Monday, January 16, 2017

Choice Time: How Choosing Helps Learning

New Year's Resolutions:  For me it meant organizing 30 years worth of teaching materials in my basement - which was all about the right tubs from Target and a spiffy label maker. But this got me thinking again about our classrooms. 

It isn't just about the clutter. It is about children's access to high quality choices.  What does choice time look like in your school, program, classroom? How have your organized your environment for learning?

All choice time is not created equal.  For some it might mean putting materials on tables or offering pre-set areas like blocks or dramatic play, and then inviting or directing children to where they should go. Once at tables or an area there is wide variation in what happens next.  In some settings children must stay at a table or area until a teacher tells them they can move. In other classrooms children can start at that table or center and then move when they wish. In some classrooms children move by putting their picture or name on a choice board to indicate where they are going next and whether an area is full.  And in yet other environments, children can go to areas of the room, choose things from shelves, and take them to the floor or table in their own time and cycle.

What does choice offer children?  Why incorporate it into their day and into our instructional practices? How can we offer choice to children in a way that best supports learning?

"Center time" or "choice time" is a mainstay of early education and leads us to believe that children are making free choices, when in reality we may have simply offered them a limited selection of activities that were teacher determined. Of course all classroom environments are full of things that are chosen by teachers, but how we offer them can foster a greater sense of independence, confidence, discovery, and physical development. 

What does this mean?:

  • Independence = I am trusted to make my own choices.
  • Confidence = I am in charge of myself and can choose my own work.
  • Discovery = What will I do with this today, how will I explore it and discover what it can do?
  • Physical Development = When I bend down and choose something from a shelf, carry it carefully to table or mat on the floor, I am learning how to move my body in space and develop motor planning skills.

Putting materials on tables with interesting provocations for children's activity and discovery is a perfectly fine strategy and should not be abandoned. However it can't be the only entry point for children's engagement with materials. And limiting children's mobility as they move about the classroom ultimately doesn't allow children to develop important decision making skills. 

For me, it is an equity issue.  When we limit children's ability to make decisions we rob them of a critical life skill. We actually teach them that other people must make decisions for them.

We need to shift our thinking from, “What will I put on the tables today?” to “What is on the shelves in the classrooms that children can choose?” and “How can I make the choices more complex given what my children are interested in or ready to do?” Using compelling materials offered in an organized way is rooted in Montessori and Reggio approaches that trust children to choose what they need.  It means that teachers, much in the way museums do, must curate materials, putting like things together so children develop a deep repertoire of activity.  "Curate" literally means to pull together, sift through, and select for presentation.  This is an important part of our job. 

Non-curated shelf - random items in random places.
Teachers at Elizabeth Peabody House in Somerville begin to curate their writing center.
How we offer materials matters. We tend to offer large quantities of everything; picture a large tub of bristle blocks on the table day after day. I have seen children sitting at tables, waiting to be "served up" the materials they will play with, to have them dumped on the table or floor in front of them. And, tubs, while convenient for adults, make it hard for children to see materials while on shelves or when the tubs are on the tables. 

Is this storage for teachers or accessible materials for children. What is in those tubs?

This is storage, not choice for children. 

The way we offer materials sends powerful messages to children about what we think they can do.  When children know we trust them to choose they begin to develop a healthy sense of self. 

When we tightly control children's choice we rob them of the opportunity to do for themselves and develop self-regulation, develop relationships with others, and the freedom to move about their classrooms to make decisions about their learning. Dierdre Sharkey, Ed.D, an education leader in Texas and board member of the School Reform Initiative says, "Schools can create an environment so potent that at least for 8 hours a day we can overcome the conditions our children experience outside of school."

What is the content here?  Math! And the teachers at Henry Frost Children's Program in Belmont change the materials weekly or monthly, and there are some materials that stay out all the time.

At Community Preschool in Somerville teachers very intentionally set up the dramatic play materials in a way that helped facilitate easy clean up as well as ease of seeing and choosing just what they needed to play.

This block area at West Somerville Neighborhood School also helps children choose the blocks they need and facilitates independent clean up.

Make sure your block area is labeled.  At the minimum with the cutouts of the block shapes.

The are materials at Bright Horizons Teele Square in Somerville are set up in a designated studio space.

The studio materials are easily visible and set up for access and easy clean up. 
Manipulatives and sorting materials at Charlestown Nursery School, with one shelf of adult storage at the top.
These toys at Spring Hill Montessori in Cambridge give very young children the ability to see choices and know where things go.
Trays and baskets make things easy to see. Plants and animals on the top shelf beautify the classroom.

Things to Try:

    • Set up a shelf with a few choices children can choose from.
    • Put activities on trays or in baskets so children can see the work.
    • Co-locate shelves near rugs or a table so it is clear where children can take materials. 
    • Make sure you demonstrate an entire cycle of activity so children know how to take something out, do it, and then put it away so it is ready for the next person to do.
    • Offer new provocations at group time or to small groups: “Can you build something today that can hold the farm animals and is as tall as the block shelf?”
    • Increase the level of difficulty or shift the focus or materials by dropping in more complex provocations and supporting materials throughout the week.