Research and Play: Looking at Choice Time Centers

Recently, I was asked if I could create a rubric to help teachers and other educators look critically at Choice Time centers in their classrooms. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable creating a document where teachers used a scale to rate themselves. However, I do think that it might be helpful for teachers and administrators who are new to inquiry-based centers and investigations to have some format for thinking about the why and how of Choice Time centers.

After I finished typing up a “Looking at Choice Time Centers” document, I received two interesting communications. I had shared the document with a kindergarten teacher in Michigan who is very commited to play-based learning so that I might get some helpful ideas and feedback. In her response, she wrote, “About the only thing your missing is a citation for research you used to show that these principles are “research based.” Very soon after that, I received an email from a teacher who asked if I could give her some support in helping families understand the importance of play in her prekindergarten classroom.

I came to realize that the document needed a reference to the research on the importance of play. I think that it’s important for teachers and administrators to be aware of some of the relevant research on young children and play. This is information for them to share with families. There might be a classroom binder containing a range of articles that parents can borrow. Workshops where parents are invited to experience some of the opportunities for explorations in different centers and also meetings where parents get to hear and question guest speakers might create a community that understands and supports play-based learning. I’ve often said that parents want what is best for their children. As educators, we should be helping families understand the research and see educators support children’s social, emotional and intellectual growth through their play.

Do you have articles or references about the importance of play that can be shared with other teachers and parents on this blog? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all shared one or two of our favorite articles and then there would be a large menu of references for parents and teachers to choose from? Would you consider sharing with our community of readers? How exciting that would be!

Here is the document that I created. Of course just as we are always growing as educators, this document too is a work in progress!
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Looking at Choice Time Centers

 

Before we look at how centers are set up, introduced and functioning, it’s probably important to personally clarify why we have centers in the first place. Here are some possible goals that you might have for your Choice Time centers.

Focus: We want children to become engaged in activities that will encourage extended focus and commitment.

Independence: Children should be able to use materials independently and creatively.

Language Growth: We would like centers to give children opportunities to develop an expanded vocabulary such as, “I’m building a huge tower that reaches all the way to outer space!” or “Look at the snail’s track of slime.”

Literacy: By providing children with appropriate books, paper and writing implements, they will have opportunities to practice emerging skills such as writing prescriptions in the pretend doctor’s office, making signs and maps in the block center, and drawing observations and diagrams in the science center, using books to research different self-portraits in the art center.

Metacognition: We are giving children opportunities to develop greater metacognition. If children were pretending that they were going on an airplane trip, and they were taking on different roles, they would have to consider:  What does the pilot do? What should I do when I get on the plane with my baby? Who will be serving the food and drinks?

Perception and Play: We give children opportunities to explore their world.  Children might use the experience of a trip to the firehouse to transform their pretend center into a fire station, using their memory of the trip, trip sketches and photographs.

Self-Regulation: We want to support children in developing self-regulation such as learning to take turns and to share materials. Children will be sharing in decision-making at centers and will have many opportunities for social interactions that might involve conflict resolution.

Symbolic Behavior: We will give children opportunities to use symbolic and problem-solving strategies such as figuring out how to use chairs, hollow blocks and paper to create an airplane for dramatic play.

   Research:  We base our work on research that highlights the importance of honoring play-   based learning.This information is helpful to share with families who often have anxieties and confusion about the importance of play in school.  ( i.e. Children from Birth to Five: Academics Versus Play,” policy statement of the Alliance for Childhood (2003); “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds”, Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, and the Committee on Communications and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health; ‘Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need Play in School”, Alliance for Childhood, Almon and Miller.)

 

Growth in Centers

Ask yourself if you see a potential for growth in each center? Look carefully at the centers and see how they might change over the course of time. (i.e. Water Table Center: Begin simply with a water table, move to an exploration of bubbles, floating and sinking, building boats, color mixing, etc.)

Observations, Comments and Goals:
Materials

Are there enough, but not too many, materials in the center to appeal to children with different interests and abilities?  Are the materials appropriate for the explorations being done at a center? For example, if children were being encouraged to carefully observe and draw a snail in the science center, then crayons would be an inappropriate writing implement to use for this activity. If you would like children to begin exploring how to create various lines and colors in the art center,  markers would be an inappropriate material to include at this center because the potential for exploration with this writing and drawing implement is limited.

Observations, Comments and Goals:
Time:  

Do children have enough time for exploration?

Sometimes children need time to “mess around” with materials at a center before becoming engaged and focused.  Once children become engaged and self-directed, they need enough time for their explorations.

Some teachers have children move to a new center after ten or twenty minutes. Children should never be required to rotate from one center to the other during a Choice Time period. This rotation defeats our goal of supporting focus and engagement.

Observations, Comments and Goals:
Choice:

Do children get to choose where they will be playing? Are there enough choices of centers available so that children are not “stuck” with a center that doesn’t engage him/her?

Are children’s suggestions for new centers discussed and, if appropriate, honored?

Observations, Comments and Goals:
Routines

Is there a consistent, predictable structure for Choice Time, such as a short pre-center discussion, extended time at centers, clean up and a share meeting?

Is there a chart that shows all of the choices available, with pictures and labels, so children can see what centers they can choose from?

Are there appropriate numbers of children that can play at each center? This number might be indicated on the choice chart. Consider letting children come up with numbers for centers based on their play experiences. (i.e. If children complain that It was too crowded in the Pretend Center and that there were too many children there, you might suggest “Perhaps this week we can think about whether it would be better to put a number that tells how many children can play there together. Let’s think about that this week and talk about it in a few days.”)

Is there a consistent, not random, method of calling on children to make choices? One idea is to have a list of students on a chart and have a paper clip that is lowered on the chart to a new name each day.

Are clean-up routines clear and consistent?

Observations, Comments and Goals:
Space

Is the allotted space appropriate for each center? Blocks and Dramatic Play need a great deal of space. Science needs a smaller space. Art needs enough table space so that children can work on big projects.

Remember that space for centers should be fluid and will probably change over the course of the year. Some centers might not need much space at the start of the year but at some point in the year will need more space. There might be new centers added and centers taken away either temporarily or permanently. Follow the lead of the children and their play patterns.

Observations, Comments and Goals:
Assessment and Planning

Choice Time observations are qualitative. Observations can inform future work in  a particular center. They also can focus on what children are accomplishing at a center.

It helps to do an observation with a question in mind. Your initial observation notes should be value-free. Only write what you see. Transcripts are helpful. Later in the day you can reread your observations and record your reflections. Think of what you’re learning about the center or the interactions of the children at the center?

You can then use this information to plan your next instructional steps. It might mean introducing new, challenging provocations to the center.

Your next instructional steps will be based on your initial observations and your reflections.

Observations, Comments and Goals:

 

7 thoughts on “Research and Play: Looking at Choice Time Centers

  1. Laura Wagonlander

    I like to use anything by Peter Gray when I am defending Play. His book, Free to Learn is a mainstay of mine, as are his articles in Psychology Today. Here is more recent interview with him regarding his work:

    http://www.journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/5-3-interview-play-as-preparation.pdf

    I am currently on working on filling out a School Improvement plan and Program Evaluation in order for our school to receive funding for professional development next year. It requires “current” research be used to defend our decisions for PD. That means if I want to use research from David Elkind and some of the other giants of early childhood I need to find recent articles that prove their research is still relevant. It irritates me that the original can’t be used.

    Reply
  2. Claudia

    I have been teaching kdg for over 20 years. I used a management board for choice time but gave it up years ago. Now children just go to whatever center they’d like. They never seem to have a problem self selecting or self regulating. Our choice time is right after snack so as kids finish eating they just go off and play. Some kids like to take their time eating and chatting – others eat a small snack and are off to work quickly. I also used to limit the number of kids per center, but gave that up as well. The only area that has a limit of 4 children is the sand table as it gets crowded – but there too I’ve been moving away from limiting the number of kids who can play. As for other centers, as long as the children are working cooperatively I generally don’t enforce limitations. As the year progresses and they become a more cohesive community there may be many kids playing together. This year there were times 15 of 20 students were playing together in dramatic play area! When it comes to choice time I find the children are very independent from day one!

    Reply
  3. Renee Post author

    Claudia, this sounds really interesting. I’d love to see photos of your class. Perhaps you could share some on the blog. I’m sure other readers would find it interesting.

    Reply
  4. Claudia

    I don’t take too many photos but my class web page from March shows kids at work both during choice time and other times (writing workshop, math, etc. https://www.ardsleyschools.org/Page/4999
    BTW Each year we are required to choose a goal. My colleague and I chose free play. I like to relate the goal to the Danielson rubric since that’s what our district uses so I chose engagement. We quoted you as a premise for our work, “A child’s engagement is the most powerful asset we have for teaching and learning.” Thank you for the link to recent research too!

    Reply
  5. Renee Post author

    Thank you Claudia.
    Do you have some articles on the importance of play that you might share? I’d love to amass a juicy listing that I can share.
    Thanks again!

    Reply
  6. Claudia

    Unfortunately, my big file of articles on play dates back to grad school – 25+ years ago. I find when trying to make a case, the old stuff, no matter how valid, is not received as well as recent research. (For me, John Dewey still said it best!) One thing of interest I read that IS current: All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy: The Case For Play At All Educational Levels by Prof.
    Mikkaka Overstreet
    https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/TJxiydMTcJN3cdBazZPZ/full

    Reply
  7. Renee Post author

    Claudia, thank for the article. I particularly like this paragraph : “Play is not controlled by outsiders, but is “spontaneous, voluntary, intentional, pleasurable…and done for its own sake” (Burghardt, 2010 Burghardt, G. M. (2010). Defining and recognizing play. In Nathan, P. & Pellegrini, A. (Eds.) The oxford handbook of the development of play. Oxford University Press.
    [Crossref], [Google Scholar]
    . In play, children are powerful. They can be anyone or anything they choose. They can safely reject or defy the authority of the adult world. They can discover solutions to the problems they face in their daily lives (and thereby gain confidence in their abilities to shape their experiences), but at a safe distance from the problems and without the consequences of trying out these solutions in the dangerous “real world”

    Reply

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