Givng Kids the Freedom to Choose

Recently I finished the bookFree to Learnby Peter Gray.This book was very thought-provoking, challenging some of my ideas and affirming others. One of those things that Peter Gray repeated in various ways is thatplay is freedom.He stressed the freedom to quit (to decide when to stop doing the activity). But I think that the freedom to use whatever resources are needed is important, too.

I’m a big advocate of children’s creativity. I encourage children to follow their ideas and experiment with materials. And a few years ago, we adopted a “rule” to provide resources for a child when he asks for it, if possible. If a child asks me for tape or scissors (and those items are not already out in the room somewhere), I get them for him. I want to provide the tools he needs to explore and create at that moment.

Often in my room, scissors, glue sticks, and paper scraps are always available if needed. I found some of those magnetic locker “baskets” (cheap at the back-to-school sale) and attached them to my white board. Kids can use these items whenever they choose; the resources are always at hand. (Not a new idea, I know. But it was a new step for us.)

I worried that I would be cleaning up paper bits each week from overuse of scissors. However, kids only use them when they really need them…which is not very frequently. And when they are used, the results can be surprising and amusing.

Since my room is used for a variety of other groups of various ages, I have to keep things easy to put out and take up. One day I hope to have a situation in which I can leave out more art supplies to be used as the child chooses. Until that day, I’ll facilitate as much as possible…and enjoy the results.

But I’m learning that this availability issue isn’t just art supplies. This year I have a boy that wants to use the cars often in the blocks center. The cars usually stay at my house unless I’m planning on using them. (We don’t have the storage space to keep lots of supplies in the room.)

My friend has asked for the cars a couple of times and I bring them the next week. But I decided this wasn’t enough. We now have a small container of cars that I keep them in the cabinet in the room. When my friend asks for them, I pull them out for him to use.

Keeping scissors or cars available may seem inconsequential. But allowing kids the freedom to choose and the freedom to use what they want is huge. Following ideas through play and exploration helps children learn what they need to learn. (And when they need to learn it.) Don’t dismiss engagement and high interest. Those can be the times that kids can learn the most (even if it’s not what we planned for them to learn.)

Providing materials as requested also gives children some ownership in the learning environment and in the learning itself. And that’s what we really want in the long run–children invested in their own developing understanding of the world. Those scissors or cars (or whatever) aren’t just toys or materials – they are tools for exploration.

Think about your classroom and your children. What do they need often? What do they like? How to they direct their own learning and their own exploration? What tools do they need to have the freedom to use whenever they deem it necessary?

Peter Gray says that true play (and true learning) is freedom. He also says that if adults control any aspect of the activity, then it is not true free play. That has given me a lot of thought, considering how some things work in my classroom.

Kids should have the freedom to choose – and use – the tools they need and not just the tools we think they need.

One comment

Love your thoughts and I find that when I give a young client the choice whether to attempt a challenging task, they often rise to the occasion. Perhaps it is later than I would wish, but their motivation is amplified and this raises the chance of success many times.

Most parents seem scared to delegate decisions to their child and remain mired in a sea of “shoulds” and “musts” around trivial homework and domestic tasks. They are reticent to let children make mistakes or to reap consequences.

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