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.