bill had a sponge available at the easel for cleaning the brushes, but Sophie chose to use it for creating all kinds of textures on the paper! The limitation of having only the black and white seemed to open up more experimentation. I can’t wait to speak with Bill to find out if that was his purpose or if the experimentation was a surprise.

Art Center: This was quite interesting because I noticed a different quality of work each week. I’m not sure if it reflected the children who were there or the choice of materials. Let me explain a bit.

During my first Choice Time visit, one boy was intensely working on a “Pirate Map.” He told me that he always plays pirate games and he loves pirates. As he was drawing, he talked his way through the process (“Here’s where he starts. Then he has to go around the island. This is the first treasure. Let me get a yellow crayon for the treasure. Okay. Here’s the second treasure. That’s the big treasure.” He literally spent the entire period working on his map.

At the same table a girl was twisting and gluing paper to make an intricate pop-up picture. She proudly brought it over for me to see. I wondered if she could make a pop-up playground. She wasn’t sure if that would be possible but she thought that she could try it next time. I’m not sure if she followed up on that. I think it could be a brought up at meeting time as a challenging activity that children might want to try. Perhaps she could give a demonstration on how to make a pop-up picture and help out at the center if children seemed interested.

When I returned to obseve this center on my second class visit,  the children were tracing, using cardboard shapes and cutouts. The work at the table seemed, to me,  significantly less personal and creative. Children were limiting themselves to tracing the shapes and coloring them in. The creative and individual use of materials that I saw on my previous visit was not in evidence on this day.


Cooking: Bill, like many teachers today, is alone in the room with 24 children. This makes doing activities like cooking or woodworking a real challenge. On this particular day, a mother came in to make gingerbread cookies with the children. She made the dough ahead of time and brought it to school with flour, rollers, and cookie cutters and with all sorts of goodies for decorating the cookies. The children were quite excited and involved with this activity. They were making enough cookies to share with the class.


I spoke with Bill about how I believe that the process is even more important than the final product. I suggested that if he could get one parent a day to help out (he thought that he could do that), then he could make something that is worked on all week. For example, I remember making a carrot cake with my class. On the first day the children washed and scraped the carrots. On the second day the children at the center grated the carrots. On the third day the next group began making the dough. The dough was completed on the fourth day and baked. On Friday, children cut and served the cake during Choice Time, made individual booklets about carrot cake, washed all of the utensils, took a survey of who did and did not like carrot cake. It was a class effort. There are many different recipes that can be broken up this way.

When I shared my thoughts about the cooking center with Bill, he excitedly came up with the idea of spending a week making an apple pie. Bill took my suggestion and ran with it! It’s so wonderful that, even though he’s been in the classroom for quite a few years, he’s still open to suggestions and to growing professionally.

We haven’t spoken yet, so I don’t know if the apple pie  happened yet. I’ll update you on this after Bill and I meet.

The Light Box Center: This is an area where Bill and I have different opinions. In his class, the light box is used for tracing pictures, the kind of dinosaur or animal pictures that come from commercial coloring books. The child picks a picture, tapes it to the surface of the box, puts tracing paper over the image and traces along the lines. Then afterwards, many of the children color their traced picture just as they would color in a picutre in a coloring book.

I see the box as an opportunity for children to experiment with color, design, shadow, and translucency. When I visited a school in Reggio Emilia, I saw children using natural materials that seemed to come from the park near the school, moving them into designs on the box and watching how the designs changed as they leaves and pine cones were reconfigured. At a kindergarten class in a school in Brooklyn, I observed children cutting out shapes from different colored tissue paper, layering the paper on the light box and getting excited as they manipulated the papers to change the colors.

The two children at this center most definitely were very involved and focused on their tracing. I asked one of the children what she liked about this choice center. She said that she liked it because she didn’t have to think about anything. She just did it. When she said this, Max, who was working with her, shook his head in agreement.

I shared this child’s comment with Bill later on. I found the lack of thinking disturbing. Bill, however, had a very different take on this. He suggested to me that I consider how the mind is resting while the body is learning a new skill.

I’m curious to hear what other educators think of this. This could prove to be an interesting discussion.

What I totally love about working with Bill is that, even if we disagree on something, I know that everything he does in his class is well thought out and purposeful. He is always considering what is best for the children. Bill understands that children are making important scientific and mathematical connections as they pour, separate and observe the sand and pebbles in the science center. They’re learning about balance, shapes, and measurement as they construct with unit blocks. The children who are making Star Name books are working with letters and sounds. At all of these activities, they are practicing collaboration and sharing.

Bill has also created a marvelous feeling of harmony and community in the room. Clean up time, so often a teacher’s nightmare, was so interesting to observe because, without being told, children offered to help each other get their centers put away – no fuss, no tantrums, no mess!

As I stood to the side, watching the children at their centers, I pulled Bill aside and asked him to enjoy with me the wonderful hum of activity in this room!

7 thoughts on “A Wonderful Hum of Activity: Choice Time!

  1. Anna Allanbrook

    How refreshing! To read about a kindergarten class immersed in choice time with children figuring out what they want to do and doing it: even if the ‘it” involves a choice to not really think! But what struck me most about this entry was the variety of options that these students have. Seems like Bill isn’t afraid for things to get messy and complicated. He’s not afraid of student voice and conflict and he appears open to the challenge of 24 five years olds exploring and playing. I love the idea of just working with black and white and am curious how Bill decides what to make available for his young students. Thanks for documenting this kindergarten classroom.

  2. Bill Fulbrecht

    Thanks for your comments, Anna. I set out to make this a year of exploration for myself as a teacher – and with Renee’s help lots of things have begun to percolate. It’s always invaluable to have a second opinion and a fresh set of eyes to look at the way you have been approaching your teaching.

    First, there were the changes to the classroom layout – just some simple suggestions, but what a difference they made! When other teachers saw the way Renee and I set up the block and dress-up areas they tried it out for themselves and they are reporting the same changes we have seen – namely, that children now use the spaces in more creative and engaging ways.

    Another very simple idea: In the past I always had eight basic centers – blocks, dress-up, writing, math, art, drawing, science, and library – and I would try to fit various curricular activities into those centers (i.e.: when the class was engaged in a name study, I would place name study activities in the writing center as an alternative to writing papers and booklets). I was often disappointed when children failed to “take the bait” and they chose the familiar over the new. Now, I simply create a new center that is named for the activity I want children to practice and the “newness” of the center draws children in right away (thus, we now have a “Star Name” center that will last for only a few weeks). This approach to creating new centers is working out well and it encourages me to be more flexible in my choices for new centers. Ideas for centers can come from both the curriculum and from the children. When Sophia created a “pop-up playground” out of cut paper in the art center one day, we immediately opened a “Pop-up Playground” center the next (with Sophia as the instructor). All I really needed to do was assemble a basket of scissors, glue sticks, and tape and make a little sign for the choice time chart.

    As a result of our ongoing debate about light box uses, I am rethinking the drawing center. My main objective in this center has always been to offer an activity that improves eye-hand coordination. I see it as a pre-writing activity rather than an art activity. Far from having their minds disengage, though, this activity requires a kind of super concentration – the result of which is that the language portion of the brain becomes quiet while the eyes and hands do their work (current research into brain activity suggests that the language center of the brain – the “talking to yourself” part – may, in fact, have a far less important role in our behavior than we might like to believe). For this reason I will continue to offer tracing activities, but the light box is a wonderful tool for exploration. I have often observed children experimenting by bringing materials from the art and science centers over to the box. Perhaps what I need is a second light box! Or maybe a light box in the science, art, and drawing centers!

    To answer the question about paint choices in the painting center: a few years back, Connie Feniccia, our Studio in a School art teacher, shared her painting curriculum with us. In it, children are introduced to painting first with black and white paints, then the primary colors are added to the selection one at a time (currently, the children are using black, white, and red in my classroom – next red will be substituted with blue, etc). In this way, the children get to experiment with a range of values for each of the primary colors. They also learn how to clean the brush (only one brush is used and must be cleaned between colors) and mix paints on the paper. It takes about six weeks before the kids have a full compliment of colors – red, yellow, blue, black, and white – but by that time they know how to mix any color they want.

    This week parents are coming in and we’re making that apple pie, one step at a time! I can’t wait until Friday when we get to eat it! I look forward to future posts…

  3. Anna Allanbrook

    After all colors are introduced, can children then choose to return to black and white and maybe red? The palette and technique can always vary. How long is choice time in your room? And what are the rules about sticking with a choice, etc?

  4. Bill Fulbrecht

    After all the colors are introduced, I rarely see children return to monochromatic painting, though it is always a choice.

    At this point in the year, choice time lasts from 45 minutes to an hour, including clean-up. It can go a little longer in the spring when we are in the middle of our transportation and bridge study.

    At the beginning of the year the centers are very simple to set up and put away and choice time only lasts 20 or 30 minutes, including clean up. Children make their center choices first thing in the morning during a short “welcome time.” I keep track of where children go on a chart and they are required to choose a different center each day. In this way, children get to experience all of the center activities at the start of the year. Sometime in October, I remove that restriction, but I continue to record where they go so that I can keep track of their interests (this is important information to relate to parents at the first conferences).

    In November, I begin “block teams” that sign up on Monday for block building and remain there for the entire week. Thursday becomes their day to share what they have built with the class and Friday becomes “clean-up day.” As an incentive to cleaning up before the end of the period, I offer the group a box of Playmobile people and accessories that they can play with in the block center for the remainder of their time. The toys are easy to gather and put away when its clean-up time for the whole class. I keep the unit blocks on the shelves and the odd shaped blocks in large tubs with pictures on the side to show where they go. There is a photo of the shelf unit with blocks all neatly put away for the children to look at on the wall. It’s remarkable how well they clean up what is often one of the most difficult centers to put away!

    Children are expected to stay in their chosen center for the entire period, but of course there is lots of cross-over activity. Children in the science area may become excited by a discovery and call their friends over for a look, or children in the writing center may decide to make letters for their friends and then seek them out for delivery. It’s sometimes noisy and messy, but I feel that choice time is the very heart of our day. It’s the stuff from which our classroom community grows.

  5. Joan Kramer

    Thank you Renee. This one I admit makes me sad because it is not happening in enough places in our country. My granddaughter’s kindergarten had none of the above. And this also reminded me about how wonderful my master teacher’s room was – with all kinds of centers, including cooking that her student teachers organized. Only one teacher, about 15 years later when my daughter was in second grade, had as many interesting activities as Bill did, but never available at all times (which my master teacher was able to accomplish somehow). I often went in and volunteered to do the “cooking” but I used Thelma Harms’ cookbook which individualized the cooking experience. It took me all day to teach each child to make his or her own pizza from scratch. I loved this – and they learned so much from it. I am in mourning.

  6. Renee Post author

    Joan, let’s not give up on kindergarten (and first grade, and second grade…) The big problem aside from the crazies who are coming up with ridiculous demands on teachers and children, is that the young teachers don’t have any models anymore.

    1. Michelle

      What an amazing description of a Kindergarten classroom. I am a Kindergarten teacher–been so for almost 20 years–and love it. You are correct when you say that there are ridiculous demands being placed on K’s nowadays. Still, I am going to try to incorporate bits and pieces of this approach into my classroom. The pendulum is going to have to swing back at some point and I think that approaches such as Reggio are going to be very popular. So glad I found this article!


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