Tag Archives: Zone of Actual Development

Virtual Conversations on Virtual Choice Time



For so many of us, all around the world, this Coronavirus pandemic has tilted life to an unfamiliar and uncomfortable angle. Life isn’t as it should be. It’s a confusing time, a frightening time and a complicated time. Days take on  different meanings depending on what is and is not  happening in our lives. Many teachers are struggling to connect with their students as they juggle their personal responsibilites as parents  who are  home schooling  their own children. It’s overwhelming!

As an early childhood consultant I have been trying to imagine how to productively use my time and how I can virtually connect with teachers. Those first weeks of sheltering at home caused my days to stretch on and on. I was feeling like a person without a purpose.

I wondered if there were a few teachers or parents who would like to explore Choice Time with me. I posted a proposal of my Facebook page and waited to see if anyone might be interested. This is what I wrote:

I’m planning to begin an online, Zoom, presentation/conversation with teachers about Choice Time and Inquiry Projects. My idea is to present a Powerpoint and classroom videos. There would be opportunities for discussion. Using Zoom is quite new to me but I’m pretty excited at the prospect of communicating with teachers! It would be appropriate for teachers of Prekindergarten through Second Grade. PM me if you’re interested.

The response was overwhelming. Teachers from all parts of the world responded. How impressive it was for people who were working so hard to continue teaching on line to even consider spending some of their “spare” time joining a Choice Time discussion group.

The conversations the first week focused primarily on play and Choice Time. We explored what free play looks like and how it might be transferred into the classroom. You can watch the first session here: https://vimeo.com/406286992

The second week was devoted to looking at and discussing two different whole class inquiry projects. One study took place in a prekindergarten classroom and the second one took place in a kindergarten class. Both classes were in New York City public schools. You can view the second week’s session here:  https://vimeo.com/411393368

The third week was opened up for teachers to share how they were providing Choice Time opportunities for children as part of their virtual teaching.

How can we avoid giving children “tasks” to do? Can we tweak what was originally a task and encourage children to use the same materials in a more explorative and creative way? For example, instead of giving children specific  activities to do with 10 stones or buttons, might we challenge them to see if they can create an interesting design or pattern with the stones. Perhaps we could ask them,”What were you thinking about when you created your design?  Can you think of ways to move them around to create  something new? Would you like to add something to your collection and see what you can make? What kinds of ideas do you have?” This gives the children  opportunities to play, explore and use creative, higher-order thinking.


In a recent zoom workshop for prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers, I was asked if I could include ideas for virtual choice time. Not having taught virtually myself, I was reluctant to do this. I wondered if my ideas might not be helpful. I did give it a try and the feedback was positive, so I’ll share some of what I came up with.

  • Keep a consistent daily schedule
  • Maintain routines that children will become familiar with
  • Include songs and chants
  • Have a regularly scheduled storytime. Perhaps invite family members and other people in the school who the children know to record a reading of a storybook.
  • Perhaps include a question of the day. When this becomes routine, children can come up with a question or wondering for everyone to consider.
  • •Remember that this is a stressful time for all, teachers, children and parents. Keep the emotional needs of all a priority.
    •Parents, during virtual teaching and learning, are our partners. Is it possible to have separate group meetings with parents to answer their questions and to tell them what your aims are? This will help them bond as partners in teaching and learning

Some ideas…

A Looking Out of My Window book

•Take some blank papers and fold them together to make a little book.
• Every day draw a picture of something you see when you look out of your window.
•You might see a bird, a car, a tree, maybe even flowers.
•You can make a “detail finder” by cutting a peep-hole in a paper. This will help you look really closely!



Ikea posted ideas for making hide-outs.

•First get children’s ideas and then, if it seems helpful, show these pictures.
•Only use these pictures as prompts to start a conversation about building a special reading and play spot at home.
Chore Week
•At morning meeting, brainstorm some chores to do at home. Possibilities are washing dishes, setting the table, sorting socks from the laundry, folding laundry, putting away toys, making the bed, etc.
•Each child can pick a chore that they want to do.
•Parents (or older siblings) can video tape the child doing the chore and send it to the teacher.
•The teacher can  make a “chore montage” and everyone can watch it together.
•This might be followed by a discussion of other ways to be helpers at home, how it felt to get a chore done, who helps out in our community and in our home, etc.
Go on a search around your home
•See how many electrical items are in each room.
•Can you draw a picture of something you might invent that could use electricity?
You might want to use recycled materials to construct a new machine.
•Can you give names to parts of your invention and label them?
•You might want to write a story about your invention. Let your imagination go wild!
•Listen to your favorite song. Make up a dance or exercise routine to go with your song. Ask the teacher if you can share it at meeting and teach it to the class.
•Play a board game with someone in your family. Then see if you can make up your own board game. You can play it with someone in your family. Ask your teacher if you can share it at a class morning meeting.
•Can you draw a map of your room or of your apartment? What are the landmarks that are very important to you?
•You might imagine that you are a pirate and you’re looking for a treasure. Draw a treasure map.
•Think of everything on your mind. How could you draw a map of your mind? What about a map of your heart?
Cooking Together Day
•Children (with an adult) cook the dish and the teacher cooks along with them.
•Send the recipe a week ahead so parents can prepare ingredients and be familiar with the recipe.
•Children who can’t participate might sketch what is happening and make a recipe/cook book. Perhaps they might want to create their own recipe.
Some recipe ideas
•Making playdough together
•Cinnamon toast
•Scrambled eggs
•Deviled eggs
•Ironed grill cheese sandwiches
•Fresh squeezed OJ or lemonade
• Pancakes
•English Muffin Pizza
Two kindergarten teachers from the Dalton Hong Kong school shared some ideas with me via zoom.
I sometimes asked children if they could change their intials into new or silly pictures. This is a similar challenge.

As a final 2-cents piece of advice, I really would like to urge teachers and parents to ignore any message that children are “falling behind” during this time. Children are naturally curious and they are always learning something. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to observe, listen, support and facilitate children’s learning by understanding what they know, what they’re interested in and to build on that. Vygotsky wrote of the zones of development. Young children need to have the freedom to explore and learn in their Actual Zone of Development, their comfort zone. As teachers, we can gently and perceptively challenge them to stretch into their  Zone of Proximal Development. This is where they can experience the excitement discovering new understandings just as this prekindergarten boy did when he proudly blurted out, “I did it!.”


book nookWhat have we done to kindergarten? Like the loss of so many aspects of our democracy, the concept of kindergarten as a garden for children is disappearing from sight. In both cases, my heart is breaking.

I’ve made the unfortunate move of joining some Facebook sites for kindergarten teachers and when I read many of the posts, my blood begins to boil.
“We introduce 2 new words a week as well as review what we have learned. (We have 40 words on our county sight word list.) The motions and visual piece really help my kiddos. I do not always read what is listed on the back…Sometimes I just make up my own.”
• “ I only have 25 mandatory words, but last year when all the kiddos mastered them by November, I carefully selected another 25 to put out there for exposure. I use the small cards, in a pocket chart near our morning meeting things. Introduce 5 or so a week October – December and then daily review one column of five each day of the week.”
• “We have 87 sight words!!!”
• “Our home living areas were taken away this summer”

What does NAEYC, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, say about appropriate kindergarten practices? How do they define what seems to be considered an out of date expression “Developmentally Appropriate Practices?” I went to their website to check it out.

Here’s what is written on their Kindergarten page:
“Developmentally appropriate practice… is an approach to teaching grounded in the research on how young children develop and learn and in what is known about effective early education. Its framework is designed to promote young children’s optimal learning and development.
DAP involves teachers meeting young children where they are (by stage of development), both as individuals and as part of a group; and helping each child meet challenging and achievable learning goals.”

They write that kindergarten must fit appropriately between preschool and first grade. I’ll add to that by saying that kindergarten shouldn’t be confused with first grade.

Here are some teaching tips that are provided on the NAEYC kindergarten page:

“Teachers must balance kindergartners’ varying abilities and needs while making sure that the curriculum fits appropriately between preschool and first grade.

Let’s see what DAP {Developmentally Appropriate Practice} in kindergarten looks like:
Mrs. K sits with Keira, going over letter-sound correspondence. Then she goes to the block area to help Shelley. Mrs. K doesn’t make pronouncements; instead, she respectfully waits for the right moment to build on children’s existing conversations. She listens attentively and understands where, when, and how to intervene. She joins in the children’s play, modeling positive behavior. Her contributions are subtle, playful, and full of teaching.

Kindergarten teachers must fully engage in the social world of the classroom and be intentional in their interactions and instruction. With the many differences among—and wide age range of—kindergartners, teachers should be responsive to developmental, individual, and cultural variation. Thoughtful, sensitive teaching promotes a joy of learning and prepares children for further academic challenges.

Acknowledge what children do or say. Let children know that we have noticed by giving positive attention, sometimes through comments, sometimes through just sitting nearby and observing. (“Thanks for your help, Kavi.” “You found another way to show 5.”)

Encourage persistence and effort rather than just praising and evaluating what the child has done. (“You’re thinking of lots of words to describe the dog in the story. Let’s keep going!”)

• Give specific feedback rather than general comments. (“The beanbag didn’t get all the way to the hoop, James, so you might try throwing it harder.”)

Model attitudes, ways of approaching problems, and behavior toward others, showing children rather than just telling them (“Hmm, that didn’t work and I need to think about why.” “I’m sorry, Ben, I missed part of what you said. Please tell me again.”)

Demonstrate the correct way to do something. This usually involves a procedure that needs to be done in a certain way (such as using a wire whisk or writing the letter P).

Create or add challenge so that a task goes a bit beyond what the children can already do. For example, you lay out a collection of chips, count them together and then ask a small group of children to tell you how many are left after they see you removing some of the chips. The children count the remaining chips to help come up with the answer. To add a challenge, you could hide the chips after you remove some, and the children will have to use a strategy other than counting the remaining chips to come up with the answer. To reduce challenge, you could simplify the task by guiding the children to touch each chip once as they count the remaining chips.

Ask questions that provoke children’s thinking. (“If you couldn’t talk to your partner, how else could you let him know what to do?”)

Give assistance (such as a cue or hint) to help children work on the edge of their current competence (“Can you think of a word that rhymes with your name, Matt? How about bat . . . Matt/bat? What else rhymes with Matt and bat?”)

Provide information, directly giving children facts, verbal labels, and other information. (“This one that looks like a big mouse with a short tail is called a vole.”)

Give directions for children’s action or behavior. (“Touch each block only once as you count them.” “You want to move that icon over here? Okay, click on it and hold down, then drag it to wherever you want.”)”

It’s interesting that there’s nothing written about requiring children to memorize a bank of sight words or number facts. The emphasis seems to be more on helping children to understand, question, manipulate materials. Although the expression isn’t used, the message is to consider the child’s Zone of Actual Development and Zone of Proximal Development when introducing a challenge.

It’s so important that teachers and administrators remember the importance of play in the life of a four, five and six year old child. As I wrote in my book Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, “…when children are at play, they’re not just playing – they’re learning. Play is the engine that drives their learning.”rachel_sci1

Photo: Kristin Eno

All of this information presents some big challenges. How can we be sure that teachers of kindergarten children understand the basic principles of developmentally appropriate practice? How can we support them to stand up to administrators who don’t have this understanding so that they can provide joyful, playful, intellectually challenging kindergarten classrooms?

These are important questions that I’m pondering. What are your thoughts and suggestions? How can we support kindergarten classrooms where the goal for each child isn’t to memorize 80 sight words but rather to develop socially, creatively and inquisitively?