Two weeks ago I read an article in a New York City newspaper, geared to teachers, written by a kindergarten teacher about the importance of Choice Time . That should have pleased me. For quite some time I’ve been an advocate of keeping play and exploration in the early childhood curriculum. Yet I found this piece to be disturbing. Why?
First of all, the writer of this article states that the Common Core Standards are “developmentally appropriate and provide an in-depth, detailed guide for what must be mastered in kindergarten…” Once we outline a detailed guide for kindergarten mastery we are immediately off –base. As the authors of Developmentally Appropriate Practice write, educators of kindergarten children need to, “meet children where they are as individuals and as a group.” Micromanaging what all kindergarten children must master by the end of a school year is contradictory to what we know about how young children develop and about what we need to do to support their creative, social and intellectual development. I’m not implying that we should not have high standards for all children. We do not need to have a checklist of how, what and when children need to meet very specific academic benchmarks.
Another problem that I had with this article is that there is an assumption that children will need to be motivated to become engaged in centers and that the teacher will need to “clearly model how each center works.” The writer gives an example of what might be modeled to introduce the Read-Along (listening) center and how the minilesson would align this center with the Common Core. The teacher suggests telling the children that after they listen to a story “they will fill in a simple beginning, middle and end worksheet and retell the story with friends at the center. The students are encouraged to practice using the five Ws (who, what, when, where and why) when they are retelling.”
Choice Time is not a time to give children tasks. It should be an opportunity for children to direct their own play and therefore, their own learning. The teacher carefully sets up centers with materials that provoke investigations but it is the child who discovers ways of using the materials. When interest in a center wanes, then it opens up a few possibilities. It might be time to retire that center (at least for the time being.) Perhaps the teacher could present the children with her observations of how she has noticed a lack of interest in the center. The children might come up with ideas for “remodeling” that area to make it more interesting. They could brainstorm for different ways that the center could be used; what might take place at that activity? Perhaps at the Read-Along center the children might suggest having drawing paper so that they could draw pictures that the story brought to mind. The teacher might suggest adding blank tapes to the center so that children could tell and record stories for other children to hear. On the other hand, they might agree that the center is no longer interesting to them and suggest putting it away.
One year when my kindergarten class was in the midst of a long and exciting study of bridges I noticed that the bridge constructions were becoming more and more intricate, taking up all of the space in the block center. Abutting this area was our very under-utilized dramatic play center. I thought that it might make sense to close up the dramatic play area and extend the block center. I was so sure that the children would appreciate this change since they practically never went into dramatic play during this period. I shared my thoughts with the class and to my great surprise there was an uproar of dissent. Absolutely nobody wanted me to take away what we called “the pretend center”. One child suggested that we make it a smaller pretend center. I questioned whether there would be anything that they could do in a small pretend center but the children thought that it could be a little store. After two days of discussions, it was decided that we would open up a little bookstore and that we could make the block area a little bit bigger. Unexpectedly, we were now beginning a mini-inquiry study of bookstores!
We visited a bookstore in the neighborhood, interviewed the workers and the bookstore owner, sketched and discussed the arrangement of the books in the store and stood outside the store observing, drawing and photographing how the store looked from the street. A few weeks were spent transforming the dramatic play area into a bookstore. Because it was a little bookstore, children who chose the writing center were busy writing little books. Our classroom library was searched for little books to add to the store collection. Children built an awning, made signs, constructed a cash register and made paper money, and wrote labels for the shelves, organizing the little books by subjects (just as they saw when they visited the neighborhood bookstore.) This exciting curricula detour lasted a few weeks and shows what can happen when children are challenged to consider and solve a classroom problem.
Choice time is not a part of the kindergarten program because it is in service of meeting the Common Core Learning Standards. Choice Time is part of the kindergarten program because it is essential that children have opportunities to play, investigate, explore, socialize, collaborate, think out of the box, play with a box, create…. have fun!