What is the Choosing Program?
The Choosing Program plays an integral role in the Cottage School curriculum and involves all students from Kinder to Year 6. In many schools you will hear children asking their teacher for ‘Free time’. What they’re really asking for is permission to participate with activities that they feel engaged with, that they want to have a role in the decision making, that they can be creative without being directed, that they can be autonomous and build self esteem. However, for the busy teacher who wants to focus on students who require his/her attention, unsupervised free time is exactly what they get, without any educational outcomes being assessed or supported. This is far from the Choosing Program that is offered at Cottage School.
At Cottage School the Choosing Program is designed to provide students with opportunities to engage with experiences that shape their motivation and approaches to learning, such as persistence, initiative and flexibility; in turn, these dispositions and behaviours affect their learning and development. The actual activities to choose from vary from year group to year group and are designed to fit with the maturity, developmental level (both physical and cognitive), and interests of the age group. Activities ranging from creating and transferring coloured water between receptacles, to coding on the computer and a whole range of things in between.
Why have a designated Choosing Program?
As stated, there are several reasons that giving children choices throughout the curriculum is beneficial, even crucial to their development. Providing choices for children is a fundamental aspect of a high-quality curriculum (Hendrick, 1996). In order to provide children with a number of choices, the teacher must understand the importance of choices, and be willing and able to allow a variety of activities and behaviours in the classroom. This approach to learning is child-centered, rather than teacher-centered. When children arrive at school, they are already accomplished learners. The Choosing Program builds on this innate ability and children’s desire to explore and learn. The educators role is to build on this capacity and to extend children so that their cognitive, social, emotional, language and physical development is nurtured.
A feeling of control: All human beings need to feel as if they have control over themselves and their lives. Erikson (1950) believed that at the second level of psychosocial development, beginning soon after one year of age, young children must resolve the conflict between autonomy and shame and doubt. Children who do not develop autonomy are liable to remain dependent on adults or to be overly influenced by their peers. Gartrell (1995) called this phenomenon ‘mistaken behaviours’. Children who fall into ‘mistaken behaviours’ may feel doubtful of their abilities, and be unable to take the risks that lead to real learning (Fordham & Anderson, 1992; Maxim, 1997) or challenge themselves to achieve at ever higher levels. In addition, they may feel hostility towards adults who allow them little freedom to choose (Edwards, 1993). Learning to be autonomous and self-reliant takes time and practice. When we offer children choices, we are allowing them to practice the skills of independence and responsibility, while we guard their health and safety by co-constructing and monitoring the options (Maxim, 1997).
Building Self-Esteem: Being autonomous and in control feels good – simply watch the face of a toddler who has just learned to walk. Self-esteem grows when we successfully do things for ourselves. Children can handle mistakes or failure with equanimity and good humor when they feel good about themselves. A child who has a solid sense of self-worth can make a poor decision, evaluate it calmly, rethink the situation, and make a different choice.
Cognitive Development: Making choices is part of problem solving. When given choices, children stretch their minds and create new and unique combinations of ideas and materials. Before they can make wise choices however, children need to learn the skills of convergent thinking, knowing the right answer as well as divergent thinking, seeing many possible answers. If we expect teenagers to make healthful choices about important issues such as sexual activity or the use of alcohol or illegal drugs, we must allow them many opportunities in their earlier years to make meaningful choices (Morrison, 1997).
Moral Development: In a classroom based on Piaget’s constructivist principles, everyone shares responsibility for decision making (DeVries & Zan, 1995). By allowing children to determine what goes on in a room, the teacher promotes their self-regulation. If they have opportunities to make their own choices and feel powerful, they will have no need to exert power over others or to break rules behind the teacher’s back. When their desires are respected, it is easier for children to respect others’ wishes. As children learn to make decisions for themselves and to develop autonomy, they learn to behave morally and to take the needs of others into consideration when making choices (Kamii, 1982).
Minimizing Conflicts: One of the effects of offering children choices during the timetable in a day is the reduction of conflict among children and between children and adults. When adults direct a child’s behavior most of the day, the child’s natural desire to be independent is thwarted and feelings of resentment or rebellion may arise (Edwards, 1993). Adults can understand this frustration if they think about having a job in which they are told every little thing to do, even when to use the restroom or get a drink of water. Most of us would either complain or get another job. Children have no choice about going to school or childcare; they cannot leave an unhappy situation. When they rebel, they are labeled as having “behavior problems.” If we treat children with the same respect (Kostelnik, Soderman & Whiren, 1993) we adults expect and understand that each child has individual needs and interests, we will provide them with the opportunities to choose what is best for them.
Maximizing Learning: Children feel more committed to an activity they have chosen themselves. Therefore, their attention spans will likely be longer if they choose an activity than if they work at a task assigned by the teacher (Fromberg, 1995; Maxim, 1997). Making choices helps children learn persistence and task completion.
How to Offer Choices: Choices offered to young children must be legitimate and meaningful to them and acceptable to adults. Limiting choices for young children helps them select (Morrison, 1997). In a restaurant with many menu options even adults have difficulty choosing their meal. It may be easier for a child to choose if we suggest she decide between the art table and the block corner than from all the activities available in the classroom. Younger children manage better with fewer options. Making direct suggestions may help the hesitant child to make a choice. Children whose parents make decisions for them may be overwhelmed by a situation in which they are now expected to choose for themselves. They need time, support, and practice as well as patient teachers to help them learn this skill. By offering children choices we are not giving them complete control of the classroom or the curriculum. Since children may choose only from the alternatives offered, the teacher maintains control of what the options are. A child may want to choose the water table every day, but on the days when the teacher does not put it out, he must choose something else.
No Choice Situations: Each of us must deal with situations in which we have no choice. We are required to obey laws, for instance. Children, too, must learn that sometimes they have no choice. Issues of safety allow no leeway for individual preference (Gordon & Browne, 1996). Children may not use the electric drill until such time that they have been instructed on how to use it properly and safely. Even then, they must not use such equipment unless they are prepared to wear safety equipment and consider the safety of others around them. When time is an issue they may have to stop playing and clean up, or get dressed for school so parents can get to work on time. After the adults have made the primary decision, however, children can make secondary ones. When children know they will be given sufficient opportunities to choose for themselves, they are more willing to accept those important “no choice” decisions adults must make for them.
Our conclusion of the Choosing Program.
The wise teacher understands that children make choices all day long, whether adults want them to or not. They choose to obey, ignore, or defy rules and directions and determine for themselves whether to speak kindly or angrily to others. They decide whether or not school is a good place to be. Our task is to provide children with appropriate, healthful options and help them to make and accept their choices. In this way, we are developing confident, independent children who feel in control of themselves.
DeVries, R., & Zan, B. (1995). Creating a Constructivist Classroom Atmosphere. Young Children, 51 (1): 4-13
Edwards, C.H. (1993). Classroom Management and Discipline. New York: Macmillan.
Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.
Fordham, A.E., & Anderson, W.W. (1992). Play, risk-taking and the emergence of literacy. In V.J. Dimidjian (Ed.), Play’s place in public education for young children. Washington, DC: NEA
Fromberg, D.P. (1995). The full-day kindergarten: Planning and Practicing a Dynamic Themes Curriculum. New York: Teachers College.
Gartrell, D. (1995). Misbehaviour or Mistaken Behaviour? Young Children, 50 (1): 27-34.
Gordon, A., & Browne, K.W. (1996). Guiding Young Children in a Diverse Society. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Kamii, C. (1982). Number in preschool and kindergarten. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
Kostelnik, M.J., Soderman, A.J>, & Whiren, A.P. (1993). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Education. New York: Merrill/Macmillan.
Maxim, G.W. (1997). The Very Young: Developmental Education for the Early Years, 5th Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
Morrison, G.S. (1997). Fundamentals of Early Childhood Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
Steve Robinson 2015