As parents you hear about the part of the day that teachers call “Choice Time” or “Free Choice.” This is the protected time each day for children to assert their independence by selecting an area or material in the room to interact with. Choice Time is especially critical for young children because it is through play that they learn essential life skills such as language, cooperative play, problem solving, and, depending on the materials they interact with, several math, science, and art skills. But, what do teachers do during this part of the day? It is not down time for us but rather the most active and critical part of our day as well.

What Teachers Do During Choice Time

Connect with students.

If students do not feel connected to their teacher, to the class, or the school environment they won’t feel comfortable to explore. We try hard to connect to them through play, following their lead and addressing questions as they come up. That may mean dressing up and singing Frozen songs or pretending to put out an imaginary fire. No matter how silly it may be (or we may feel), it is vital to forming the connections that are essential for young children.

Work on specific learning goals.

We work with students on developing language, literacy, math, science and social concepts, basically whatever we have noticed that they are in the midst of developing. Having a great teaching assistant makes this much easier. Together we can gleam more information and compare findings. Having children demonstrate new achievements during play is more comfortable and more authentic than any formal assessment.

Work on supporting friendships and modeling social skills.

The same way that we take note of a student’s learning goals, we also take time to observe their social development and work on specific goals. It is a misconception that social skills are inherent.  Many skills must be explicitly taught. Choice time also allows for concrete discussions of larger issues, such as how we treat others, share materials, and use our words.

What You Can Do at Home

Sit with your child and some play dough.

Talk about how the play dough feels in your hands. Or, tell them that you are making cookies and ask them if they would like some of your cookies. Show them how to roll the play dough into balls and squish each one down while counting how many cookies you are making. This is one example of modeling the different ways to use one material. At the same time, you are connecting with one another in a playful way.

Experience sensory activities together.

Take a bucket or large bin and fill it up with something (water, sand, pom poms. etc.). Put a couple of cups of varying sizes into the container. As you fill them, wonder out loud if you can fit two full cups of the filler into a bigger cup. If you are using materials with different colors (such as pom poms), you can say that you want all the yellow pom poms on one side and the red ones on the other. Then, wonder out loud how many there are. You can dig in with your hands and talk about the texture of whatever is in the table. More than anything you can mirror what your child is doing and just listen.

When you are preparing dinner, involve your child.

Allow them to help with preparation. Talk about the look and texture of the different ingredients. Talk about how cooking things changes how they look. Count the number of items, or measure ingredients together. Turn a chore like preparing a meal, into a play activity. While dinner is cooking, give your child some ingredients to play with like flour and water. Allow them to experiment with the ingredients and experiment with them scaffolding their language and understanding of how two things can change when they are combined.

These are some examples, but the reality is that you don’t have to say anything 99% of the time. Start playing next to your child and the learning opportunities will flow. Many parents of young children want to turn play into a quiz and tell. “What color is that play dough you are using Johnny?” ” Yes it’s red.” or “No, it’s red!” This isn’t an effective way to engage young children. Let them explore and you will find ways to naturally work in targeted learning goals. Forcing it turns an engaging moment into a quiz show and that’s not inviting. So, the moral of the story is: just play and be open to the learning that is unfolding in front of you. Your child will be engaged, you will be engaged, and that is the beginning of learning.

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