Are you a free-choice centers classroom? Is free play at the core of your centers?
How might you know? Here are a couple of questions to consider….Do you allow children to choose which center to go to, rather than tell them where to go? Do you allow children to move freely from center to center without asking or waiting for a timer?
If so, you are running free-choice centers in your classroom… as opposed to assigned centers.
But, if you are running assigned centers in your classroom you might be wondering what the big appeal is to allow free choice. After all, free choice can get more chaotic and loud. Not to mention that all children may not visit all centers, so how can you be sure they are learning? Plus, how will you separate the kids that you don’t want together unless you assign centers?
I hear ya. Both choices have pros and cons.
However, I am a big believer in free-choice play centers and have 4 BIG benefits to share with you about why free choice centers are right for our young learners.
Hear me out!
If you are on the fence about free-choice centers or looking for a change – this is for you!
BIG Benefit #1: Engagement
Tell me… which type of activity are you more engaged in…. one that you have a desire to do, one that fills you up inside and makes you happy… or one that you have been told to do. Chances are, most of us find ourself engaged in activities that we like to do, activities that interest us.
Children are no different. When they are given choice over what they play, they are going to choose something that interests them, something that they like. Have you ever seen a child spend 30 minutes building blocks but can’t sit for 5 minutes at the carpet? Yep, me too. That child was engaged in building blocks… but not so much in carpet time.
So, the question becomes ‘What do we want for our students?’. Do we want them to go through the motions of assigned activities, many times learning on a surface level… or do we want our students to get engaged in play, going deeper into what interest them?
BIG Benefit #2: The Whole Child
When children are given a choice on what to play and who to play with, they are learning that their own interests and desires matter.
Not all people are great at the same thing. Some have an internal drive to be creative. Some lean towards building and construction. Others have a love for reading. The point… we are all different – our children included.
When we allow our children the choice, they get to show us their strengths and we get to see them as more than academic students, but as whole children.
BIG Benefit #3: Peer Interactions
Does free-choice play create more social issues between students? Probably. Do I see fighting over toys? Yes. Do I hear squabbling over who is in charge? Yep. Do I find myself stepping in to coach social issues during free-choice play? You betcha.
But, it’s my job. My job is to teach them all the things, not just the academic things. So, if I controlled who they played with would they get the chance to have the conflict and learn from it?
When you have a free-choice play classroom peer issues arise naturally, which allows me to guide students and teach them social skills in the moment. Because I want my students to be able to stand up for themselves and say ‘STOP, I don’t like that’. I want them to know how to handle their body when it’s too upset for words. I want them to hear and give apologizes. I want them to really see others and what the joy of friendship can bring.
So, while it’s definitely more work on my part to allow these social issues to arise – the payoff is ten fold.
BIG BENEFIT #4: More Learning
When I allow my children to choose who, what and where they play they are more engaged. And engaged little learners are learning. Whether it be an academic skill like patterning on the light table, or an intellectual skill like trial and error when building a block tower … one thing is very clear – they are learning.
Sometimes it takes a trained eye to see all learning goodness that is happening – but it’s there.
On the flip side, when we assign children to a center with a certain peer and dictate how long they must stay there we can sometimes see the opposite of learning.
If the center isn’t something they are finding interest in, they may find something completely different to do. Those stacking cubes you wanted them to use for patterning have now become a sword. The pinchers intended for a pom pom transfer activity are now pinching the child next to them.
Are these bad activities? No! But, when presented in a way that children feel stuck with no choices – they quickly resort to making their own fun. And their own fun is now something you have a manage and behaviors like that can get out of hand quickly.
Is this say that children always use materials in the way that they are intended during free-choice play? Nope. They have imaginations after all! But, they are allowed to leave when the activity is no longer engaging…. and most times they do leave to find something else that interests them.
After all, our whole role as teachers is to teach, coach and support learning.
And children that are engaged are children that are learning.