Choice in the Early Childhood Classroom

I had the opportunity to interview Anne Sommer Bedrick a few years ago when she released her eBook, Choice Without Chaos (iTunes/Amazon).  Anne does not teach preschool, but she teaches primary school art, and there are so many parallels to be drawn between this particular style of art teaching and the play-centered, child-centered, inquiry based classrooms that so many Early Childhood Educators strive to create.

I am a member of some Choice-Art Teaching groups on social media, and the dialogue reflects a celebration of both common ground and differences.  The educators are not asking about crafts or products: they are supporting each other in deep understanding of what it means to engage students with choice.  As Early Childhood Educators, we are always thinking about the approaches to curriculum that truly engage children.  Choice-art embraces that everyone, every group, every day is a little bit different.  The choice, not the product, is key here.

 A post in the Choice-Art Educator Facebook group

A post in the Choice-Art Educator Facebook group


I want to share the basics of this choice-based idea here because it resonates with me as an Early Childhood Educator, and I know it will inspire you as well.


What is Teaching for Artistic Behavior/Choice-Art?

Picture the stereotypical preschool classroom, and its “centers”.  What do you see?  Traditionally, we think of dramatic play, blocks, sensory, painting, books, and the like.  Some of you may have evolved to think about different centers/areas that reflect the specific needs of your community and your philosophy of teaching.  For example, a Montessori classroom may have more specific materials that are offered in more specific places; or a project-based setting may have canters that reflect a current inquiry.  

Now, picture a room with centers, but those areas each cater towards a specific material or medium for students to enjoy.  New centers are opened occasionally, adding increased choices for students.  According to the TAB Website, centers will work well if:

  • Students can find what they need without your input
  • Students are able to create a wide variety of pieces using the center (not everything is the same)
  • There is adequate space to work in the center OR materials can be easily transported to work tables elsewhere
  • Clean up takes place quickly and materials are put away properly, due to your good directions and organization

The choice-art room is like the intersection of art and early childhood.

 ABC House, Brussels, Belgium

ABC House, Brussels, Belgium

The points above are good advice for any classroom, and any setup really.  The year begins with limited choice, and new choices are added over the course of the school year.  The TAB website indicates that “centers are earned with good artistic behavior”; I can agree with that statement if there are clear messages about what "good" means, and children are involved in a reflective process around their experiences with materials.  What works for each child, and each group, will be different, as well.  To teach choice-based art or infants, toddlers, or preschoolers is to be constantly observing, reflecting, and evolving.


Why Not Do it The Old Way?

Choice-based art is a contrast to the art education that I had as a K-12 student.  My experience was having a finished product as an example held up in front of the class in elementary school, which represented “what we were making”.  In high school art classes, we used the same materials as our classmates, at the same time, working towards our own products, but those products were in the same category.  For example, we are all painting a still life - the same one that everyone else is painting.  Students in a choice-art classroom will spend time working with the same prompt at the same time as their peers when a medium is introduced; children in an early childhood setting can also benefit from gathering together to inquire and wonder about new prompts and materials.

Choice-art educators are finding ways to take limited time and engage children deeply and independently in making and exploring media, from drawing to digital art and beyond.  This is a contrast to the "we're all doing this" attitude.  Early childhood educators have the same goals: exploration of the world through play.  It is easy to get caught up in the logistics, and see those as barriers to this kind of teaching - from limited time with children to basic human needs to parent expectations, it is far too easy to make excuses to just fall back on run-of-the-mill teaching.  Can we get past those voices in our head that look for problems, and shift our perspective to the big picture, where a tone of trust and true understanding of children will take us much further?

What if we took the time to share materials with children and explore them together, seeing the potential that they have?  What if we reflected on those artistic experiences with these young artists, respecting their original ideas about the potential of media?  

It seems that Early Childhood Educators spend a lot of time thinking about engaging children with materials, getting children to focus, take care of materials, and clean up.  The students who are in classrooms with choice-based art educators are older than our lovely little preschoolers, but that does not mean they will be easier to engage.  Choice-based art educators approach this topic with the understanding that we need to do some scaffolding to support students as they learn about how to use certain materials with success.  Students don’t walk in on day one and have every choice available; instead, the room is curated, with active conversations and reflections to increase understanding of the materials that are available.  

When children have the space to explore in this art environment, they make more connections with the way the world works; they learn to persevere through problem solving; they learn to focus and engage independently; they learn to talk about art and process with others; they are learning that the way they express themselves is valuable, valid, and celebrated.  Thinking outside of the box is a life skill.


Choice Art and the Reggio Emilia Approach : Parallels

The idea of choice-art will likely resonate with Reggio-inspired educators: there are some very clear parallels between Choice Art and the atelier at a Reggio-inspired school.  Learning about choice art is like reading about the Reggio Emilia Approach: there is no one way, one-size-fits-all formula for implementing this idea.  This is a philosophy about what works, translated into one approach to curriculum.  

 The Atelier, Reggio Emilia

The Atelier, Reggio Emilia

Ten years ago, when I found myself deep in my own professional learning about the Reggio Emilia Approach, I was taken aback by the work that children would produce in those classrooms, before the age of six.  These children are not more “naturally artistic” - they simply have access to materials that they are able to master and understand, rather than being overwhelmed by gel pens and crayons and paint sticks and stickers and dotters- you see the point there.  Just as we can curate a provocation of loose parts, we can curate mark-making materials and support children’s learning.  We can paint with watercolors together at circle - perhaps just black on white paper, talking through the process and really understanding the medium.  Some children will engage deeply with that prompt, while others will not.  A choice-art teacher of older children might do more of a demonstration; when we work with three-year-olds, we need to be realistic about our expectations for them, and modify accordingly.  

Looking at art education through this lens allows us to increase the number of languages that are available for children to express themselves.  When children have access to black pens, watercolors, clay, cardboard, collage materials - these are materials that children can use to create and make and express themselves.  This lens also helps us transcend the idea that boys don’t like art and girls do - its probably high time that we stop making that assumption anyway.  

 Exploring the digital arts in Reggio Emilia

Exploring the digital arts in Reggio Emilia


What should it look like?

“A center is a “three dimensional lesson plan.”  Each center contains menus with set-up procedures, directions and lists of materials and tools.  Resources include images by student and adult artists, books, charts and other related references.  Materials and tools are organized for easy access and return.  Centers can be as large as half the room or as small as a shoe box and can be arranged to accommodate a wide variety of ages and abilities.  Some basic centers will remain in the classroom all year, while others make brief, limited appearances.  Centers are opened one at a time.”
(Teaching for Artistic Behavior)

I think of these studio spaces as art workshops: evolving based on the projects that are happening and how much space they need.  Let go of the "art room" and the "bulletin board"; think about the kind of engaging work that children are really doing: a workshop, a lab, a studio.  The learning space should be an inspiring place that the stakeholders in the environment are drawn to working in, and you are one of those stakeholders, too.

  A communal workspace at  Sabot at Stony Point

 A communal workspace at Sabot at Stony Point


Applying it to the 0-5 set: How might this look in Early Childhood?

It is really exciting to think of the possible ways that this can influence design and curriculum of an early childhood setting!  Keeping in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to classroom and curriculum design, think about the following ideas.

Make your space flexible.

 If you follow an inquiry-based, emergent curriculum, leave room for things to change.  Perhaps tables are flexible for children’s material choices, with a large work table close to materials that allows for flexibility.  In my interview with Anne, she talks about how a center can simply be a box or a kit that has the flexibility to be moved around the room; so a box with materials for exploring and using textiles may be brought to a certain part of the room with younger children, or brought to the carpet.  There may be times when everyone wants clay: instead of making that situation stressful, think about expanding the clay choices temporarily.


Make observations about how children use space and materials.  

 How much flexibility and freedom do children have with the choices they have in your setting now?  What is their understanding of the materials at this point - do you need to slow down, or are they already confident, independent creators?  If children are not engaged with an open-ended painting prompt that you set out, reflect on that information rather than jumping to the conclusion that “this group doesn’t like to paint”.  That may be your final conclusion, but take some time to observe, write, take photographs, and reflect on what is really happening in the classroom.

Let children be part of the design process.  

If you want to make change, involve children in that process!  Use a simple material together - black pens and paper - and think out loud during that process.  Point out how you see children using the materials, and ask them where pens and paper should be in the room, and talk about what children might use that material for throughout the day.  As you introduce materials to children, ask them about how they might use them.

Apply the choice-art “centers” philosophy to the overall design of your classroom.  

Those “standards” for a good center, listed above, are wonderfully applicable to the idea of early childhood settings.  When you create a center for materials for children’s use, ask yourself if they fit those standards.  Again, observe children as they use the materials, and revisit the kit/center as a group to reflect on children’s experiences with it.  Inspire children with their art, famous art, books, music, sound-making.  Ask yourself, what might the children explore?  Am I telling them what to explore, or offering the building blocks for them to take their explorations wherever they decide?


Extending Your Thinking

The essence of Choice Art is open-ended, child-centered choice-making.  Rather than that example of the snowman made out of cotton balls available as an example, children might extend their exploration of glue with your “kit” that includes paper, cotton balls, glue, the little circles that fall out of the hole punch, white paint: that curation of materials may help children find focus, and you can use the word “collage” to introduce that idea.  If you have been meeting to talk about materials and reflecting on the experiences in the room (and if you have talked about collage!), this will be a no-brainer for everyone.

Like loose parts, art-making does not always need to be about a permanent, take-home product, but rather about the experience of being deeply engaged with materials and following your own path.  Listen, observe, and reflect, and you'll see the ways that you might apply these ideas to your learning environment.