Starting Free Choice Play Centers at the Beginning of the Year

One of the most challenging pieces of free choice play for many teachers is how to start without complete chaos. Here are a couple of quick and easy tips for successful free choice play centers…

IT ALL STARTS WITH THE CHILDREN’S OWNERSHIP

OF THE CENTERS AND THEIR ENVIRONMENT

starting centers

Provide the students with ownership of the free choice play centers from the start.

  • While taking a tour of the building, discuss how every room has a name that allows us to know what happens in that place.
  • In the classroom, talk about how each center has a purpose and specific activities. Describe some of the options in each center and allow students to brainstorm ideas such as in dramatic play, the students can care for the babies, for the animals, cook dinner, write a recipe, bake cookies, etc.; in the free choice art center, they can build a sculpture, draw or sketch a picture, design a collage picture, etc. Post the ideas that are generated by the students in each center along with a visual.
  • Allow the students to determine a name for each center such as Construction Site or Creation Station. The students can also create tags to show where items belong for easier cleanup.
    • Encourage creativity in the drawing and designing of the center signs. Allow students to use found materials to be creative such as pieces of yarn, pictures or letters from magazines, buttons, pipe cleaners, etc. Also show them how they can make objects stand out from the sign with loops, arches and so on
  • Have the students be detectives to notice how the center looks in a cleaned-up.  state- paying attention to the details. Allow students to share how we demonstrate respect for materials.
  • Allow the students to brainstorm expectations for center time. Generate a list of 3-5 expectations, write them on a poster along with a visual, and have all students sign the class contract for center time.

Clean-up is another common concern of teachers. See Clean Up after Play Centers and Student Jobs for Clean-Up Time

Learning at Home: Let them PLAY

Remote learning at home with young children can be a daunting task. However, remember that the best way for children to learn is to play! Let them PLAY!! Research proves that play is essential to a young child’s development. (Crisis in Kindergarten: Why Young Children Need to Play authored by Joan Almon and Edward Miller, published by Alliance for Children)

Play strengthens and builds a child’s …

Vocabulary

Attention Span

Ability to persist

Problem solving skills

Collaboration

Empathy

Language comprehension

Curiosity

Creativity

Symbolic thinking

Impulse control

Conflict resolution skills

Imagination

Relationship building skills

Critical thinking

and many, many more.

Sharing the Importance of Play with Families

Play based learning builds emotional resilience and strength in children as well as enhances confidence. Through free choice play, children gain empathy and impulse control. Play is essential to the children’s development to build emotional strength. Therefore, lots of child-directed play is crucial, now more than ever.

Encourage parents to allow their children to play; to not feel pressured to engage their child with worksheets or technology programs thinking that they are preparing their child for school. Lots and lots of play, not worksheets and not technology games that are simply worksheets on a screen, will provide the foundation of creativity, resilience, engagement and persistence required for later academic learning.

Below if a a free download containing slides regarding the importance of play as well as some ideas and tips on play for parents. Feel free to share one a week to encourage parents to allow their children to engage in play.

Learning at Home: Expanding Children’s Vocabulary through Play

A couple of posts in April discussed the importance of dramatic play (Learning at Home: Dramatic Play and Learning at Home: More Dramatic Play Ideas) and then last week, we expanded children’s play by watching, observing, noticing and adding additional props to encourage extended play and to expand the scenario.

Today, let’s talk about vocabulary. A child’s vocabulary by the end of Kindergarten and first grade is a significant predicator of his/her reading comprehension in later years. Hemphill and Tarvin in their research share with us that vocabulary development needs to become a central focus in our early grade classrooms along with letter identification, phonics and phonemic awareness to build strong skills and knowledge for later reading comprehension (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/248940899_The_Importance_of_Early_Vocabulary_for_Literacy_Achievement_in_High-Poverty_Schools)

Dramatic play is the perfect vehicle for extending a child’s play through authentic, hands-on learning- which is the type of learning that is going to stick with a child.

Play is learning- play with your child to authentically weave in the development and use of new words. While playing with your child, think about how you can pair what they are doing plus the vocabulary in which the child is already familiar with additional words. For example, if your child tells you that she is cooking chicken; you can ask, “Are you frying or baking your chicken? I love including vegetables with my chicken. Should we steam or saute them?” Or if you can playing grocery store, you can ask your child if he/she wants to be the cashier/clerk/merchant or the shopper/purchaser/customer. Use the words interchangably and encourage your child to use multiple words. If we use the words consistently, then the child will start incorporating the words into the play and conversation.

It is also important to help your child transfer the vocabulary to other settings. If they are playing auto shop and you go to an actual auto shop for repairs or an oil change, incorporate the same vocabulary used during play to help your child make connections.

Here are some ideas for vocabulary with the additional prop suggestions from last week…

Deepening Children’s Play through Props and Vocabulary
ScenarioIdeas for additional props to add to expand the playIdeas for additional vocabulary to incorporate while engaging in the play with the child
Orthopedic Doctor
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Encourage the child to take on the role of the engineer who designs the equipment for rehabilitation (crutches, walker, sling, cast) Provide the child with stuff from a recycle bin (boxes, oatmeal containers, cardboard tubes, lids) and allow him/her to design OR encourage the child to take on the role of the physical therapist or occupational therapist and add in props such as icepacks, heat pads, exercise ball, weights, step stoolPhysical therapy, rehabilitation, exercise, prevention, sling, cast, occupational therapist, heat, icepack, client, patient
Auto Shop
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fuse-on-the-car-1.jpg
Encourage the child to begin to take calls from drivers that are stranded on the road- that cannot get into the shop for repairs and add props such as a big box to make a tow truck, empty, clean gas can, play tools, appointment sheet for phone numbers, play cell phoneRepair, roadside assistance, stranded, frantic, emergency, fuel delivery, insurance, peace of mind, on call 24 hours a day, dispatch, guarantee, customer, rescue
Home Living
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If the child likes to engage in a lot of pretend cooking expand the utensils available by adding chopsticks, tongs, materials for cake decorating, wok, pie pan: then observe and notice- what direction is the child taking the play, if he/she starts decorating cakes, then you can begin weaving in play about decorating for weddings or birthdays, taking orders and selling the cakes, etc. OR Remove all plastic play food and add vase gems, dice, plastic or foam alphabet letters, building blocks, wood cookies (tree branches cut into round disks) and have fun observing the child’s creativity as the items become all kinds of different food. (remember to add items that are appropriate for your child’s age and developmental level so that they do not become a choking hazard.)Sauté, fry, bake, decorate, fondant, glaze, buttercream icing, stir-fry, steam, roast, temperature, boil, whip, cream, fold, presentation, blend, shake, place settings, utensils, measure
Expanding Children’s Vocabulary through Play journeyintoearlychildhood.com

Learning at Home: Expanding Children’s Dramatic Play with Props

In the April 1 post, we discussed all of the amazing benefits of dramatic play. Dramatic play is SO critical to young children’s growth and development that I am going to recap one of the key benefits here:

Dramatic Play

There is documented research that demonstrates the high level of cognitive, social, and emotional benefits from children’s engagement in dramatic play.

Our goal is to help our children deepen their play experiences to engage in more complex play:

  • Plans elaborate themes
  • Play more than one role in the play scenario
  • Uses props symbolically (a block becomes a telephone, a pool noodle becomes a fire hose, a tree branch cut into 1/2 inch rounds become pancakes or cookie)
  • The play scenario takes play over multiple days
  • Incorporates the vocabulary of the scenario and incorporates ideas from books that have been read to him/her

When your child begins a play scenario and plays it over a couple of days (cooking in the kitchen, baking, grocery store, restaurant, vet, doctor, firefighter, traveling to space, taking care of babies, auto shop, hairdresser, school), begin to deepen the experience for him/her with additional props to help him/her delve into more complex play. Provide suggestions as you become a partner in the play but do not take over- let your child guide and lead you through the scenario.

Examples:

Deepening Children’s Play by Adding Props
Journeyintoearlychildhood.com
ScenarioIdeas for additional props to add to expand the play
Orthopedic Doctor
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dr-play-journeyintoearlychildhood.com_.png
Encourage the child to take on the role of the engineer who designs the equipment for rehabilitation (crutches, walker, sling, cast) Provide the child with stuff from a recycle bin (boxes, oatmeal containers, cardboard tubes, lids) and allow him/her to design OR encourage the child to take on the role of the physical therapist or occupational therapist and add in props such as icepacks, heat pads, exercise ball, weights, step stool
Auto Shop
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20181106_135231.jpg
Encourage the child to begin to take calls from drivers that are stranded on the road- that cannot get into the shop for repairs and add props such as a big box to make a tow truck, empty, clean gas can, play tools, appointment sheet for phone numbers, play cell phone
Home Living
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2013-03-26-10.01.27.jpg
If the child likes to engage in a lot of pretend cooking expand the utensils available by adding chopsticks, tongs, materials for cake decorating, wok, pie pan: then observe and notice- what direction is the child taking the play, if he/she starts decorating cakes, then you can begin weaving in play about decorating for weddings or birthdays, taking orders and selling the cakes, etc. OR Remove all plastic play food and add vase gems, dice, plastic or foam alphabet letters, building blocks, wood cookies (tree branches cut into round disks), and have fun observing the child’s creativity as the items become all kinds of different food. (remember to add items that are appropriate for your child’s age and developmental level so that they do not become a choking hazard.)
journeyintoearlychildhood.com Expanding Children’s Play with Additional Props

Learning at Home: Fine Motor FUN

YES, helping your child develop his/her fine motor skills can be fun!! Avoid the temptation to succumb to the lure of brightly colored, cute picture worksheets.

Especially when it comes to fine motor development, pushing a child too early to complete paper/pencil tasks is not better. Parents can help provide a strong foundation for later writing by having lots of fine motor fun now.

Quick, easy ideas that use household items:

  1. Cut a small hole in the lid of an empty coffee can or oatmeal container. Decorate the container to be a monster or an animal. Cut yarn or straws into small pieces and then “feed” the monster/animal. OR cut a slit in an old tennis ball, squeeze it open and “feed” it.
  2. Using tongs, move small items such as cotton balls, tissue, pom-poms, noodles from one container to another. OR by looking at the group of items, estimate how many each bowl will have if you share them. Place one at a time in a set amount of bowls and count how many are in each bowl.

    Journeyintoearlychildhood.com
    Fine Motor Fun with Toilet Paper Tubes and Straws
  1. Build a tower with cardboard toilet paper tubes, a hole punch, and straws or pipe cleaners. Make holes in the toilet paper tube and connect them with the straw.

 

 

 

journeyintoearlychildhood.com
Fine Motor Fun with Old Tennis Racquets and String/Yarn/Ribbon

5. Weave ribbon in and out of an old bike wheel, old tennis racquet, etc.

 

 

journeyintoearlychildhood.com
Fine Motor Fun with Nuts and Bolts

  1. Match nuts and bolts and screw them together.

 

 

6. Cut letters and numbers from empty food containers. Sort them in lots of different ways. (Learning at Home: Sorting Letters and Numbers Free Download at journeyintoearlychildhood.com)learning at home sorting letters journeyintoearlychildhood.com

To read more about why worksheets are not the best learning tool for young learners, read my blog posts:

No Worksheets in Early Childhood Part I

No Worksheets in Early Childhood Part II

No Worksheets in Early Childhood Part III

 

Learning at Home Fine Motor Fun journeyintoearlychildhood

Download a Printable Version…

LEARNING AT HOME: FINE MOTOR FUN

Safe Risk- in Block Building

Safe Risk is Important for Children:  safe risk quote

  • Allowing children to take risks develops their self-confidence, to plan, to solve problems, to engage their creativity, to be challenged and to use judgment.
  • Risk can include gross motor activities such as climbing on a jungle gym, using shovels in a dirt pile, building with large tree stumps or sensory activities such as touching the gooey insides of a pumpkin, walking in paint, or playing in the mud.
  • The teacher is the guide who provides an environment in which safe risk can occur, monitors children’s efforts and allows the child to do the work instead of stepping in with a “That’s not safe.”
  • Yes, we need to manage the risk; we stay close, but we allow the child to experience that joy of accomplishment or be able to determine how to do it differently the next time.

Block Building:high block structure

Staying safe while building high:

  • Place a hula hoop around the block structure so that other students are a safe distance while also allowing the opportunity to develop skills of balance.
  • Provide softer materials instead of wooden blocks such as plastic cups, cardboard blocks, plastic food containers such as lemonade cylinders, lunchmeat containers, and toilet paper rolls. building with cups

 

In what ways do you encourage children to take risks to become problem-solvers, inventors, and resourceful individuals in your classroom?

Vocabulary during Block Play

Expanding Children’s Vocabulary

during Block/Construction Play:

vocab in blocks featured imageState standards require children to explain, describe, define, ask, compare and contrast, respond, and so on.

To accomplish these skills, children need an expanded expressive vocabulary to both describe and tell the use of many familiar objects and to incorporate new, less familiar or technical words in everyday conversations.

Block/Construction Building, Designing and Play offers excellent opportunities for introducing, reinforcing and expanding upon vocabulary while children are engaged in fun, hands-on experiences. While the teacher is interacting with the students during block play expanded vocabulary can be introduced and reinforced through questioning, scaffolding, and “I wonder” or “I notice” statements.

Examples of Vocabulary to Introduce/Reinforce during Block Play:

Tension           Stable                      Wobble                      Solid               Stability

Hard                 Smooth                    Heavy                         Firm                Incremental

Massive           Equal                       Steady                        Fasten            Negotiate

Measure          Several                    Less                            Level              Cooperate

More                 Area                         Length                       Numerous

Taller                Wider                       Three-dimensionalblocks for vocab

Horizontal        Diagonal                 Symmetry                 

Edge                 Connect                  Balance

Structure          Disassemble           Gravity

Vertical             Architecture             Surface

Tremble            Asymmetrical          Perpendicular

Parallel            Attributes                 Construction

 

 

Intentionally Designed Construction Center: Items to Add to Block Center Based for Specific Objectives

Intentionally Designed Block/Construction Center:intentionally designed thumbnail

Block play can be used to challenge, scaffold, and

extend children’s learning through the intentional

placement of additional accessories.

An intentionally designed block center encourages students to construct meaning of their world, to encounter problems and discover multiple solutions, to interact and share with others, to extend their creativity and to reflect on their discoveries.                                                                                                                    -D. Honegger

Examples to intentionally design the block/construction center to incorporate academic standards: (this is just a sample…)

life
Intentionally Designed Block Play for Life Sciences journeyintoearlychildhood.com

Life science:

artificial plants, plastic animals, felt and/or material, and accessories to build habitats for the animals

geography
Intentionally Designed Block Play for Geography journeyintoearlychildhood.com

Geography in Block Play journeyintoearlychildhood.com

Geography Provocations in Construction Play journeyintoearlychildhood.com

 

 

 

Geography: maps, road signs or the materials to make road signs, shower curtain laid out with grids, small wooden buildings or even individual cleaned out milk cartons to become buildings, Familiar signs, such as “One Way,” “School Crossing,” “Bus Stop”, “STOP”, tongue depressors for making fences, door and dresser knobs, small vehicles

natural elements
Intentionally Designed Block Play with Natural Elements journeyintoearlychildhood.com

Earth and environment: natural materials such as acorns, shells, rocks, pinecones, wood cookies, stumps, and twigs. Stumps are great for encouraging vertical building.

Provocations and FARMS Bundle STEAM and Dramatic Play (contains additional pieces including Farmer’s Market documents besides the provocations linked above)

20180927_132440
Intentionally Designed Block Play Incorporating Visual Arts journeyintoearlychildhood.com

 

Visual Arts: clipboard with markers, colored pencils to add designs to the structures and/or to make a “blueprint” or map of the structure.geometry

 

 

 

 

 

Geometry: 3D shapes (which rolls the best on a ramp- a cube, a sphere, a cone, a cylinder, etc.), tin cans, flat pieces such as a ceiling fan blade, long sticks (discuss parallel, perpendicular, diagonal, horizontal and vertical lines), tile or linoleum samples, PCV pipes. canning jar lids

physical
Intentionally Designed Block Center Physical Science journeyintoearlychildhood.com

Physical science: ramps, balance scales, pulleys, mirrors and pipes, buckets, magnets

Engineering: long flat pieces such as ceiling fan blades or pieces of plywood for building bridges, wooden spools, tin cans, hard cardboard toilet paper tubes, small cubes, knobs, candlestick holders

Provocations and STEAM Challenges: BRIDGES

engineering
Intentionally Designed Block Play Wide Range of Cognitive Skills journeyintoearlychildhood.com

 

 

 

 

Wide Range of Cognitive and Developmental Skills: hard hats, food containers, dollhouse people, steering wheel and any other materials that will encourage dramatic play within blocks to move students building, design, and play to a more complex level

Four and five-year-old children are very capable and independent. If manila and colored construction paper, a few crayons, scissors, masking tape, and string are always available in or near the block corner, the children will begin to make their own signs and draw trees, people, and other things they need, thereby using their imagination in a constructive, purposeful way.

  • Note: The above lists are simply suggestions. Obviously, no teacher will ever put out all these accessories at once. However, the larger your supply of odds and ends, the better you will be able to help the children in the block corner when they begin to need accessories for specific purposes.

intentionally designed block play

Stages in Block Play- Moving Our Students to Complex Play

stages of play featured imageStages of Block Building:

All children progress through specific stages as they use blocks in play, building, and designing. Knowledge of these stages helps teachers provide the materials and questioning that will nudge children forward in their abilities and lead them to more complex play. 

Stage 1: Carrying blocks: Blocks are carried around but not used for construction. (Generally, very young children or very inexperienced builders.)vertical

Stage 2: Building Begins: Children mostly make rows, either horizontal (on the floor) or vertical (stacked). There is much repetition in this early building pattern, which is basic functional play with blocks. (approximately around age 2-3 years)

bridging

 

Stage 3: Bridging: children create a bridge (or portal) by using two blocks to support a third. (approximately three years of age)

 

 

enclosure

Stage 4: Enclosures: Children place blocks in such a way that they enclose a space. Bridging and enclosures are among the earliest technical problems children solve when playing with blocks, and they occur soon after a child begins to use blocks regularly. These spaces are often called cages in a zoo or pet store. In this stage, children will want to add additional accessories such as figures for dramatic play or gems for food. (approximately four years of age)

20181129_092632

 

complex 5Stage 5: Complex Structures: With age, children become steadily more imaginative in their block building. They use more blocks and create more elaborate designs, incorporating patterns and balance into their constructions. Children may incorporate several different block accessories as their play becomes more involved. (approximately 4 or 5 years of age)

Stage 6: Complex Structures with Elaborate Dramatic Play: Naming of structures for dramatic play begins and engagement in elaborate dramatic play scenarios occur. Before this stage, children may have named their structures, but not necessarily based on the function of the building.

This stage of block building corresponds to the “realistic” stage in art development. Children use blocks to represent things they know, like cities, cars, airplanes, and houses.

 

Stages of Block Building

Resources:

Wardle, Francis. (2002) Introduction to Early Childhood Education: A Multidimensional Approach to Child-Centered Care and Learning. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

The Block Center.  The Institute for Childhood Education, L.L.C.  www.WeEducateTeachers.com

Pictures are of block structures created by K and Pre-K children in Union Public Schools.

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