Free flow, free play, free feeding, free choice – how much freedom do children really want and do we know what we are doing when we give it to them?
Like so many other valuable philosophies we bring to our roles as educators, children’s right to choose how they spend their time can easily be misunderstood.
I wonder, do we need to lock up our loose parts for a little while to get back on track? Has the pendulum swung so far to agency and freedom that children are losing those most important skills of respect and responsibility for others?
Children show us through their play activity and behaviour how much choice they need.
Some children have trouble making decisions and need their choices to be refined, visual and tangible. They seek the reassurance of adult input as a safe base from which they venture into decisions in small ways, in their own time.
Other children thrive on searching out resources, food and risk at their own pace and unguided by adults. They relish control and will only seek adult help when they need it to implement their own decisions (for example, to reach up high, or holding the other end of a two-person job).
There are as many preferences about choice as there are young humans in our care and of course sometimes the context in which choices are offered influences the way children will respond to the freedoms we provide or limit.
Take a virtual tour
I want you to strap on your imaginary Virtual Reality goggles while I take you on a tour of some experiences I have had while coaching in services where children were given many, many choices.
Here we are in the 4-5s lunch room where 15 children are screaming “Me! Me! Me!” Well of course they are! They were all asked Who wants another piece of bread? But the educator is feeling alarmed because she doesn’t have 15 more pieces on that plate – she is also a bit disappointed because she knows for a fact some of the children aren’t at all hungry.
Real choice looks like: placing the plate of extra bread in the middle of the table and talking about checking in with your body about how hungry you are, and how to take one piece and leave some for your mate. And yes, it means sitting with the children while they work this out.
Still wearing your VR goggles? Now let’s cut to group time with the 3-4s. In this scene the educator planned to read a story that encourages discussion about the ocean, but he knows not all the children want to participate so he let them choose to do whatever they want instead. Right now he’s trying to answer a question from one of the story children but they can’t hear a word he is saying over the noise of cars crashing and Lego towers tipping.
Real choice looks like: a culture of respect and responsibility. The freedom to choose a different activity comes with the responsibility of ensuring it doesn’t stop your friends from hearing their story and having a discussion.
Our VR tour continues down to the babies’ room where choice is a challenge. Our educators want to give the babies the freedom that the older children have, but often the choices boil down to the offer of ‘Milk or water?’ with the decision made for them if they don’t answer. Nothing wrong with that! It’s a refined and tangible choice, but how important is that choice to the babies here? What would meaningful choice and freedom look like in a babies’ room?
Real choice looks like: arranging their bags close to floor level and recognising they may crawl to their own belongings when they are tired or missing mum. It looks like giving babies enough time to create meaning from your questions and to respond in their own way.
Let’s talk about it
OK! Pack the goggles away and let’s talk: how can we be the security and safe haven children need while providing them with choices that respect them as capable decision makers?
For example, open ended play and loose parts play are quite difficult for some children. Some want a reaction or outcome straight away, some are overwhelmed by the volume. When you offer a trolley of loose parts are you also offering yourself to the children as a resource, a prompt, a guide?
As an adult, and a skilled teacher, you make the decision about what is best overall for the children and then you open the opportunities for choice and freedom within that decision.
Undeniably, choice is important and children grow and learn when given freedom to choose and exercise their imaginations, social skills, movement and intelligence. Suppressing choice is not my point: providing real choice is.
I recently sat at a table where the teacher had created an activity for the children to practise threading: paper plates with holes punched around the edges were waiting for them, and baskets of ribbons and string.
One little girl noticed that when her ribbon hung loose under the plate it wobbled as she moved. She kept going, looping the ribbon under the plate each time. ‘Look, I made a jellyfish,’ she said, and swam it through the air in front of the teacher … who admired her work but told her to tighten up her ribbons now because this activity was about threading.
As I looked around the room I could not see a single empty table: every one was beautifully set up with carefully planned activities, all working to the teacher’s agenda for the children. Later, as we discussed the day, we agreed that the following day we would keep half the tables clear and opening the way for children to exercise choice. The teacher would be a resource too, responding to requests for items or assistance that would help the children extend their own choices within either her pre-planned activities or ideas of their own. Guess which was the happier day?
Tips for offering real choices
Here are some ways that I have observed meaningful choices being offered and meaningless choices avoided:
- Beware the choice that is not a choice. Not ‘Would you like to come inside?’ but ‘It’s time to come inside, would you like to put your shovel in the shed or near the door?’
- Reduce the amount of ‘directive’ language. Not ‘Take your jumper off, it’s too hot’. but ‘It’s a warm day, you can decide if you want to wear your jumper, how do you feel?’
- Do ‘with’ rather than ‘to’. Not ‘Come here to get your sunscreen on’ but ‘Let’s go together and grab your sunscreen, do you want to put it on or will I?’
- Create a climate and culture of responsibility. If a child has chosen not to try something themselves, sometimes the natural consequences are enough. Use the words responsibility and respect, even very young children know the tone of ‘big’ words.
- Change your mind-set from granting or denying permission and instead form a habit of asking yourself, Why not? Sometimes there’s a good reason for ‘not’ but we all know children can amaze us with their ability to build the program of their day. Be hanging in the wings with the possibilities rather than hanging over the shoulders with your agenda!
- Do not despair for the child who chooses to play on the mat for most of the day. Play is play and sometimes choice appears passive. They will still learn to sit and write and listen if they haven’t been to the table to do craft today.
Meet the author - Rebecca Thompson
Spanning 20 years in a variety of early childhood, early intervention, primary school and tertiary education, Rebecca's hands-on experience backs her commitment to advocacy for every child's right to quality care and education. She has also engaged in action research and community wellbeing programs for children and families from marginalised groups.As founder and early childhood consultant at Stone & Sprocket, Rebecca supports services wanting to bring new light to children’s behaviour, re-think inclusion through nature connections, relationships and meticulous observation/data collection for informed decision making.