I know what you are thinking, “Can a free play choice board actually calm the chaos in my classroom?” The answer is 100% YES! This blog post is dedicated to proving exactly that to you. So if you are a Pre-K or Kindergarten teacher who includes free choice play in your classroom, then read on! Learn how to decrease the stress that is often sky-high during this block of time in the school day.
On the other hand, if you are not yet carving out time in your schedule for free choice centers, then check out this blog post. Learn how you can implement Play Workshop in your classroom. I am confident that you will be convinced of the importance of free play for Kindergarten and Pre-K kiddos. You can do it!
What You Will Learn…
Okay, grab your coffee, notebook, and flair pens because we are about to get started! In this blog post, we will thoroughly answer these 3 big questions:
- What are the benefits of using a free play choice board?
- How can teachers prepare a free play choice board?
- How do teachers and students actually use a free play choice board?
You are a new 4K teacher. While you have been in education for some time now, this is your first experience in a play-based program. You are the lead teacher of 28 students in a *small* classroom. You are fortunate to have up to 4 other adults supporting in the classroom at any given moment. But this also means that there are 4 more bodies in a tight space.
In order to provide 28 students with plenty of choice, you know you have to set up lots of play centers. But you wonder . . .
- “How can I possibly squeeze in and manage all those centers in our limited space?”
- “What can I do to lead my students toward meaningful play (vs. bouncing around the room)?”
- “How can I help my students remember all of their options without getting overwhelmed?”
- “What can I do to minimize the chance of peer problems arising when sharing limited space?”
Admittedly, this was me years ago. These were just a few of the questions that I asked myself. After reading books, blogs, and Instagram posts from other experienced Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers, I quickly discovered that a free play choice board was the answer to all of my burning questions!
Are you nervous that free choice play might lead to madness in your classroom? Or are you already inviting your students to choose their centers, but it feels more chaotic than your nerves can handle? You know free play is supposed to be fun, but not everyone is actually having fun – including you!
The first step toward calming the chaos is a choice board. By using a visual display of your free choice centers, you can and will manage the madness. It is incredibly important to provide a supportive structure in Play Workshop. For this reason, a free play choice board is a priority. So without further ado, let’s get into it!
What Are the Benefits of a Free Play Choice Board?
There are certainly some positive reasons why educators want to use choice boards for free play. Not only do choice boards support students, but they are helpful to teachers, too. Here is how…
Students Are Supported by Free Play Choice Boards
Voice and Choice Are Essential
First things first. If you are pulling out your hair while attempting to facilitate assigned and timed play rotations, listen up! I am speaking to you, teacher friend. I promise that you will fight far fewer battles if you give your students the freedom to choose how they spend their play time.
The power of choice gives our little ones the autonomy and control that they crave. Our students are way more receptive to the environments and opportunities (that we work so hard to set up) when they have voice and choice in their learning. So if you want your students to be engaged, then it is time to transition from those assigned and timed play rotations to truly implementing a free choice play time.
What If Students Continually Return to the Same Center?
Teachers at times express concern around the probability that some students will not choose to visit all of the play centers across a period of time. The truth is . . . when we are strategic about how we set up our play centers from the get-go, it does not matter if students visit all of the play centers or not.
It is not important to me if one of my students does not visit, say, the Science Center all week or all month or, quite frankly, all year. I take comfort in the fact that I have set up each of our play centers to include opportunities for math, literacy and language, executive functioning, and more.
Play Time Should Be a Happy Time
An effective free play choice board is one way to build a structure and implement a regular procedure in Play Workshop. This structure and procedure will certainly result in joyful play experiences day after day.
On the other hand . . .
- forcing children to spend 10 minutes in a center they have no interest in will likely lead to undesirable behaviors from unhappy kiddos.
- not limiting the number of students that can play in a center may lead to overcrowdedness and not enough materials to go around, which can create frustrated children who are not yet equipped to handle big emotions.
- skipping a thoughtful plan around how students are spaced out around the classroom can result in loud environments that some littles, especially those with sensory concerns, do not handle well.
- allowing students to bounce around from center to center can lead to superficial play that lacks deep, meaningful learning experiences. This can leave students with the feeling that they never really got into their play at all and before they know it, clean up time is upon them.
Of course, the situations described above are what we want to avoid. Each of these issues is easily resolved with a free play choice board.
Students Develop Important Life Skills
Just as the popular Rolling Stones song goes, you can’t always get what you want. This is a hard lesson for some littles to learn, but it is one that they are often faced with in the school setting. Using a free play choice board during Play Workshop can help students learn how to deal with this cold, hard truth: you may not get your first choice, but there are many other options available to you.
When our littles practice this daily, they are more likely to cope with not getting their way during other parts of their school day as well. In our classroom, when things do not go our way, we say, “It’s cool!” then we move on. Students want to hold on to their ability to choose and, therefore, try hard to practice self-regulation and self-control.
Furthermore, Pre-K and Kindergarten students begin to develop a sense of responsibility when the center they are playing in is “their center.” When students do not commit to a center, on the other hand, the accountability factor is harder to develop. This is when we find ourselves calling out, “Can someone please clean up the Magnets Center?!”
However, when students choose a center and play only in that center for a period of time, there is no question about who should clean up what. Students feel responsible for their space and this improves play time management overall.
Free Play Choice Boards Help Teachers, Too!
The primary purpose of a free play choice board is to support our little learners. With that being said, choice boards help us teachers out a great deal as well. The following snippet provides one example.
When a limited number of students are invited into a play space, teachers are free to truly support little learners in the centers. For instance, if a teacher notices a problem arise (and the students are not yet independent in their problem-solving skills), the teacher can coach the students. Perhaps she can suggest that the children share, take turns with a timer, or check out the “We Can Solve Problems!” chart for another solution.
Alternatively, when students are free to roam from center to center, overcrowdedness is inevitable. In this case, teachers spend the majority of their time just putting out fires. Opportunities for teachers to actually coach and support children are far less likely.
Why a Free Play Choice Board May NOT Be a Good Fit for You
If it is not already glaringly obvious, I am a huge fan of free play choice boards. Why? Because it works in our 4K classroom.
With that being said, I truly believe that teachers need to do what is best for their classrooms. This may not necessarily be what everyone else seems to be doing. Here are some reasons why you may consider going without a free play choice board:
- You teach in a large classroom with spacious play centers. In this case, you may have the luxury of inviting your students to flow freely between centers.
- You have an abundance of toys, school supplies, and other classroom materials. There is always enough for every student, no matter how many kiddos express interest in a particular play space at the same time.
- Your students regularly all do their part during clean up time (without the need for accountability for one center). Naturally, this may change year-after-year, depending on the make-up of each student group.
- You do not have any kiddos in your group that become territorial over “their” play space and/or “their” toys. Rarely you never see protective behaviors that lead to conflicts or even aggression.
- You have lots of adult support in your classroom. They are free to assist students in their play, refill paint cups when needed, and coach peers through conflicts as they arise.
- You have lots of available time when your students are playing and working. You are not pulled in different directions during play and exploration time.
Chances are you were not able to say, “Yup! That is me,” to each of the bulleted statements of above. (Boy, wouldn’t that be wonderful?!) This is precisely why I believe in the importance and power of a free play choice board.
Oh, One More Thing…
There is one final reason why a free play choice board may not be a good fit for you, your students, and your classroom. That is . . . problem-solving. Some educators prefer a less structured play atmosphere and invite the conflicts that arise from overcrowded centers and limited play materials. They want their students to benefit from the learning that can take place in these situations. That is totally cool, if that works for them!
On the other hand, I know that peer conflicts are certain to arise among our little learners, no matter what . . . choice board or no choice board. My students work on problem-solving skills throughout the entirety of their day, not just during Play Workshop. So if I can minimize those issues through the implementation of a free play choice board and make those conflicts more digestible for my students, then that is what I am going to do.
In this way, I am opening the door to more powerful, engaged play. Additionally, I am freeing myself up to observe and document my students at play. On that note, if you have not grabbed my FREE Play Observation Documentation resource, click the image below to grab it. This freebie includes step-by-step directions for how to best use the resource as well as the documentation template itself.
How to Prepare the Perfect Free Play Choice Board
Disclosure: This blog post contains affiliate links to my Amazon store. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn a small affiliate commission, if you click through a link and finalize a purchase.
Gather Your Supplies
Your first step is to choose or create a free play choice board that works for your classroom. If you do not want to hunt down or create your own from scratch, I encourage you to check out the choice board that we use in our classroom. Just click on the image below!
The Perfect Free Play Choice Board
Let me list for you all of the goodness in this product:
Variety of Free Play Choice Board Options
- quarter-page visuals (34) that are perfect for your choice board AND they can be used to label boxes, baskets, containers, etc.
- half-page visuals (34) that can be used for labeling play centers and labeling boxes, baskets, containers, etc.
- full-page visuals (34) that can be used for labeling play centers, especially in large classrooms
- full-page mini choice boards (34) that can be placed IN the play centers; the mini choice boards are especially useful if you want to use more of a free-flowing approach to your free choice play time
- Powerpoint version of the various frame sizes (so you can add your own text and clipart, if needed, without the hassle of finding the same frame and trying to adjust to match the sizing)
Free Play Choice Board Bonuses
- 36 colored AND 36 black-and-white student number cards (students use their assigned number card to select the center of their choice)
- student photo template (so you know the sizing needed to print your students’ photos, if you go that route)
- 3 different blank box options (that are EXTREMELY HELPFUL because your students will visually see when a play center is full; the boxes accommodate 2 people, 3 people, and 4 people)
- “About this Product” pages (so you know exactly how this resource can be used to its fullest potential)
- “Teacher Tips” pages
Not convinced yet? Hop over to my Teachers Pay Teachers store to download the product preview and watch the product video!
Other Important Necessities
Okay, so after you have your hands on the perfect free play choice board, you will need to fire up your color printer. I highly recommend printing on quality white cardstock for durability. If you really want your choice board to last, I also suggest laminating your cards, labels, and posters. My favorite personal laminator and laminating sheets are both from Scotch. Honestly, you cannot go wrong with any Scotch products!
As I mentioned previously, our 4K classroom is quite small, so we use every inch of our space wisely. With that being said, the home of our free play choice board is actually a heating and cooling unit. I was not a fan of the gray metal look, so I covered the unit with this slightly glittery black contact paper. Check out the before and after photos below. I love how it turned out!
In order to make the cards stick to the heating and cooling unit, I attached magnetic dots to the back. There are cheaper options out there, but I am a huge fan of these particular magnetic dots because they are thick and super strong! The magnets hold up our heavy laminated cardstock cards, even through the contact paper, without any problems. No slipping or anything like that.
Perhaps you do not have a magnetic surface. In this case, a pocket chart is a perfect option for you! We religiously use our black pocket chart from Scholastic. If you have many play centers in your classroom, you might be better off with this black pocket chart from Scholastic, which is larger.
Now if you go the route of displaying mini choice boards in each play center (which is another option included in my Free Play Choice Board resource), you will want to grab yourself some velcro dots. To help yourself out and be consistent, remember this little chant: “Soft on the surface. Hard on the card.” In other words, put your soft velcro dots on the mini choice boards and put your hard velcro dots on your cards (that get attached to the mini choice boards).
Set Up Your Free Play Choice Board
You will need a visual card on your free play choice board for each center. Here is a list of the play center that we have set up in our 4K classroom:
- Construction Center (commonly referred to as Blocks Center)
- Imagination Center (often referred to as Pretend Center, Kitchen Center, or House Center)
- Light Tablets Center (most classrooms have a Light Table Center)
- Theater (often referred to as Dramatic Play)
- Science Center (sometimes referred to as Discovery Center)
- Magnets Center
- Tinker Toys
- Puzzle Center
- ABC Center
- Pocket Chart Center
- Art Center
- Writing Center
- Sensory Table
- Listening Center
- Games Center
- Play Dough Center
The list below are additional play centers that you might consider adding to your free play choice board. Each of these centers is also included in my Free Play Choice Board resource, along with the list above.
- Tablets Center
- Smartboard Center
- Computer Center
- Music Center
- Math / Maths Center
- Water Table
- Fine Motor Center
- Loose Parts Center
What to Include on Your Free Play Choice Board
Of course we do not start the school year with all of these centers on our choice board. With that being said, there really is no magic number in regards to how many play centers you “should” start with. It depends on your classroom population from year to year.
You may want to start with just one play center, like the Construction Center, Library, Puzzle Center, or Tinker Toys. Whatever center provides you with enough materials for all your students. It is a good idea to start with your play centers that are most engaging AND require little explanation. You will not have your students’ attention for long (if at all) during those first days of school. Choose play centers that the students can dive right into!
Where Are the Students?
Of course, your entire class will not position themselves in, say, the classroom library at the same time. As you introduce your play centers, you will likely be at the large group area (probably your carpet). When you introduce enough play centers, you students will be able to position themselves in the play center locations.
After you introduce at least two centers, invite your students to choose their centers on your free play choice board. So place those two (or more) play center visuals on your choice board only for the time being.
What to Add to Your Free Play Choice Board
Once you have introduced enough centers for all of your students, I HIGHLY recommend that you include some way for your kiddos to see how many students are invited to each play center. In my Free Play Choice Board resource, I include different-sized empty boxes for this very reason. We use number magnets in our classroom, so the boxes fit two magnets, three magnets, or four magnets (depending on the play center). By the way, the boxes fit the number cards (that are included in my resource) perfectly as well.
Helpful Tips for Your Free Play Choice Board Preparation
This tip is going to save your sanity! It will also help your kiddos out BIG TIME in those first weeks of school. Here is the tip: print TWO visuals for each center. One visual is used on the free play choice board. The other visual is displayed in the play center itself.
Before I included visuals IN the play centers, my students would sometimes pick a center, even though they did not know what they were picking. Or at times, they become upset when they realized what center they actually chose. (Again, this really only happened in those first few weeks of school. But it is stressful nonetheless.) When the visuals are displayed in the play centers, your kiddos are able to match the visuals up to the choice board. Problem solved!
Along that same line of thinking, be sure to print visuals for your storage containers, tubs, baskets, etc. For example, you can see in the image below how we taped a visual to every tinker toys tub. When your students choose to play in the Tinker Toys Center, they will know exactly which containers are available to them.
How to Actually Use a Free Play Choice Board
Put Your Free Play Choice Board Into Action
After you set up your free play choice board, you might wonder, “Okay, now what is the most efficient way to use this system in order to avoid chaos?” Well, let’s get into answering that question!
Below is the step-by-step process that we use in our classroom. Notice how it changes slightly, depending on the time of the year.
Earlier in the School Year
- We wrap up our focus lesson with a consistent auditory queue for transitioning: (teacher) “Okay, let’s not delay. It’s time to play. (students) Hip, hip, hooray!”
- We check our rotation chart (see the below), so we know who chooses their play center first. My kiddos are grouped by their student numbers. The clothespin rotates daily, so a new group gets to choose their centers first each day.
- I position myself near the free play choice board. I invite a few students over at a time to select their play centers. My job is to keep this process flowing and remind the students of their options. (Sometimes it is necessary to monitor so that kiddos do not move other students’ magnets. Typically though, this only happens at the start of the school year.)
- Our students locate their magnets and use the visuals to review their options. Then, they place their magnets in the boxes that correspond with the play centers of their choice. The boxes accommodate only a certain number of magnets (see the image below). Those numbers, of course, are connected to the number of students that are allowed in each center. (Remember that these boxes are included in my Free Play Choice Board resource!)
- After our students choose their play centers, they walk to their desired spot and get started!
Also during the selection time, our wonderful educational assistants are helping students head to the centers they choose, pull out materials if needed, or whatever our kiddos need.
Later in the School Year
In the winter, we engage in several focus lessons around making plans for our play. Once we reach this point, it is important for our kiddos to choose their centers BEFORE the focus lesson. In order for our students to make a play plan, they first need to know which center they will head to during exploration time. So we tweak our procedure slightly:
- I play a GoNoodle brain break, then head over to the choice board.
- I invite students to choose their play centers like before, but this time when they are done, they head back to the carpet and rejoin the brain break.
- After the brain break and everyone has selected their center, we engage in our focus lesson.
- We wrap up our focus lesson with the same auditory queue for transitioning: (teacher) “Okay, let’s not delay. It’s time to play. (students) Hip, hip, hooray!”
- I send the students off to head to their play centers in waves. I do not recommend sending them off all at once, as this is when you will likely see running, rushing, pushing, etc. Transitioning in a few waves of kiddos takes less than 30 seconds and avoids potential problems.
Get the Most Out of Your Free Play Choice Board
As I previously mentioned, using boxes that visually specify how many students are invited to play in a center at a time has its perks. If each play center card has a box and those boxes only accommodate a certain number of magnets (or student photos). then students can see at-a-glance if that center is still available to them or not. In my experience, this system decreases tantrums. Our littles just say, “It’s cool!” then they go for their second choice.
Free play choice boards can provide further support beyond that initial center selection process. Consider the ideas below.
If your students are ready to move between play centers, but space continues to be an issue, your free play choice board will save the day! In our 4K classroom, when students want to transition to a new center, they tidy up, return to the choice board, move their magnet to an open box, then head to their new center. In this way, our friends are free to switch up their play, yet we are still cognizant about space and materials.
At the end of your Play Workshop, when you and your students are in the whole group area for Share Time, some little ones (particularly in the beginning of the school year) may not yet have the understanding or language to articulate what play center they visited. A quick peek at your free play choice board will help you support your students so that they are able to participate in Share Time.
Use Your Free Play Choice Board During Focus Lessons
There are 3 components of Play Workshop: focus lesson, play and exploration, as well as group share. (If you are interested in learning more about the Play Workshop framework, check out my blog post, “What Is Play Workshop?”) It is wise to put your free play choice board to good use during your focus lessons.
How Can Teachers Use a Free Play Choice Board During Focus Lessons?
Here is how we use our free play choice board during focus lessons in our classroom:
- First, I took close-up photos of the visuals on the free play choice board.
- Then, I also took photos of the actual play centers and materials.
- After all of the photos were taken, I merged them together in a Google Slides presentation (see the image below for an example).
- At the beginning of each school week (typically on Mondays), we display our slide deck on our SmartBoard and go through our options together.
It is important to note that in the beginning of the school year, when our 4K friends are not yet familiar with our free play choice board and all of our center options, we go through the slide deck everyday. Of course, we do not include all of the play centers right away. Instead, we add them gradually as our little learners are ready.
Why Should Teachers Use This Process?
Well, in those first few weeks of school, the slide deck helps students match the free play choice board visuals to the play centers. So when they want to play in a particular center, they know exactly where to place their magnet on the choice board.
Later in the school year, the slide deck is still beneficial because it reminds the students of all their options. Sometimes kiddos can get stuck in a rut. They go to the same center over and over . . . not necessarily because they desire to do so, but because it becomes their default routine. The slide deck serves as a reminder to say, “Hey, remember that you have options!”
Your Turn, Teacher!
In this blog post, we broke down the answers to these 3 big questions:
- What are the benefits of using a free play choice board?
- How can teachers prepare a free play choice board?
- How do teachers and students actually use a free play choice board?
By now you are likely thinking, “We need a choice board in our classroom!” Or perhaps you are wondering if the choice board you are currently using needs a facelift. Here are a few action items to take those next steps:
- Decide on a free play choice board that will work for you, your students, and your unique teaching situation. You can check out the choice board that we use by clicking HERE!
- Prepare your choice board. Check out my favorite materials and supplies by clicking HERE!
- Display the choice board in your classroom so that it is accessible to your students.
- Teach your students how to use the free play choice board, then watch the magic happen!
After you calm the classroom chaos with your new free play choice board, you will certainly find that you are free for other activities. When this happens, I encourage you to begin observing your students during play and documenting those observations. Grab my FREE Play Observation Documentation to make this process easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy!
If you are wanting more information on free play choice boards, below are a few more resources:
- How to Manage Free Choice Learning Centers in Preschool by Vanessa Levin at Pre-K Pages
- Kinder Play Workshop at Findley Elementary by Beaverton School District → This video shows Play Workshop in-action. More specifically, you can catch a glimpse of their choice board at the beginning of the video (starting at the 8 second mark).
- How to Manage Free Choice Learning Centers in Preschool by Mary Catherine at Fun-a-Day
Do you already use a free play choice board in your classroom? Let us know about your successes with it in the comments below. If you have any questions at all about free play choice boards, drop them below in the comments and I will be sure to get back to you.