Category Archives: Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play

early childhood education, children, play

Book Launch Part 1 : Why Choice Time?

chapter-1-collaborationOn Tuesday, September 6th the Brooklyn Historical Society graciously hosted the launch of my book Choice Time- How To Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2. To my great surprise over 200 people showed up for the event. Luckily I had arranged for a former kindergarten student of mine, Jimmy Negron, to videotape the evening.

There were two parts to the launch. First I narrated a Powerpoint presentation showing images from the book and spoke a bit about the importance of inquiry-based learning. Then I was joined on stage by Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School.  We discussed the challenge of introducing progressive practices into New York City public schools.

Today’s post shows Part One, “Why Choice Time.”

If you would like to read more about the book, check my page on the Heinemann website,

Can Learning As Play Make a Kindergarten Comeback ?

1(Urban Matters)  September 21, 2016

Can ‘Learning as Play’ Make a Kindergarten Comeback?

By Lydie Raschka

One day last school year, a girl in Fanny Roman’s kindergarten class at PS 244 in Flushing, Queens arrived bubbling with excitement about her new shoes. With Roman’s encouragement, she began tracing classmates’ feet on paper and constructing “shoes,” using pipe cleaners for laces. Her enthusiasm proved contagious; in response, Roman read poetry and picture books about shoes and students set up a play shoe store of their own, with different-sized shoes in boxes, labeled “Jellies” or “Sneakers”, as they categorized by size and even priced their wares. In their writing, they started using words such as “Velcro,” buckles” and “shoelaces.”

Welcome to “choice time.” In a number of New York City elementary school kindergarten classes, it revives, in modified fashion, the once-common play-as-learning “free time” that’s been driven almost to extinction in favor of whole-class instruction, textbooks, worksheets, and other elements of more rigorous education in the Common Core era.

Nationally, the amount of kindergarten time spent on reading and math instruction has substantially increased, according to a recent study published by AERA Open, titled, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” Authors Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Rorem found that some 80% of a national sample of teachers now believe students should learn to read in kindergarten, compared to only 31% who thought that in 1998; only 40% reported at least an hour of student-driven activities per day in their classrooms.

While there’s no question that early education is critical, there’s also a growing number of researchers, educators, and parents questioning whether the formal academic approach now rooted in many kindergarten classrooms has gone too far.

Academic expectations and play don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals, some early childhood experts say. Lilian G. Katz, author of Lively Minds: Distinctions Between Academic versus Intellectual Goals for Young Children, argues that while “bits of information,” such as learning the sound of the letter “s,” do matter, they may not warrant as much time as schools increasingly give them. She and other prominent educators, including Deborah Meier and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, are part of a nonprofit group called “Defending the Early Years,” intended to help early childhood educators combat an increased focus on academics over the discovery, inquiry, and play that stimulates the mind in a fuller way and is often called “choice time.”

Another highly respected, now retired, elementary school teacher in New York City, Renée Dinnerstein, believes that a way to stimulate a rich choice time is to “make the classroom into a sort of laboratory for children – to create a science center where they really feel like scientists; an art center where they really feel like artists.”

“The challenge,” she says, “is to plan inquiry-based, explorative choice time, acknowledging important elements of free play within the high standards expected” in the Common Core-era classroom – even in kindergarten.

Dinnerstein expands on these ideas on her blog, Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration and Play, and in a new book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning through Inquiry and Play, Pre-K – 2 published by Heinemann Press. In recent years, she also has helped develop kindergarten choice time at various local schools.

“The teacher’s prepared environment is essentially what differentiates free play and choice time,” Dinnerstein says. That can mean, for example, creating a classroom “construction area” replete with kid-sized safety goggles, vests, blocks, hard hats, sign-making materials and mini-people or animals. Teachers introduce items of interest based on what kids say and do.

PS 244 principal Bob Groff says that for his students (drawn from a heavily Chinese immigrant neighborhood where some 70% start school with little or no English) “choice time is a great opportunity to develop language socially and academically at the same time.” It also encompasses reading, writing, and math learning goals. “This blends all of that together,” he said. “It’s natural, not forced. It’s going to have more long-lasting success.”

Kindergarten teacher Fanny Roman is a believer in choice time, too, and has put it at the start of the school day. “I liked it first thing,” she said. “It made me so excited every day to come in.” Nevertheless, choice time also takes time—time that isn’t easy to find. “Every minute counts,” said Roman. “It’s all about the testing grades and what we have to do to get them ready in kindergarten.”

Dinnerstein thinks those minutes could be used better—to create an intellectually stimulating kindergarten that promotes reasoning, analyzing, predicting, and questioning. “When kids are pushed to read early, they’re not pushed to do a lot of thinking,” she said. “It’s not like I’m against children learning to read. [But] I don’t think the goal is that every child leaving kindergarten has to learn to read. If you have two children in one family, they’re not learning everything at the same speed—crawling, pushing up, standing—but they all end up walking.”

Lydie Raschka is on the staff of the InsideSchools project of the Center for New York City Affairs. She’s a Montessori teacher-trainer during the summer months.
Photo Credit: Fanny Roman
Urban matters home

The Spirit of Synchronicity

Chapter 7 DRAMATIC PLAYIs there a shift in the wind? Are teachers and parents finally fed up? Could the interest in my book on Choice Time indicate a return to joyful, age-appropriate, explorative learning?

There appears to be a genuine interest in moving towards inquiry-based, rather than test-driven, instruction. Heinemann ‘s decision to publish a book that puts this belief out front is commendable. Hopefully their support of the importance of play and inquiry signifies a meaningful climate change that will open the doors to a better educational experience for children.

Sometimes the spirit of synchronicity looks kindly upon us!at water table

If you’re in New York City this Tuesday, I hope you might join me for the official launch of my book.
Book Launch Event

September 6, 2016
6:30 p.m.
The Brooklyn Historical Society
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Tel. 718-222-4111

How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play

Renée Dinnerstein
Foreword by Kathy Collins

Join me for
A PowerPoint presentation with photographs and videos from NYC classrooms

A short reading of selections from the book

A conversation with Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School
We will discuss the potential of introducing progressive ideas to our public schools.

Q & A

Wine and Snacks

Book signing
Books will be available for purchase at the event

RSVP would be greatly appreciated. ([email protected])

book cover

Photographs by Kristen Brenneman Eno


Revisiting “Camping Out”


6.6  wendyTwo years ago I wrote a blog entry about an exciting, unexpected beginning- of -the- year study that merged inquiry, literacy and play. It’s not necessarily something that anyone would repeat since it came so naturally to my class that particular year. However it is an example of what the possibilities are when the teacher listens carefully to the children and feels free enough to run with the ball when the opportunity arises.

Here it is: Camping Out

“As soon as I saw you, I knew a grand adventure was about to happen.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie –the- Pooh

Before pacing calendars, before the hysteria of Common Core Learning Standards, before preparing four and five year olds to be college and career ready, there actually were some wonderful classroom opportunities for opening doors and embracing unexpected opportunities for learning. Many years after the fact, (actually eighteen years later) I can recall one of those special moments.

It was September 1996, the start of another teaching year with a new group of kindergarten children. As I did most years, I encouraged each child to bring a favorite storybook from home to share with the class. These books were kept in a special “sharing basket” and each day I picked a few to read aloud. I never, ever would have predicted what was going to happen when I picked Lee’s book to read.

I truly enjoy reading most children’s books but there’s one series that I find particularly tedious and uninspiring, the Berenstain Bears books. However, as much as I avoided reading them to the class, the children seemed to equally love each one in the series. Why? I couldn’t quite figure that out but, nevertheless, there’s obviously something in the humor of the adventures that appeals to five year old children.

Lee’s book was The Berenstain Bears’ Camping Adventure and the minute that I finished my reading, the sounds of “read it again” rang out all around the carpet. O.K., I’m a rather obliging sort so I did it – I read it again. Each day that week the children asked if I could reread that silly tale of a bear family’s adventurous camping trip. Finally, after about the fourth reading that week, I put the book aside and asked if anyone in the class ever went on a real overnight camping trip in the woods. A small sprinkling of hands went up. Most of the children had never gone camping.

“Hmm, I wonder….” (As the year progressed, they would begin to realize that those two words often prefaced some class adventure or project.) “I wonder…could we imagine that a forest grew in our classroom, that day turns to night, and that we could go on a classroom camping trip? I wonder…” Well, can you imagine what happened next? “Yes!!” “Yes, let’s do it!!”

With the excitement beginning to reach a high pitch, I lifted my hands to indicate that it was time to settle down and I said, “Let’s think about it and talk about this tomorrow.” I wanted to see if the idea would sustain over night and I also wanted to think about this crazy idea that I had just proposed!

The next day the children came to school buzzing with excitement about our camping trip. Their parents, on the other hand, looked totally confused. It’s September and you’re taking my five year old on a camping trip…and at night? What kind of crazy teacher did we end up with this year? I certainly would need to send out a class newsletter very soon!

At our morning meeting, we couldn’t seem to move away from the topic of a classroom camping trip. They were just too excited, so I asked the children to talk to each other about what they knew about the forest and about camping trips. Then we had a class share. All different themes and concepts, seemed to present themselves: forest animals, dangerous animals like tigers and elephants, trees, flowers, bears, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, starry skies at night, camping gear like tents, sleeping bags, and flashlights, campfires, roasting marshmallows, etc.

I told the children that, if we were going to do a good job of turning our classroom into a forest and getting ready for a camping trip, then we would have to do some research. This new word warranted a longer discussion so it was tabled for our next meeting.

When I came back to the topic and began to discuss research with the children, we brainstormed for ways of getting information. An interesting comment on the time that this took place is that nobody suggested that we use the Internet! Reading books and talking with people who had experience seemed to be the most popular suggestions and hence began our first experience with reading centers.

Children were encouraged to bring in books from home, if they had them, on any of the topics that we listed. I also suggested that we look through our classroom library and I scoured the school library and our very well stocked bookroom. We organized baskets of books on the different topics…Stars, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I added Little Red Riding Hood, Forest animal books, books about flowers, books about trees, and so forth. I then spent a few days on some partner-sharing minilessons with practice time on the rug. Children picked partners. I made a chart listing the different topics and partners signed up for a basket of books that they would spend two (or possibly three…my memory is failing on this detail) days reading together. There were generally two sets of partners to a basket. At the end of each reading center time, all of the children at the center were encouraged to talk about what they discovered from their books that day. At the share meeting, I did the sharing. I shared my observations of what I noticed about the way children were working together, focusing on the positive.

We began listing our discoveries (there were no tigers or elephants in any of the forest books!), we set up some new centers based on what children were discovering (at our second choice of centers, we added a birds in the forest center) and children drew pictures of things they wanted to remember from their center. We had about three rounds of centers so each child got to spend time in three different reading centers.

Now we had lots of information and we brainstormed for choice time centers to help get our class ready for the camping trip. In the block center, children build a forest and the house of the three bears. (We added teddy bears to the block center). In the dramatic play center the children were playing some sort of variation of Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood. We had a star center where the children made stars and constellations (their own constellations) that I hung from the light fixtures. In the art center children were using construction paper and cardboard dowels to make trees and flowers. Some children painted a forest mural. My student teacher made trail mix with a group at our cooking center. Playdough birds and animals were sculpted. It was, needless to say, a busy time.

At meeting, I taught a star counting song – “Stars shining, number, number one, number two, number three, number four, oh my, oh my o my o my, bye and bye, bye and bye”…we turned out the lights and used flashlights to make the “starts” appear as we sang and counted. We also learned and practiced “Going on a Bear Hunt.”bear-hunt

As our “camping day” grew closer, the classroom filled up with trees, flowers, a starry sky, a more and more intricate forest scenario in the block center with paper flowers and trees scattered among the wooden structures. Trail mix was doled out into individual paper bags for each “camper.” We constructed a model of a campfire and I brought in chopsticks to use as twigs for roasting marshmallows. (This activity was going to depend on a lot of imagination!)

On camping day we sang and went of a bear hunt. We made a hiking line, with each child carrying a knapsack, and walked past the home of the three bears in the block corner. We sang The Happy Wanderer, a new song that I taught the children, “I love to go a-wandering, along the mountain track. And as I go, I love to sing with my knapsack on my back.” We spoke about all of the things that we were seeing along the way – birds, little animals, flowers, trees, bears, (teddy bears!) and finally stopped when we came to our “campfire.” The children spread out blankets that were in their knapsacks and I gave out our sticks and marshmallows. We “roasted” and ate the marshmallows and chomped on the trail mix. Then, the lights went out and it was nighttime. I read a spooky story by the campfire and then the children stretched out on their blankets. We passed around the flashlight as we sang the star counting song and when the lights went on, it was morning. Time to pack up the knapsacks and say goodbye to the campout day!

I guess this camping out experience was an unusual way to begin the school year. It was the only time that this happened because it fit perfectly the experience with The Berenstain Bear’s Camping Adventure book that Lee shared with us. But as I reflect on this experience it makes me think about the emphasis that so many teachers put on spending the first month (or months in some cases!) on learning routines and “getting to know each other.” When we finished this mini experience, we all knew so much about each other. I really didn’t need to spend much time on teaching routines because they fit so comfortably and practically with all of our activities. The children learned them quickly and they most certainly got to know each other and feel a comfortable ownership of their classroom. That’s what we want, isn’t it? The children understood that they could get both enjoyment and information from books and that it was important to have discussions to further their understanding. They learned how to use the materials in the classroom.

We also started out the year with a significant bonding activity that set a precedent for the year ahead. As Winnie the Pooh said, “As soon as I saw you, I knew a grand adventure was about to happen.” I think the children in my class knew that we were about to have a year of adventures in our kindergarten…and we did!

The Classroom Speaks: Getting the room set up


compass classroom layoutAs the new school year approaches (or has already begun in some areas!) I thought I would share one part of the second chapter in my newly released book, published by HeinemannCHOICE TIME – How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2. The chapter is titled “The Classroom Speaks” and this section of the chapter addresses getting the room physically set up.

The Classroom Speaks
In the opening segment of the wonderful children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers welcomes his young viewers into the neighborhood, singing about the beautiful day and inviting them to be his special neighbors. Monday through Friday, for nearly ten months each school year, the classroom is the neighborhood we share with our students. And just as Mr. Rogers created a safe and welcoming neighborhood for his friends (Daniel Striped Tiger, Lady Aberlin, Mr. McFeely), we work hard to create a gentle, exciting space of our own. Ideally, it’s a laboratory for exploratory learning, a place where children build things, conduct experiments, create innovative art projects, read fascinating books, write original stories, use technology and texts to find out information, and feel free to imagine and try out possibilities. It’s a place where children grow big ideas, make new friends, and dig deeply into exciting investigations.
When children and their families first walk into a classroom at the beginning of a new school year, what they see all around them tells them a lot about the neighborhood they will inhabit. Each classroom has a voice, and the position of the furniture, the materials, what’s on the walls—everything, really—speaks and tells the children whom and what you value. The voice is so powerful, in fact, that Reggio Emilia teachers teachers in the schools in Reggio Emilia say the classroom is the second teacher. … Children can access materials without adult assistance. There is a palpable sense of co-ownership.

A Room with a Voice
Every summer, rooms piled with cartons, chairs, and tables await the transformation that takes place when the children return to inhabit and animate the space. -Figure2. 1-Bill contemplatingThis image of a classroom with a voice guides our decisions about arranging the furniture and selecting the materials that will be waiting for the children on their first day of school. Even the simplest decisions can speak volumes. A terrarium placed at the eye level of a six-year-old, for example, says something very different than a terrarium placed out of reach on top of a bookshelf. When a classroom speaks, the message is obvious to all who pass through its doors. A classroom can say to each child:
• I welcome you to this exciting, caring place.
• You are now part of a community that works, plays, and shares together.
• You are a very special, important member of this community.
• In this room, you will be an explorer, a creator, and a scientist.
• You will find many ways to record and share your discoveries.
• You are a literate person who can already read and write. (Even the youngest child can re-create a story by reading the illustrations and can make marks on paper that are meaningful to that child.) Together we will learn more about reading and writing.
• Because we are a sharing community, there will be times when we all come together as a group.
• Because you are a unique individual, there will be times when you will have a private place to be alone with your thoughts.
• Because we value and seek out one another’s ideas, we will have time and places to meet in small groups.
• We are a community that always shows respect and compassion for one another and for all living things.
• We will celebrate one another’s achievements.
The challenge for us as teachers is not so much in deciding what we want our classrooms to say but in knowing how to say it.

Most of us start thinking about organizing our classrooms during the summer, well before the school doors open. All during August, we draw sketchy diagrams of possible classroom arrangements. …. Will we have all the centers set up and ready on the first day, or will the children help set them up once they arrive? And what about the daily schedule? Once everything is set up, how will each day go?

So many decisions to make as we arrange and rearrange and rearrange until the children finally arrive and the space comes to life and we rearrange all over again based on how they move around the room. … How do we make decisions about space, materials, displays, and time that say clearly to our students, “Welcome to our neighborhood. It’s your special place. I’m so glad you’ve come”?

When space in a classroom speaks, the arrangement of furniture and materials tells a lot about how the community lives and works together. …While we don’t have any control over the actual dimensions of our classroom space, there are all kinds of decisions we can make that will impact how much space we’ll have inside those dimensions and how we’ll use it.

A certain amount of furniture in a classroom is a necessity, but it’s important to think about both what you have and what you need when it comes to the layout of furniture in the room. …do you really need that big desk, or would a file cabinet and a small shelf suffice? … Consider removing any piece of furniture that’s not essential and also favoring any piece that can do double or triple duty during the day……..Ideally, the landscape of a classroom where young children work and play has a low profile.

As you consider the arrangement of furniture and materials in the room, think of the classroom as a laboratory for exploration. Instead of positioning all the tables in the center of the room, isolating them from investigation centers, divide the room into discrete areas, ready for children’s explorations. 

Consider the kinds of spaces you will need across the day. Most classrooms have at least one meeting space that is big enough for all the children in the room to gather together. …The meeting area should not be too close to the classroom door. If it is, meetings will be interrupted anytime someone enters or leaves the room… the meeting area can be used for other purposes. Since it’s big and open, it might be used for centers that involve a lot of movement and action. As long as the materials for the center are stored in transportable containers, the space can be transformed quickly. …Children can read independently in the meeting area during reading workshop, and with lap boards, they might also use the space for writing. If the space is defined by bookshelves, it can double as the classroom library.
Outside the meeting area, it’s important to decide whether you are going to have any other dedicated areas in the room such as a block center, a reading nook, or a writing table by the window. ..if you know that children are likely to be noisy when using the space, you can make sure it’s separated from places where children need quiet. If you create a dedicated space away from the flow of traffic, children will have plenty of room for building and moving around their constructions without fear of unintended mishaps. You can equip and outfit a dedicated space with all sorts of supports for the designated activity, and you can base the size and location of the space on the nature of the activity itself.
Ideally, a classroom would have dedicated areas for all its permanent centers, but whether or not that’s possible really depends on how much space you have. ..  if you’re longing for a spacious block center, you might do away with the dramaic play center and store these materials and hollow blocks on a shelf by the meeting area. Again, practically any space can do double duty during the day as long as materials are easy to store and transport.

THere need to be enough centers for children to feel as if they truly have a choice about where they will go. …Once you have a number of centers in mind (based on the number of children you have), then it’s time to look around the room and figure out where each of those centers might take place. How much room will children need? Children in an art center, for example, will need space for big collaborative projects with lots of materials, while children in a science or math center might work on a tabletop with all the tools and materials they need for their explorations neatly organized and stored. Remember that any tables you use for explorations during center time can also be used during whole-class activities such as writing workshop and math lessons. Also consider the noise and activity levels of each center and try to separate them accordingly.

Finally, once you’ve figured out where all the centers are going to be, it’s important to consider the flow of traffic around the room. Can children move easily from place to place? If not, can you relocate any of the centers, or might you need to streamline the number of centers to fit the space? Are materials located strategically to prevent overcrowding? Traffic flow can be tricky to predict because certain groups of children simply move through space differently than others.

A space that worked perfectly the year before might for some reason create a major issue for this year’s class. In the first days and weeks of school, you’ll want to observe the movement in your classroom during center time and make adjustments based on how you see students using the space.

Save the date !

book coverIf you will be in New York City…

Save the Date!
September 6, 2016
6:30 p.m.

Book Release Event

CHOICE TIME-How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play

Renée Dinnerstein
Foreward by Kathy Collins

The Brooklyn Historical Society
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Tel. 718-222-4111

Join me for

  • A presentation with photos from NYC classrooms
  • A reading from the book
  • A conversation with Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School.
    We will discuss the potential of progessive education in our public schools.
  • Q & A
  • wine and cheese
  • Book signing (Books will be available for purchase)

Publication date: August 25, 2016

To read more about the book, go to Heinemann-


Hold on to the Joy, not to the checklists


mushing the cake

My daughter was born in 1972, the heyday of the Women’s Movement. When it came to being a new parent, the movement seemed to pass me by. Friends and family visited me to see the new baby and inevitably the question, “when are you going back to work” entered the conversation. My women friends were appalled when I told them that  I was totally ecstatic about staying home to be with my baby for as long as my artist husband, baby Simone and I could hold out. By some miracle, and with the help of a rent-controlled apartment, I was able to stretch out my home time for two and a half years. We were rather financially poor but I was happy as a lark. I didn’t care if, as many friends told me, I was being too retro in my domesticity. Every day my baby surprised me with something new – a smile, a word, a gurgling along with a song.46_Renne&Simone

My problem was that I knew almost nothing about how to care for an infant or a toddler. I was full of questions. Why was my friend’s baby crawling when my little sunshine was content to sit with her toys and play? Baby Jennifer was starting to walk at 11 months. My Simone took one flop at eleven months and decided to put off walking for another two months.walking baby

Luckily for me, a wise friend gave me the gift of Berry Brazelton’s book Infants and Mothers: Differences in Development. Dr. Brazelton followed the growth and development of three different babies. All three of the children fell under the umbrella of being “normal” but their development and personalities were greatly diverse.Infants and Mothers

Now let’s jump ahead to the present and to the Common Core Learning Standards for children in Pre-k through grade 2. You might be asking yourself what my examples have do with the Common Core Learning Standards for Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, Grade One and Grade Two? Can you imagine how devastated I would have been if there was a checklist of the standards Simone should have mastered by the end of each year? What if the “standard” for year one would say that by the end of the first year, the 12 month old child will be starting to walk? Perhaps I might have considered my beautiful, and bright baby to be a failure! Thank goodness that T. Berry Brazelton’s examples made it so clear that children don’t develop skills in a lockstep manner.

As an early childhood teacher, I always had high standards for my students.  I also understood, that I needed to allow young children a wide berth for growth and success socially and academically. For some children, learning to read and write was as easy as ABC. Others needed more time to put the puzzle pieces of written language together.

The Common Core Learning Standards for early childhood are in desperate need of revision! Wouldn’t it make so much more sense for the early childhood standard to say that “by the end of second grade, children will ask and answer questions about key details in a text and answer such questions as who, where, when why and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text” and leave it at that? It isn’t unrealistic to expect that” by the end of second grade children will compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic”.

Some children will be meeting this standard by the end of first grade, just as baby Jennifer could walk at 11 months. Others, however, may need a little more time to reach this particular standard, just as Simone needed a little more time to gain the confidence to start walking. I can tell you for a fact that the adult Jennifer and the adult Simone are doing just fine with their walking, talking, reading and writing.

Perhaps if there were early childhood educators and parents of young children on the committee that drew up these common core learning standards, there would have been more understanding of how young children develop. Perhaps each skill would not have been broken down by grade but rather by what we would expect a child to know before going into third grade. This might take some of the stress out of the early childhood classes and allow for a return to classes where children have time and opportunities to explore, investigate, take risks without fear of failure and, (might I add this controversial word?) play!

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child,” Let’s not be lead by an unrealistic checklist of skills for young children. Instead, let’s heed the words of Mr. Shaw and provide young children many opportunities to pursue knowledge in classrooms that respect the uniqueness of each child. We should be creating educational environments that acknowledge the wisdom and research of Dr. Brazelton and so many other educators such as Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn and Carlina Rinaldi, who tirelessly advocate for developmentally respectful education practices.

Let’s not let a checklist of inappropriately constructed early childhood standards take away the child’s joy of learning and the teachers’ joy of teaching!

Building Collaboration in the Block Center

new construction 1

The block area in your classroom presents a perfect opportunity to encourage collaboration, creativity and curriculum connections. I’m going to share a little bit of what has been happening in two New York City public school classrooms.

The teachers noticed that the children who played in the block center seemed unfocused and were mainly involved in parallel play. We talked about some strategies to address this.

The first step was a class block lesson. The children sat in a circle and each child was invited to pick one block from the block center, any size or shape, return to the circle and put the block on the floor behind them. Then, one by one, each child had a turn to add his or her block to a growing construction. The only rule was that their block had to touch another block. As blocks were added, the children made observations about what the structure looked like. “It’s a letter y” “Oh, now it looks like a house.” “The house is getting taller.” “It’s a skyscraper”.

This activity was done a few times during the next two weeks. Then the teacher, at meeting, asked the children for ideas of what could be built in the block center. They had many suggestions that she charted. A zoo. Central Park Zoo. A Car Wash. A City. A Space City.

After children had time to come up with ideas, the teacher excitedly told them of her idea. She told them that the next morning, when they came into the classroom, there would be sign up sheets for working with a team at the block center. Each team could have four builders. Each team would have a full week to work together in the block center. The children were psyched!

When they came into the room the next day, the sign up sheets were spread out on the different tables and children excitedly signed up on one of the sheets. To our amazement there was no conflict about which sheet to sign up on. We anticipated that there might be a problem but we were pleasantly surprised.

After the sheets were signed, each group had time to meet and decide what they would be building together.

building sign up sheet

Then each group was given a week to work together. At class meetings, there were discussions about materials and blueprints. What was interesting was that some groups came up with their own ideas for creating blueprints. They cut strips and shapes from construction paper that they could move around until it pleased everyone.

discussion in blocks


what next?Some groups had changed the focus of their project by the time their week came up. That was fine!

One group thought of their work in terms of the construction that they saw happening in the neighborhood. They wore hard hats and goggles and added plastic tools to the center. Always, though, there was so much collaboration and pride.

coming in




%22only workers%22

One group worked on building a carwash.

car wash close-up

car wash two


car wash sign

One week the builders were constructing the Central Park Zoo but they felt like they needed more animals.

central park zoo

The teacher suggested that the children in the art center might consider constructing some animals for the zoo. Here’s how one girl planned out and executed the construction of a tiger.

tiger plan

the tiger


Here is her Choice Time Reflection Journal entry: tiger journal

Every once in a while, the teacher sat at the side of the center and jotted down some observations. Later in the day she used these notes to reflect on what was happening and to plan next steps to help scaffold the play.

teacher's reflections

I might consider opening a real woodwork center, but that’s another blog post in the future!

This wonderful work didn’t happen overnight. The teachers first worked really hard to rearrange their classroom environment so that there was plenty of space in the center for building and that the center was protected from the active movement in the classroom. They were also careful to arrange the blocks so that children could see the mathematical relationships between the different sizes and so they could be easily accessed and returned during the clean-up period.

It has been so exciting for me, the staff developer, to observe the growing excitement of the children and the satisfaction and joy of the teachers. Bravo to them!

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.                                                                  Carl Jung

Catching a Piece of the Sky

Richard LewisOne evening last week I found myself, along with six other parents and teachers, sitting around a low table located in the basement classroom of a small Brooklyn cooperative pre- school. A candle, giving off peaceful aromas, was lit and we were all focused on the gentle-looking man at the head of the table. After introductions, he reached his hand upwards and grasped at an imaginary piece of the sky, explaining what happened when he did the same with a group of kindergarten children. “Can we bring back a small piece of the sky to share?” Without questions or doubts, the children caught the sky in their hands and carefully shared it with each other. This gentle man that I’m referring to is Richard Lewis, founder of the Touchstone Center in NYC.

For decades Richard has been exploring the role of poetry, art and fantasy in the lives and imaginations of children. At our meeting he shared a marvelous story that took place last March, a month filled with crazy fluctuating weather. One windy day, while walking in Central Park, he came across a young boy gathering twigs. Very purposefully, the child piled the twigs one over the other. His mother, who was standing quietly nearby, observed but didn’t intervene. At one point the child lifted the pile and moved it to another spot, standing quietly, looking at the twigs. He seemed to almost be in a state of reverie. This small boy appeared to be taking part in an age-old ritual of gathering.

Perhaps, Richard posited, this child was making a poem. The twigs were the words that he was carefully arranging in an arrangement that pleased him. Perhaps children have a natural poetic instinct.wood pieces

We adults at the table shared childhood memories, and even more recent adult memories, of gathering and arranging – sea glass, shells, stones, even my memory of arranging and talking to my Tinkertoy sticks as a young child in my solitary play. It was obvious as we shared our stories that this kind of gathering play lasts a lifetime.

Our discussion turned to how children invent an inner language of play and the way that this is method of connecting to something that is a non-verbal feeling about the world. Children show amazement about the natural world. To support this instinctual awe, more schools are nurturing this by creating time and space for exploring parks, woods (Forest School), and even the little bits of natural world that pushes itself out from the cracks in an urban streetscape. However, parents and educators need to take care not to create a contemporary problem by substituting this natural amazement with a mechanical amazement as children spend more and more time with Ipads, Iphones, computers, television and videos. Children once spent hours outdoors interacting with and exploring the natural environment . Now, for so many children,  those  hours are spent indoors, glued to some sort of screen

When we teach young children, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first grade and beyond, it’s so easy to get caught up in the practicalities, the data, the lesson plans, and all the daily rituals of classroom life. But Richard left me with a simple and yet complex question, one that I will want to hold onto as I spend our time with teachers and children.

What is wonder?



Some books by Richard Lewis:

Joyful Journals in Kindergarten

journal 4Can I let my teachers devote an hour each day for children to take part in inquiry-based choice time centers? Will my school still be able to maintain our high scores in reading and math? That’s the conundrum gnawing at the conscience of the very concerned principal of an early childhood public school in New York City.

In his heart, he understood the importance of play and exploration but he was dealing with of the outside pressures that came with his job. Nevertheless, he put his anxieties aside and asked me if I could do professional development with a focus on inquiry and play with his pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers. I was eager to work with his dedicated and intelligent teaching staff, to help them deepen the investigations and play and make Choice Time a priority in their schedules. The teachers were also eager to work with me. This was a big step for them. Before I came, Choice Time was more of a free playtime for a half hour at the end of the day. It was the time that the teacher could catch up on paperwork or perhaps pull out some children for guided reading. When we made changes, moving Choice Time to a prime time during the day, creating centers that held opportunities for inquiry and collaboration, and actively involving themselves as facilitators and observers, they could see how the quality of play and socialization was improving. Children were filled with joy as they played at a water center, built with blocks, pretended to open a bakery at the dramatic play center or created beautiful collages at the art table. And yet these caring teachers had twinges of anxiety. Did Choice Time use up precious minutes that should be devoted to reading, writing, math or phonics?

I understood that the early childhood staff was making major changes in their schedules and their thinking about kindergarten priorities. The teachers were excited and invigorated by the explorations and collaborations taking place during Choice Time. However they had so much pressure to teach their students (mostly ELLs) reading, writing and mathematics.

I wanted to acknowledge and honor their concerns about not meeting the Common Core standards. But I also wanted them to see how centers could be infused with opportunities for children to use the literacy skills being taught and reading and writing workshop. In one room, during Choice Time, we observed children writing menus and signs for their bakery in the Pretend center, labeling their block structures, drawing and writing from observations at the science center, and creating bead patterns at the jewelry center. Even though we were excited to see all of this activity, I still sensed the principal’s trepidation. I realized that there needed to be something else in place so that he would understand how children were developing social, emotional and literacy skills while playing during Choice Time .

I presented a new possibility. What about adding on ten minutes at the end of Choice Time for children to write and draw in their own, personal reflection journals. Would the children resent this extra writing? We decided to give it a try. Each child had his or her own Choice Time journal, a primary notebook with pages that had areas for drawing and areas for writing. Children were told that after they cleaned up their centers they should take out their journals and write about something that happened during Choice Time. They could draw, write or do both. It was entirely up to them. They could read it to the teacher but they didn’t have to do that. They had ownership of these journals.

The results were so exciting! Children loved journal time and wrote with pleasure. Children who were reluctant writers at writing workshop were asking for more time to write in their journals! We wondered why this was happening. Perhaps it was the sense of ownership. Nobody was instructing them to write in a particular genre. Nobody was checking up on his or her writing. Children were writing about immediate experience connected to their play. Play is to very important to children.

I would like to share some of the journal pages of two kindergarten children. Both of them are learning English as a second language. The journal writing began in December. The journal examples of these two children represent writing from December through March.

Play, Collaboration, Socialization, Agency…a wonderful kindergarten combination!

Student One

#1-child 1#3 student 1#4 student `1#6student 1#7 student 1#10 student 1

Student Two