Tag Archives: Choice Time

Sharing!

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!

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Getting Started

“The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy.”
Maria Montessori

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!

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.

Why Choice Time?

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.

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.

The door is open!

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.

Lev Vygotsky

The door is open. Let our Choice Time conversation begin!

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.