Project Time: Why Choice?
Many traditional school settings do not acknowledge the power of offering children choices throughout the school day. Oftentimes, these settings prioritize rote, passive learning, which emphasizes procedure, conformity and control. We embrace choice to, among other things, foster innovation, self-expression and empowerment. When children choose, they learn that their interests are valuable and worth pursuing. It is this conviction that we believe will best prepare children to offer their own voice later in life as productive citizens in a democracy.
Every Project Time begins with a review of the choices available, which vary a bit from day to day. This review of the “choice board” is a shared reading activity and by the end of the year, all the children can read the chart independently—in both English and Spanish! Typically, children will choose only one area to work in during Project Time and take turns choosing one at a time. There is a small card labeled with a picture of that area and colored dots to indicate how many children may work there. Because each area can only accommodate a certain number of children comfortably, we set limits on the number of children who can work in each area each day. It can be hard for children, in the beginning of the year, to negotiate feelings of frustration and disappointment as certain areas become “closed.” Those feelings are natural. However, most children quickly adapt to this routine when they realize there is an opportunity to try and enjoy something new and that they may work in their favorite area another day.
The choices can include art (collage, tray painting, clay), math (manipulatives and games), writing and drawing, sensory table (sand and water), science, pretend, blocks, puzzles, books and bears, cooking, storytelling, construction, Legos, trains and tracks.
Why Project Time?
Serious learning happens when children initiate their own projects and are motivated to finish them. Their self-confidence and self-awareness grows in tremendous ways. We want to take a closer look now at a few work areas to help you understand the learning that happens when children choose.
Blocks: Children experience a myriad of interdisciplinary learning when they work with hardwood unit blocks, including science, math and social studies concepts: pattern arrangements, sorting and classification, length, space and volume, eye-hand coordination, and causal relationships.
Art: When children work with open-ended art materials, they construct their own knowledge of abstract concepts by re-creating experiences in concrete ways: representation and symbolism, symmetry, trial and error, inductive reasoning, finding out about line, shape and color, and visual vocabulary.
Pretend: Children make sense of their world by playing much the same way adults make sense of their world by talking. When children are deprived of their right to play, their potential is diminished because the understanding of their experiences is confined to a sensory level. We believe play promotes the emotional well-being essential to be a receptive, motivated learner, including addressing: positive self-concept, power and powerlessness, danger and safety, gender and identity, family roles, and people and their work.
One motivation underlying progressive schools was to challenge artificial boundaries that limit intellectual and social integration of all kinds. Mixed-age groupings is one structure that fosters the kind of integrated experience we value at Castle Bridge School.
The integration works on a variety of levels. Mixed-age groupings require a teacher to consider each child as an individual at her/his own place along all kinds of learning continua. The focus, by necessity, is on the individual child, because there is no way to force children who span three years across two grades into the same expectations for academic performance.
The structure of mixed-age groupings supports and requires teachers to individualize curriculum and expectations regardless of the age span. The flip side is that it allows the children to view themselves more individually and not with the constant expectation that there is one set of criteria for all the children in the class.
Mixed-age groupings more closely reflect the world the children are coming from and the one they will enter when they leave school. The artificial notion that one’s peers are those people who are exactly one’s age promotes a kind of pecking order and differentiation that inhibits cross-group integration that is essential in a happy productive life. Why shouldn’t a five-year-old feel comfortable addressing an eight-year-old?
Single-age groupings fix a child into a social-academic position in the class configuration. The high fliers are always on top, the steady kids are always in the middle, the struggling kids are always at the bottom. Never do the high fliers realize that there are other kids out there who are ahead of them, nor do the middles and bottoms ever get to feel confident, expert, and dependable as learners. This mirrors the rigidity of family configurations. The oldest is always the oldest, regardless of maturity, the youngest is always the baby, even when they’re eighty. People are stuck in their position in the family constellation, older or younger, etc. For some it can be very hard, and very frustrating to break out.
Mixed-age groupings are sometimes called family groupings. The reason for this is that children take on the role of older or younger sibling, the one who’s challenged to keep up, or the one who’s buoyed by the responsibilities of being the elder. Children can grow enormously when they move from being the younger child in the class to being the older child in the class the following year. The confidence and growth that a child can make when they find that they can help another child, that they are expert in something and can bring another kid along, is invaluable. So too can it be a relief for the elder children to have the responsibilities in life taken off their shoulders for a while when they are the younger in class. The children generally also have the benefit of being with the same teachers for two years. This model also helps knit the school together into a community.
At Castle Bridge we REALLY believe in recess. We see it not only as a time for free play that kids need, but also as a time for physical development and social interactions. Every day (unless there is a downpour or the temperature is below 10 degrees F) children will be outside playing for about 40 minutes. During this time they run laps and are encouraged by grown-ups to try new physical activities, involving balance, strength, coordination, and flexibility. They have the chance to interact with children from other classes and grades; older children are expected to help out the younger children.
We will go out in drizzle, cold, and snowy conditions. Children who dress for the weather (snowpants, mittens, hats and boots) stay much warmer running around than the adults who oversee them! Children will jump in puddles and roll in the snow and mud. Once we get back inside the school, children can change into dry clothes (please send some) to be comfortable all afternoon.