Recently, a teacher new to teaching kindergarten asked me how she should know what centers and materials to offer children during Choice Time. She wondered what the “trick” is to planning for Choice Time.
I think that the most important aspect to planning choice time centers is for the teacher to be a good listener and observer. For example, in one class that I visited, the children were playing with Unifix cubes. They were making the line of cubes higher and higher. There was a lot of excitement. I walked over and exclaimed that the line of cubes seemed to be as tall as I am. I stepped over next to the tower. It reached my chin. One boy said, “wait” and got more cubes to add to it. (I actually had to put them on for him because, even though he got on tiptoes, he couldn’t reach. We kept adding one at a time until one of the children called out “Stop”. It was as tall as I am.
That was the perfect opportunity for the teacher to have the children share this experience at the Choice Time share meeting. She could start ‘wondering’ how many cubes might reach as tall as Sho Yin? How many Teddy Bears (little plastic teddy bear counters) could go from one end of Sho Yin to the other end? Hmm, maybe she would have to stretch out on the rug to be measured with Teddy Bears! What else could we use to measure Sho Yin? The teacher might start writing down the children’s suggestions and then come up with a great idea to share with the children. “How about a measuring center?” “What would we need to add to this center?” That is the birth of a new center that has grown right out of the teacher’s observations and interactions.
The children begin to pick up on the teacher’s interest in what is happening during Choice Time. They notice that she is writing down notes of interesting observations and often sharing these with the class. They will notice how she gets new ideas that grow out of these observations. If this happens enough, children will begin making suggestions for centers based on what they notice happening in their centers. One year a group of kindergarten children in my class asked to share their great idea at meeting. I really didn’t know what to expect. “Let’s make a castle in the Pretend Center!” Well, this made complete sense. For some reason, this class of children had a particular interest in castles, kings and queens, princes and princesses. Many castles had been constructed in the block center. I’m not quite sure where this particular interest came from. I had been reading the chapter book, The Wizard of Oz, to them and maybe this sparked the interest. I’m not quite sure but they certainly were enthusiastic about this topic. I said that they certainly could make a Castle Center but that we should first find out more about what was needed. Over the next few days I read some fairy tale picture books aloud (the version of Snow White illustrated by Nancy Eckholm Burkert was a favorite), and I found a shared reading book about a King (I can’t remember the title!). We made lists of what we needed in terms of dressing up and also decorations and then opened up an art center for making crowns, capes, wands, fancy-colored windows (dipping napkins in a water and food coloring mixture) and turning two chairs into fancy thrones. Signs were also made and hung up all around the center. Scrolls became important. There was a lot of writing important messages and proclamations on paper turned into scrolls. When all of this was done, the Castle Center was officially opened. It was interesting to observe the children playing there because, in many ways, it was the same type of play that they did pre-Castle…but with an added zest! It was the children’s incredible imagination and life force along with my openness to listening and taking their ideas seriously that opened up a new center for exploration and play.
Have you ever had a parent ask you if her/his child is ready for kindergarten? Have you ever heard a teacher complain about a child who doesn’t have enough academic skills to be in kindergarten?
I’ve been wondering a lot about these two questions.
Checking online, I found one after the other websites-advising parents about kindergarten readiness. Some sites discuss the pros and cons of redshirting, keeping a child back from kindergarten so as to give (usually) him an extra ‘edge’ in the grade and also giving him time to develop the ability to sit still for extended periods – time for hours of reading, writing, phonics and math.
My big question is this: Shouldn’t kindergarten be ready for all children?
Shouldn’t teachers (and administrators, of course) understand that within this kindergarten age group there’s a wide range of development, physically, socially and intellectually?
New York State, among many others, has adopted the Common Core Standards (a document that defines, grade by grade, what children should be able to do in reading, phonics, writing and math by the end of the school year.) These prescriptions are all about ‘academics’. Social and emotional issues are not even addressed. I could go on and on criticizing all different parts of these ‘standards’ but unfortunately this is what schools must consider when thinking about classroom practices.
What I’m noticing is that many schools seem to be feeding the fire of this hysteria by assuming that kindergarten must now, because of the standards, become the ‘new first grade.’ Hence come the fears and anxieties of parents who naturally want to protect their children and insure their school success.
However, I strongly believe that teachers (and administrators) should analyze these standards and then revisit the writings of John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky. It is possible to create classrooms where children have many opportunities to learn through exploration, play, exciting inquiry projects, singing songs, reading funny big book stories together and also meet the standards. This can, and should, be a class where there is an environment of stress-free learning and fun.
When I work as a consultant in kindergarten classes, I always stress the importance of keeping inquiry-based explorations and play at the core of the child’s day. Reading, writing and math workshops certainly can by incorporated into the program but they shouldn’t be the focus of the child’s day. When I was teaching, I certainly did have those workshops, but my day always began with a group meeting that flowed into choice time centers. I put a lot of thought into planning centers that challenged the children while they were playing and having fun. This started our school day with energy and good feelings.
Now, returning to those standards for kindergarten, here are some thoughts:
Why not sing Down by the Bay, Jenny Jenkins and many of the other rhyming songs, where children need to listen for and generate rhymes? Won’t children then be demonstrating an understanding of how to “recognize and produce rhyming words” and have fun at the same time?
Why not introduce an inquiry into the names of classmates? Children will gain contextual practice in recognizing alphabet letters. They’ll have many phonological and phonetic experiences when they clap out the syllables of the names and make interesting comparisons and ‘noticings’ (“Look! Akhira and Alexandra both start with A and end with A” “Lee only has 3 letters and it has one clap. Barbara has more letters and it has 3 claps”. “If we take away Pam’s P and change it for an S…its Sam! Pam and Sam have rhyming names!”) With teacher guidance, they begin learning the small, frequently used words that are hiding inside names (am is in Sam, and is in Randy, in is in Devin…).
Inquiry projects provide unlimited opportunities for teachers to keep an eye on helping children meet the standards. For example when children study the trees around the school, they get to make shape comparisons, measure tree trunks, see how leaves can float (if they’re lucky enough to have a water exploration center in the classroom!), learn how to use nonfiction texts to get new information By exploring a topic that is of interest and that is a part of their real world, children learn that they can use a variety of tools and strategies to look for answers to their questions. They become researchers!
If we were to judge how young children learn best by putting inquiry based learning on one side of a scale and hours of paper and pencil instruction on the other, I think that the result is a no-brainer. I believe that the scale would tip down on the side of inquiry. On the inquiry side children have fun while learning and practicing skills such as formulating and asking questions, recording information, purposefully using a variety of math strategies, working cooperatively in groups, and using many different avenues and materials for making discoveries.
When teachers move towards a constructivist approach, the knowledge and needs of the children becomes central. This is different than a teacher-led programmatic approach where the program goals are central and the children must adjust to them. By designing instruction based on the children’s prior knowledge there are more opportunities for children to feel successful. When a teacher gives children opportunities to explore areas that interest them, she is helping children develop a disposition to become self-directed life-long learners.
This is what kindergarten should be. In this type of classroom, kindergarten is ready for the child!
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.
Sharing our thoughts and ideas with friends is so important to all of us. I recently discussed an Amy Tan book that I had just finished reading with the members of my small book club. After reading the book, I thought that I had a pretty solid interpretation and opinion of the story but during our discussion, I realized that there were many aspects of the text that I hadn’t even thought about. When I got back home, I went right back to the book to reread particular passages that my friends referred to in our conversation. I needed to revise a bit of my original interpretation and assessment of the book!
Children too need time to share their discoveries, their artwork, their constructions and their dramatic play experiences. After Choice Time, it’s so productive and supportive of children’s ability to listen and respond to others experiences and ideas if we leave time for a group share meeting. Perhaps something unexpected or exciting happened at the art center or an exciting discovery was made at the water table. Was a new math game invented at the math center?
When the children and teacher meet for post-Choice Time-share children might be encouraged and enticed into choosing an activity the next day that they hadn’t previously considered trying. We are also reaffirming by sharing peer examples the idea that, during Choice Time, we honor and encourage innovation, collaboration and exploration.
As my good friend, Julie Diamond, wrote in a note to me, interest in trying new centers “can be further expanded when teachers find places in the room to display work after the meeting – time discussion”.
Keeping the discussed work up for a while allows children to continue this discussion, ask each other questions, think of what they might possibly do at the same center. It’s also a good idea to have areas of the classroom where Choice Time projects can be displayed…an empty shelf, a bulletin board, even a homemade shelf. My colleague, Connie Norgren, created shelves for her children’s woodworking projects by using pieces of cardboard and string. She hung these temporary display shelves on a pegboard. (see photo)
In some ways, Choice Time follows the workshop structure that is used by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. We begin at a group meeting with a brief ‘minilesson’, then the children have time for their ‘independent’ play and explorations, and we bring closure with our share meeting. It’s absurd to have to justify exploration and play for young children. However, if you have difficultly ‘justifying’ this very important part of the early childhood curriculum, you could call it “ Investigative Workshop” or “Exploration Workshop” instead of Choice Time. If that’s what it takes to make it work for you, go for it!
“The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy.”
Two years ago I had the opportunity to visit a class of 5 year olds in Reggio Emilia, Italy. They had just finished their morning group meeting and were beginning their ‘work period’. Twenty- four children were scattered around the classroom, which included a loft area containing unit blocks and a large bathroom with a washbasin that children used for water explorations. Block building, art, dramatic play, math activities, water play…all of this was happening in a room that buzzed with the sound of happy and engaged voices. What particularly amazed me was that this period lasted for two hours and children did not appear to be wandering from one activity to another. Occasionally, a child would walk over to another area to observe or chat with the teacher, but then he returned to his own activity, seemingly ‘recharged’ by the encounter.
Although I’m not suggesting a two- hour choice time, I do encourage teachers to expect children to stay at their chosen center for the entire period, rather than shifting from one activity to another. Concentration and focus are important elements in the learning process. It is logical for teachers to expect that children will become engrossed in an activity over an extended time period. However, as we well know, this doesn’t ‘just happen’ in a classroom setting. It takes a lot of teacher preparation, expectation, instruction and patience.
At the start of the year, I scheduled a relatively short Choice Time. I wanted children to be asking for more time rather than wondering what to do at their centers after ten or fifteen minutes. Little by little, the period was extended to an hour, sometimes longer. By late winter and spring children were often so engaged in their play and explorations that they usually continued at the same center for two, sometimes three, consecutive days.
I suggest that teachers always begin Choice Time with a class meeting. Think of this as a group planning time. Perhaps the discussion might be on how a new material might be used in one of the centers. It might focus on a problem that the teacher has noticed or one that the children have complained about. Clean-up time immediately comes to mind as a challenging activity for a group of young children. This might require a discussion and plan that takes place over a few pre-choice time meetings. The crucial word here for these discussions is ‘brief’ because children are eager to go off and play in their centers.
I know that many teachers rightfully will wonder how they can maintain a Choice Time where children are naturally focused and engaged in one area and where they don’t lose interest and walk off to join another center. There’s probably also questions about the child who has a meltdown after getting ‘closed out’ of a desired choice. These concerns and questions, (and I’m sure that there are many more that I haven’t mentioned), are very understandable and need to be taken very seriously. I’m going to attempt to share many of my ideas, experiences and suggestions in the next few weeks.
For today, I would like to share some thoughts about setting up and maintaining centers. The organization of each center is so important for encouraging extended explorations and innovative work. Think carefully about what might possibly happen in the center. What are the basic materials necessary for beginning explorations? Start simple. For example, in the art center, be sure that there’s a variety of paper, enough scissors for about 6 – 8 children, nice, new crayons, glue sticks, and maybe some colored chalk. Don’t put out an overwhelming amount of materials and add new supplies, little by little. You might want to have a whole-class art lesson on using paper strips for collage and sculptures. Then you could tell the children that there will be a basket of paper strips in the art center just in case they want to try something new during Choice Time.
You could introduce a water center by first giving partners a small pan of water to explore, using stirring sticks, sponges and straws. The entire class could do this exploration and then, after collecting the materials, you might give children a chance to share their ‘discoveries’. Having perked their interest in water, you could tell them that you will be setting up a water table (you just need a plastic baby-bath basin on a table) for Choice Time. After children have had more opportunities to play and explore with the sticks and sponges, you might begin introducing new materials like funnels and tubes.
The idea is that the centers start out simple enough for children to explore and play without being overwhelmed but they are also ‘open’ enough to keep adding new materials to extend the possibilities.
All of the centers should have appropriate materials for writing such as paper, blank booklets, memo pads, list paper, chart paper, crayons, pencils, markers, etc. There also could be a space at that center where children might post or hang up work. My centers all had at least one basket of books that somehow related to that area of concentration. I told the children that these were books for ‘inspiration’.
I tried to incorporate my classroom tables into the centers, rather than having a cluster of tables in the middle of the room. This served two purposes. Having the table in the center gave the area a more permanent ‘studio’ or ‘laboratory’ ambiance. Also, it was much easier for children to independently get started as soon as Choice Time began, rather than have me ‘assign’ tables or room spots for each center.
Room design is so important. The room set up literally speaks to the child, but that is yet another discussion!
Exploration is what you do when you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s what scientists do every day. If a scientist already knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t be discovering anything, because they already knew what they were doing. Neil de Grasse Tyson
Director, New York Hayden Planetarium
This week, I received emails from two teachers, each asking for advice and information about Choice Time. They want to know what kinds of Choices to offer, systems to keep Choice Time from becoming chaotic and unfocused, how often to schedule Choice Time, what they should be doing during Choice Time, how many choices to open at one time, etc. These are all important questions that I want to answer so as to give these teachers as much support as possible. But, that said, I think that it’s important to first explain why I value Choice Time and why I spent so much time planning for this part of my kindergarten and first grade curriculum.
Choice Time provides a point and place, during the school day, for children to make sense of the adult world. So much of what happens in the classroom today is driven by a standardized, scripted curriculum. Teachers are bound by pacing calendars and quantitative assessments. Because of these mandates, children have less and less opportunities to make decisions, even down to being able to chose what they will be writing each day. That is why it’s important to provide time for children to explore, theorize, create, and experience the frustration of learning through trial and error.
My ideal Choice Time involves an active teacher who, by listening closely to children’s conversations and monologues, becomes aware of many of their understandings, misunderstandings and wonderings. This invaluable insight into their world provides the teacher with the seeds for planting future classroom dialogues and inquiries.
In planning choice time centers, I would suggest keeping in mind your big goals for the year. I wanted children to develop independence and self-confidence. Making interdisciplinary connections and beginning to generate personal lines of inquiry and exploration is another important goal. I provided many opportunities for children to use reading, writing and mathematics in ways that would support their own, self-directed projects and activities. Children should understand that they could use classroom equipment and materials in new and innovative ways. There should be many opportunities within the center for children to expand and deepen their use of language to express ideas, discoveries and confusions. When there was a sense all of this happening, then I knew that I was on the right track and my Choice Time was becoming successful in meeting my goals.
In setting up choice time centers, I planned to leave opportunity for children to ‘set their own agendas’. In September, the centers were usually rather basic: blocks, dramatic play, play dough, an art center, water explorations, a science table perhaps with shells to explore. These were a few of the possible early centers. As the year proceeded, centers became more focused on the children’s particular interests and on class inquiry studies. For example what began in September as ‘water explorations’ might possibly become a ‘water-machine invention’ center where children were experimenting at constructing water machines. At the playdough table, instead of making traditional flour and salt playdough, children might be creating their own innovations on the traditional recipe, adding sand or sparkles to the batter to see what would happen.
Although I was setting up the centers and deciding, initially, what materials to include, my ‘message’ was “I wonder what interesting projects you are going to come up with?” We would have interesting class discussions centered on “what can we imagine doing with this new paper?” or “Are there any thoughts on what we might explore with our new microscope? What new materials will we need to bring to the science table to help you with your science investigation?”
Generally, there wasn’t a specific ‘task’ to be completed although, sometimes, there might be a particular focus for a center. For example, one year when my class was studying the waterways in New York City we read about landforms and how they affected the creation of these waterways. This topic fascinated many of the children and they asked if they could use our sand table to make their own landforms using the Plasticene that we had in our art studio. I emptied the sand from the table and each day a group of children went to work on this project. There was a big basket of reference books and some photographs of landforms such as mesas, buttes, mountains and valleys. The children decided on how this project would proceed and, on some occasions, a few disagreements erupted, such as on the day when Alex decided to add spikes to her butte. She adamantly insisted that buttes had spikes. When the children came complaining to me about this, I suggested to Alex that she defend her decision to add spikes by finding some pictures of buttes in the book basket. I walked away and left the group, hoping that they would come to some mutual agreement. When I came back, I saw that the other two children, looking through the photos with Alex, convinced her that the buttes should be ‘spike-free’. Through their dialogue, conflict, and rhetoric the children pulled apart an idea, experimented with different strategies and eventually arrived at a point of compromise and satisfaction.
There’s so much more that I will be writing about Choice Time in future entries…helpful routines for making it run smoothly, ideas for new centers, the role of the teacher during choice time, assessing the work that the children are doing in their centers, dealing with problems like scheduling and clean up time, making connections to the curriculum, how it looks different across the year and from grade to grade…and any other choice time questions that come up over the course of the year.
When I taught kindergarten and first grade, the most exciting part of my day was Choice Time, when children had time to pursue an inquiry topic, explore materials and ideas and, of course, have space and time to play. If you would have asked any of the children what the most exciting time of the day was for them, I would not have been surprised if they would have also named Choice Time as the best part of their school day.
Now that I’m a staff developer working with early childhood teachers I can see that it’s difficult for them, considering the push for high academic standards for young children, to program Choice Time into their daily schedules. My challenge is to help them (and their administrators) understand that a well-planned Choice Time gives children the opportunities to explore new ideas, problem-solve, practice newly-learned literacy skills in personally meaningful contexts, and, quite importantly, to have fun playing!
I’m starting this blog to open up a forum for sharing ideas, reflections, memories, suggestions, problems and questions about Choice Time. Ideally, we will all have the opportunity to dialogue on the topic.
In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior. In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.
The door is open. Let our Choice Time conversation begin!