Making Space for Student Choice in Preschool
Sometimes teachers need to require kids to do things, and it’s easier to get their buy-in if they know their voices are heard too.
In my first year in a prekindergarten classroom, I was working as a substitute, and one day I was assigned to sit with a 4-year-old boy at arrival time to work on a packet of worksheets. The worksheets were about the letter of the week and had pictures of words that started with the letter. He was to write the letter over and over until the lines were all filled with the uppercase and lowercase letter.
He filled one line and grumbled, “Why do you always want us to do what you want us to do?”
I paused and looked at the worksheet, and thought to myself, “I don’t know.” I worked with him until the lines were filled—he was then free to play. But I sat there contemplating what he had asked me.
Prior to that exchange, I had never really given much thought to the idea that worksheets could be less than stimulating for a child—or whether they were even developmentally appropriate. I recall spending countless hours as a child filling in worksheets, and the thought had never occurred to me even then.
I’m now in a play-based school where we don’t use worksheets, but to this day, I still think about that boy’s question. There are lots of things we need to require kids to do, but can also we give them opportunities to make choices?
Finding Ways for Students to Make Choices
As I teach today, I often ask myself and the children I teach, “Why are we doing this?” I’ve learned over the years that one of the best motivators for young learners is providing them with opportunities to make choices. This goes beyond the usual day-to-day choice of who they get to play with and what toys they get to engage with. At my school, we work to give students choices that hold some responsibility within the classroom.
Early on in the school year, we introduce voting. We highlight that it is a choice we all make together—we choose what most of the class wants. We start off small by asking students to vote for the read-aloud of the day. Sometimes the vote determines which activity we engage in as a group or which route we take on a stroll through the park.
Even when the outcome of the vote is not what everyone desires, we’ve found the children are more amenable to going along with the majority as they can see it’s not simply a case of an adult telling them what to do. Voting even inspires negotiating as children ask, “Then can we play the other game tomorrow?” We teachers almost always agree because we do like encouraging the children to think of ways to advocate for their own learning.
A few weeks ago, I proudly witnessed the children initiating their own classwide vote. Some students were using cardboard to create the outside wall of a restaurant in our pretend area. As they neared the completion of the construction work, the idea of what color to paint it came up, and one child said, “I know—let’s take a vote!”
Two children spearheaded the vote, with one tallying up all the votes for colors and the other crossing names off as everyone voted. They even said, “We need the teachers’ names too. You can vote too. Everyone gets to vote.”
Regardless of what other activities some students were engaged in, they paused to cast their vote as their classmates came around. (The winning color was purple, with eight votes.)
I was able to step back and make observations. I noticed new interactions between peers as they conversed about their favorite colors. There was literacy and math as well as an immense amount of social and emotional learning. The children were interacting across learning areas, and a child who would usually keep to herself was involved—her voice mattered.
Kids’ Choice, Teachers’ Choice
During this pandemic, it has become evident to me that the power of choice is something we all need more than ever. We no longer have the same freedoms we did in how we interact with others, and we have limitations where we can go. We need ways to feel heard.
So this year in addition to voting, we have incorporated “teachers’ choice” days and “kids’ choice” days. On teachers’ choice days, the teachers get to choose partners for the children for walking while outdoors. On kids’ choice days, they choose partners. We teachers will only change the pairs if we feel that partners are not being safe, as that is the top priority. If the children want an opportunity to choose and want us to honor their choice, they must also honor our choices.
This system has worked incredibly well for us. The children keep track of the days without us asking. They will walk in at arrival and declare, “Yes! It’s kids’ choice day!” They don’t really seem to mind teachers’ choice days either. We are transparent with the kids and say, “We’re trying to find friends who don’t usually get to walk together.” On many occasions, we’ve been happy to see pairs find new common interests after being partnered together by a teacher.
Occasionally, we get some grumbles about how a child wanted another friend for whatever reason. These become moments when we talk through our feelings and misunderstandings. We might find out about how one child offended another several days prior, for example, or how they just wanted to feel close to someone they hadn’t played with in two days. We teachers have found these moments to be helpful in understanding the kids’ relationships with each other.
Another example of how we use kids’ choice as a great classroom management tool is having children be in charge of transition activities such as “I spy.” We often use these activities as a way to have the children help the teachers when we’re finishing cleaning up or preparing for the next part of the day. A teacher will supervise, but a child who has finished all of their steps and is ready for the next part of the day gets chosen. They will sit on the “teachers bench” and be able to call the game, which begins with “I spy with my little eye someone wearing…” The child calling must use their observation skills to call their peers to begin the next steps of our day, such as toileting or getting dressed to go outside or home.
The children listening must also be aware of when they are called. We have found that even children who are reluctant to speak in large groups want this responsibility, and they take it seriously and call on peers who are ready.
The power of choice has given the children in our class a sense of autonomy and responsibility. We have seen that when children feel that they have a voice in how they learn, they’re more receptive. They do their best to practice self-control and self-regulation as they want to retain their ability to choose. The power of choice is something we believe the children value, especially when there are not too many opportunities for children at this age to be independent. Supporting children in making choices is a strategy I believe in very strongly, especially since my kiddos will be navigating kindergarten next year.