In my combined first and second grade, Choice Time was an important part of each day, allowing children’s self-initiated learning to grow through their freedom of choice. There were math, science, art, writing, and book centers each providing activities and materials to inspire and nurture a child’s excitement about learning. Concepts developed in the centers overlap one another. And every afternoon, there was an evaluation time to show, discuss experiences, and add more information about all to extend future learning in the following days.
For instance, in the math center classification was involved whenever there was sorting of materials for building a structure or for solving a puzzle or making a design – looking at the parts and deciding how to fit them into the whole thing, the finished creation. In the science center, shells and stones were sorted and classified according to different properties. Children frequently looked at likenesses and differences plus comparing and contrasting, all pre-requisites to classification, in many things such as birds’ nests and feathers, various kinds of plants, and collections of bark, fall seeds, fungi, etc. And when they tried to see if a bug was an insect, identifying the five parts was a huge classification feat. In the art center, there were constant opportunities to notice likenesses and differences – exposure to the various textures of the materials. Classification was involved whenever separate materials were combined to make a whole – collages and painting and creating designs and using small boxes to make whole structures.
Classification formed in the learning centers are the very tools required for successful achievement in all academic areas. It is necessary in social studies when studying various groups of people and geographical features. In addition to ordering and sequencing, good ability to classify is necessary while alphabetizing, using the dictionary, and spelling. To anticipate or predict outcomes in literature require looking at the parts (the details) compared to the whole (the plot) plus comparing the parts among the parts. To understand paragraphs, children need to know the sequence of events and be capable of looking at the details (the parts) compared to the whole written piece. Identifying the main idea requires understanding the relationship of the whole to the parts. Decoding is an immense classification feat. And all of the above are required when children are writing, composing a story, or an article.
Much of math requires classification, and it must become internalized before children can understand and use their math without objects. Addition involves sorting and then classifying – looking at all the parts compared to the parts and those compared to the whole. Then multiplication is just a more complex form of classifying – looking at multiple groups of numbers in relation to wholes. Subtraction and division require all of the above plus reversibility of thought. Solving the missing addend, 2 + ? = 5 or ? + 3 = 5, requires reversibility of thought, and most first graders are too young for that. Fractions need an understanding about how the parts relate to the parts, the parts to the whole, and the whole to the parts.
Understanding conservation requires the ability to see transformations and reversibility. Once that is understood, children will know that two amounts are equal no matter what form they take. In the math center, they see a bucket of Cuisenaire Rods using various amounts of space – dumped on the floor, made into a building, or into long roads and then these same rods gathered up and put back into the bucket. A whole puzzle is dismantled, spread out on a table and then put back together again in the smaller space of the completed puzzle. And sometimes during Choice Time there was water play with different size containers. Following this in the afternoon with the whole class, the class would be shown one amount of water, and then have them guess if it would fit into other shaped containers. In the art center, cleaning up with sponges is a good example – a sponge full of water squeezed out and then the same water reabsorbed. All children helped clean up at one time or another. Any kind of modeling medium, such as clay or plasticine or play dough, starts out with one ball, and then can be rolled or shaped into many different configurations, and finally returned to the same original size ball.
In the art center there are many transformations taking place without reversibility – any kind of painting where one small amount of paint on a brush or a sponge is spread over a wide area. At least once a year, they became enraptured with making paper chains as long as they could – first to the length of the room and then back and forth until finally they’d give up. Some 9 x 12 pieces of paper, cut into strips in one pile, can then be connected to a long, long chain.
If Merry is a competent math student, she must also have a good understanding of conservation. She must recognize that the number is always the same no matter what sizes or shapes are presented. It could be five marbles or five buildings or five children. And they could be in a straight line, bunched together or scattered far and wide. It is still five. Merry must recognize that a dime is not less than the bigger nickel. She must be able to internalize patterns of numbers to do mental math. In order to measure liquid accurately, she must be capable of seeing different shaped containers holding the same amount. In reading, before she could imagine cause and effect, she would need to have acquired conservation and therefore, reversibility of thought. As long as her thinking is static, she could not reverse her thinking to imagine an effect from a cause, nor could she think about the effect if she could not imagine the original state.
Losing egocentrism is such an important process to overcome – to be able to see and understand other viewpoints, both intellectually and socially. For Jerry to realize that the whole world doesn’t see things exactly the way he does – that there are many different views and aspects to situations. Whenever children are looking at all parts of a structure while building in the math center or constructing in the art center with boxes or clay or making mobiles, they are exposed to all sides plus the top and sometimes the bottom. If Helen, an egocentric child, looked at only one side of a structure she wouldn’t be able to imagine the shape of the other sides. So, constructions in the math and art centers help children overcome their concentration of static situations. During social conflicts there were opportunities to point out the other side of a situation trying to help a child realize there are other opinions and attitudes. Always. Piaget believed that one reason children lose their egocentrism is because of disagreements with their friends. A child begins to realize there are other viewpoints and after enough exposure with concrete experiences, children begin to think abstractly.
Losing egocentrism is also important for achieving good reading comprehension. Eventually, if a child cannot consider any other viewpoint and believes that everyone understands and sees things exactly the way he does, then he cannot understand the viewpoints of the author, empathize with the characters, and consider hypotheses, or notice similarities and differences in order to make comparisons and contrasts. He also would be incapable of evaluating and understanding the whole. And if he could not manage any of that, his writing would be very weak indeed. And think of the massive misunderstandings that would occur in social studies. How can we expect any child to appreciate others or be compatible if one’s thinking is so static?
So, concepts developed during Choice Time are the very tools which contribute to good comprehension and development in all academic areas. Certainly many of the cognitive traits are expected and taught in academic areas; however, if the concepts are not developed in real life experiences, then a child’s comprehension will be very weak or completely lacking. When these concepts are materialized, then a child’s very best achievement can be attained. Once when teaching an advanced third grade class in reading, half of them could not comprehend a story about the ocean and tides. I asked how many had never been to the ocean, and the very ones who couldn’t understand it raised their hands. Well, you can’t very well experience tides around the Great Lakes where we lived. And, of course, we couldn’t offer any experiences in tides during Choice Time. The point is that without direct experiences, understanding can’t take place. So, the more those children are able to incorporate a good cognitive structure, the more depth of understanding will occur. Therefore, the cognitive abilities attained in the math, science, and art centers are vital contributions to good achievement in all academic areas, and there is a direct association between the two.
Now, of course any child wouldn’t be completely lacking in all of the concepts presented here. They overcome a little at a time and in an uneven fashion – and continue to develop throughout life. So Troy, for instance, could be egocentric or lacking behaviors in some areas and not in others. The point is that Choice Time is a time to further develop these abilities necessary for good to excellent achievement in all academic areas. And opportunities in a school program are unlikely to allow such advances in concept attainment as there are in a Choice Time with learning centers.
So, as children are engaged with materials and each other during Choice Time, plus reading books and discussing those activities during evaluation time in the afternoons, they are absorbing a tremendous amount of knowledge about their world. These concrete experiences create ideas which are then expressed through language. While busily occupied and helping each other, they are engaged in friendly conversations plus discussing, debating, and arguing with their classmates. And school programs are not likely to offer children the opportunities for cognitive growth without a period of Choice Time. They may learn as much from each other as they do from adults.
A complete description with materials and activities of all five learning centers are in my book, Early Childhood Programs: Opportunities for Academic, Cognitive, and Personal Success. Included is a web site where programs and activities can be downloaded for use in a classroom. Also, see 7 reviews on www.amazon.com
After receiving three reading groups in my first year of teaching, I never used three groups again. The only ones with the most confidence were the top readers in the first group. Because in each group there were variations of ability all recognized by others.
I’m retired now but taught for many years. I developed a program where each child, in my combined first and second grades, had their own reading book and soon was able to choose which stories of interest to read. Good comprehension followed after also being exposed to understanding literature read to them and thinking about writing their own stories.
See my entry about this approach: http://peggybroadbent.com/blog/developing-comprehension-for-beginning-readers-91215.html
Teaching Young Children © Peggy Broadbent 2011 - All Rights Reserved