“…stand aside for awhile and leave room for learning,
observe carefully what children do, and then, if you
have understood well, perhaps teaching will be
different from before.”
Louis Malaguzzi (Edwards, Gandini, Forman, 1995)
Some years ago, my daughter visited my kindergarten classroom during Choice Time. As she looked around the room, she observed the children at their various activities. One group was setting up a pretend doctor’s office in the dramatic play corner. At the art center, children were constructing spaceships from toilet paper rolls and egg cartons. Four children, wearing plastic goggles, were using screwdrivers and pliers to take apart a broken telephone; two children were busy at the water table constructing a water machine with plastic tubing and funnels. Simone seemed fascinated by the life of the classroom.
“Whenever I come into your class at Choice Time, I feel like I’m walking into The King of Hearts she said, referring to a wonderfully magical film, a family favorite. The story takes place in a small French village during the First World War. After hearing news of an oncoming invasion, the villagers quickly fled to the countryside, accidentally leaving the gates of the town asylum unlocked. The innocent residents walk around the empty town in a state of wonder and amazement. They take over the jobs of the absent villagers, understanding some aspects of each role, but adding their own, highly serious, sometimes comical, interpretations as they attempted to recreate life in the outside world.
Kindergarten children are also filled with a sense of wonder and amazement. When they have the opportunity to self-direct their activities at Choice Time, they are attempting to make sense of the adult world. If we listen closely to their conversations and monologues, we can become privy to many of their understandings, misunderstandings, and questions.
Four children have transformed the Pretend Center into a doctor’s office. The wooden play stove, now covered with white paper, is the examining table. Placing her baby doll on the table, Elena, a bubbly five-year old dressed up in silver high-heels and my daughter’s outgrown fancy party dress, wails, “My baby is dead.” Jeffrey, now the ‘doctor,’ dressed in an oversized white shirt with a stethoscope dangling from his neck, takes rapid notes on a pad. “Don’t worry, I’ll fix the baby.” Jeffrey, taking a needle from the play doctor’s kit, jabs the baby’s arm. “O.K. now. The baby’s not dead anymore.” Elena picks up her baby, hands over a wad of play money from the pocketbook draped over her shoulder, and happily teeters away, balancing herself on her high-heeled shoes.In the block center, Luca has enclosed Karl inside what looks like a house without doors. Each time Karl’s arm reaches out, a wooden block falls down and Luca quickly replaces it. Then he runs to our reading nook, where we have a collection of stuffed animals. Selecting one, he returns to his construction, passing a stuffed animal to Karl. I observe this happening again a few minutes later. Each time Karl’s arm comes out and a block falls down, Luca replaces it adding another animal to Karl’s growing collection. Curious about this, I ask Luca about his building. “Karl is in jail, but don’t be worried. I bring him toys so he won’t be scared.”
Unfortunately, Luca’s father is in jail. Luca doesn’t ever speak about this. Not with me. Not with his friends. Not with his mother. He keeps his feeling hidden deep inside. Somehow, in his play with Karl, he found a safe outlet for expressing his fears and concerns. He found a way to make the experience of being incarcerated safe for his father and less threatening for himself.
Choice Time is Playtime. Playtime is Work time!
The children think of the hour in the day that I call Choice Time, as their playtime, I know that it is so much more. When I plan centers, I keep in mind these big goals: children should develop independence and self-confidence; centers should be ‘open’ enough to allow for children making interdisciplinary connections and developing personal inquiries; opportunities for using reading, writing and mathematics for natural and authentic purposes should be available in each center; the activities should allow children to work out social conflicts within a safe, protective environment and support their ability for developing positive social skills.
A high-standards kindergarten curriculum, should include opportunities for children to develop reading and writing skills. These are sometimes taught using the structure of reading and writing workshops. There’s time for word study, read – aloud , and mathematical instruction. There should be many opportunities for whole-class and small group discussions on a variety of topics. These can be from teacher or child generated ideas.
When we develop a classroom that encourages inquiry and exploration, we empower children, giving them skills they will use throughout their lives. When we plan Choice Time with this same philosophy and intent, we open up opportunities for helping children to grow socially and intellectually. This can occur when we encourage children to find ways of recording and sharing their discoveries at the sand table, write messages to each other in a class post office, label their art work, put up important signs by their block buildings, write a recipe for making playdough or make new jackets for their favorite storybooks. If children are making Valentine’s Day cards at a center, merely by attaching writing paper to the cards, we extend the activity in a way that says, “here’s where I will write my message.” If we celebrate, display and share the exciting moments and products of Choice Time play/work we’re sending to children, families and administration a loud and clear message about the importance that we place on exploration, inquiry and, yes, play, in the life of a five year old child!