What Do Teachers Do During Free Choice?

free choice in preschool
Facebook… sometimes Pinterest if the students are playing well.

I am kidding.

Yesterday I published a post listing some of my favorite free choice activities and it naturally lead me to wanting to share what exactly I { and other preschool teachers } do while our students are exploring. The most honest answer is it’s changes daily. I see free choice as the time for me to :

  • Connect with my students. If my students do not feel connected to me, to the class, or the school environment they won’t feel comfortable to explore. I try hard to connect to them by playing with them. Following their lead and addressing questions as they come up. Some days that might mean talking in depth about Elsa and Anna, about something going on at home, or their imaginary friends. All of this matters. No matter how silly it might be, follow along and get connected. Everything is easier with a connected class.
  • Work on specific learning goals. I work with students on developing literacy and math concepts , language… whatever skill it is that I have noticed they are in the midst of developing. Having a great co-teacher makes this much easier. Talk about what you have both noticed the children developing ” Did you see Suzie can count to 25?! ” When you share that info you can act on it. Now you can work on counting to 30 with Suzie while you play with pom poms in the sensory table… This is not high pressure learning. It takes time to get to know your students because this shouldn’t be quizzing, just scaffolding.
  • Work on supporting friendships and modeling social skills. The same way that you take note of your students learning you can also take time to observe their social development and work on specific goals for each child instead of only addressing social skills focused on the whole class.
  • Play because through play I can do the other three much better than through direct instruction.

So yes I do get to play when I go to work, no wonder I love it!

Here are some more specific examples of what you can do during free choice of you are a teacher or parent in the classroom:

Sitting with children playing play dough you might mention how the play dough feels on your hands, you might tell them that you are making pizza dough and ask them if they like pizza, you could make lots of small balls and squish each one while counting. You don’t need to tell the child what to do just model all different ways to use the material and offer opportunities to connect by learning more about each other.

At the sensory table you can fill up cups wondering out loud if you can fit two full cups of the filler into the bigger jar. You can say that you want all the yellow pom poms on this side and the red ones on the other and then wonder out loud how many there are.

At the kitchen area you can sit down at the play table and ask a child what they are cooking you or ask them what they feel like having for dinner.

If you notice the book nook being neglected sit down and start reading silently. I am not sure I have ever done this and not had a child land in my lap and ask me to start the book again.

These are just some examples that have popped into my head. The reality is that you don’t have to say anything 99% of the time. Start playing next to your students and the learning opportunities will flow. As a new teacher I always wanted to quiz and tell ” What color is that play dough you are using Johnny?” ” Yes it’s red.” or ” No, it’s red!” this isn’t an effective way to engage young kids. Let them explore and as you get to know them you will be able to work in some targeted learning goals naturally. Forcing it turns an engaging classroom into a quiz show and that’s not very inviting. My overall goal as a preschool teacher is to make school a safe and happy place to be. My classroom is one of my students’ first experiences with school and I want to make a lasting impression that learning is fun.

Now I ask all of you teachers and homeschooling parents – What do YOU do during free choice?

45 Great Free Choice Activities For Preschool { Use At Home Too }

free choice activities for preschoolWay back when my son was tiny and just starting preschool I was waiting to pick him up when another parent who wasn’t familiar with the class ( a co-op preschool ) was expressing their dismay about the amount of free choice time the 2 hour class had. ” They are just playing!” Well yes they are, but they are learning too. After spending some time in the class with the amazing teachers and parent volunteers he came to understand that learning through play at school isn’t the same as what they do at home although both are equally valuable.

In that class as well as my classroom { and many others) teachers carefully set up learning environments so that it’s fun, playful, and there are all different kinds of learning to try every time the children come to school. There are many great ways to parent and there are many great ways to teach but I thought today I would share with you some of my favorite free choice activities grouped in their areas of learning you can set up in your class or at home. I did many of these activities with my kids at home during my hiatus from teaching and they work wonderfully as activities at the kitchen table or family room floor.

I try hard to include all of these areas of learning every day. Some days we skip one area especially if their interest in another is high at the time, or we might have a science activity planned for outside and skip setting something out for free choice. Do what works for your class with the goal of hitting all areas most days. Above all else use your child’s or students’ interests and abilities to guide activities.

So what do teachers do during free play? I’ll tackle that question tomorrow!



free choice activities for preschool

# 1 Cover a table with butcher paper and add one or more of the following :
stamps and stamp pads
high lighters

#2 Sticker mural like this Sticker Station

#3 Paint at the easel (if you are concerned about mess try watercolors)

#3 Chalk at the easel

#4 Chalk on black paper taped to a table


Fine Motor

cutting station

#5 Ripping paper ( cut scrap paper into strips and pop it in a bowl)

#6 Cutting Play dough with scissors ( play dough in general is great for fine motor and hand strength)

#7 Lacing Beads – big wooden ones for beginners, pipe cleaners and pony beads for older kids. Making cheerio or fruit loop towers is a wonderful option as well.

#8 Play dough with rolling pins they need to hold both sides to work.

#9 Buttons ( or other small treasures) hidden in play dough to find.

#10 Sorting with tongs or tweezers. We like to sort pom poms by color, and/or  size into egg cartons or other containers)

#11 Cutting station – my students loved cutting hay!


Gross Motor

homemade balance beam

#12 A small balance beam – you can make one like this.

#13 Sit and spin. This takes a lot of upper body strength.

#14 Tunnels to crawl through.

#15 Baby buggies, shopping carts, and strollers to push around the class.



free choice activities for preschool

#16  Sensory Bin with contents that change with the theme or periodically. My favorites are dyed dried beans, corn meal, pom poms, ice, and kinetic sand. I love to use coffee scoops from the dollar store because they are perfect for little hands. We allow our students to add things to the sensory bin, the construction vehicles live in ours now.

#17  Play dough! It’s a bonus if your students can help you make it.  Add in things like :

  • cookie cutters
  • popscicle sticks
  • plastic knives
  • scissors
  • garlic press
  • stamps
  • big googly eyes
  • plastic animals to make tracks

#18  Texture Box – you can see how I made a simple one here.

#19 Musical instruments


alphabet for starters

#20 Letter Magnets on magnetic board or cookie sheet. Children will sort them, find favorites, and count the letters.

#21 Letter fishing game.

#22 Letter matching tray activities like this leaf themed one.

#23 Play phones for children to “talk” to mom, dad, each other. My students order pizza for me a lot.

#24 Felt board with story pieces to encourage storytelling.

#25 Letter stamps/ letter cookie cutters with play dough. I always make sure to have my students initials available because they grab for those first.

#26 Paper / envelopes/ writing pads and writing utensils to write even if your students are years away from legible handwriting.

#27 Small chalkboards to write and draw with.

#28 Plexiglass document stands with dry erase markers.

 Math & Science

free choice activities

# 29 Shape, color, and size sorting trays like this one we made with butterflies or this matching activity with play dough.

#30 Discovery or sensory bottles to explore – these magnetic sensory bottles allowed for safe magnetic play during free choice in my class.

#31 Scoops and containers in the sensory table to prompt natural play with measurement.

#32 Shape puzzles like this easy DIY one.

#33 Number magnets & puzzles

#34 Nature table or tray with a magnifying glass to investigate. This nature table from Imagination Tree is wonderful.

Pretend Play & Practical Life

theme dress up

#35 Kitchen area ( I really think this is a must for all classrooms) with food and a table.

#36 Baby care area.

#37  Tool box / Tool bench

#38 Cash register to turn the play table into any kind of store.

#39 Puppets or plush toys.

#40 Dress up – No room for full costumes? Get a box for hats and accessories like gloves, necklaces, glasses, and goggles.

Block Play

free choice activities preschool

#41 Interlocking blocks with  simple pattern cards available like these.

#42 Wooden Blocks

#43 Trains ( love to combine these with blocks).

#44  Famous Buildings Book ( I am in the process of making this for my class! )

#45  Big Cardboard Blocks


The other thing that I haven’t included in this list but is paramount is the making sure that your students feel like they belong. Having students’ photo somewhere in the class where they can see it, having their art work displayed, and making sure that you have welcomed each child into the class helps the children feel more engaged and comfortable which benefits their play and learning.

What is YOUR favorite free choice activity?


Quick and Easy Reading Puzzles

reading puzzles

Creating activities for your child at home or students at school shouldn’t take you all night. Whether you are a teacher or a parent ( or both ) you are busy. Creating fun holiday themed activities can wipe you out. These simple 5 minute reading puzzles can be done with ANY theme. You can find foam cut outs in pretty much any shape ( right now there are 3 different holiday ones available at the dollar store ) and together with stickers you can make a fun activity for free choice, literacy centers, or as a before lunch activity for a day when we didn’t have school.  I like using stickers because drawing is not a talent I posses and I want my daughter to focus on the word not sit there trying to decide if Mommy drew a cat or a pig. If you can draw grab a sharpie and go for it!

Gather your materials. You will need some foam shapes, we are using hearts because someone is getting very excited about Valentine’s Day, some stickers of things like animals, household items etc… and more stickers with lowercase letters. If you are going to focus only on the beginning sound  ( matching bear to B ) you could use uppercase but now that my daughter has been asking about spelling and sounding words out I have shifted to all lowercase as much as possible. Different teachers ( and districts) will teach letters in different sequences but I have never had a hard time teaching letters in tandem. In my 2 & 3 year old classroom I point out both naturally like when they see their name we take time to mention that their name has one uppercase letter and the rest are lowercase. I use both when playing games and already I have students who easily recognize both as different forms of the same letter. reading puzzles

Stick the object sticker on one sidequick & easy reading puzzles

The word on the other. easy reading puzzles

Cut. I cut each heart differently so that these simple puzzles are self correcting. If the heart doesn’t come together the child knows to keep trying.

easy reading puzzles for kidsI set them up so that the items were out and she had a pile of the words. I did this on purpose. I wanted her to read the word, then find the item. I didn’t want her to see the bear and then scan for a word that started with b. Can you see the difference? How you set it up will depend on what your goals are. My daughter has made the big leap from sounding out CVC words like cat, mop, and fan to much longer words with more syllables and complicated phonetic rules like r controlled vowels. This game lets her do that without the pressure of an adult over her shoulder but with the self correcting feature built in she can get back on track herself if she makes a mistake. reading puz

Put the puzzles together! easy reading puzzles for children

She had no trouble starting with sounding the words out then finding the match. Some of the words were challenging but she’d sound it out initially then look at what other half might make sense. This is NOT cheating this is a perfect example of how children can and should use illustrations in text as a scaffold.

easy reading puzzles for literacy centers

All these strategies in a quick and easy to put together activity.

Tips For Making Great Play Recipes With Kids

play recipes

Asia Citro has no issue with getting messy. The former science teacher turned blogger turned book author has devoted many many hours to finding just the right combinations of ingredients for amazing sensory play.  I appreciate this because much like baking I am great at playing with these recipes and even creating activities to do with them once they are done but I am no good at creating the recipes. Recipes like these are precise , not really my strong suit. It is Asia’s. I received this book free for review and you should probably know the author and I are friends. I hope it’s clear to all my readers I wouldn’t promote something unless it was rad even if my friend wrote it.

banana playdough

In her new book 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids (affiliate link) she not only shares amazing screen free ideas she shares some exclusive play recipes, not even found on her blog Fun at Home With Kids. I decided to share some of my favorite recipes from her blog and then I let my daughter choose one of the exclusive ones from the book and share some one my favorite tips when you are making play recipes with your kids.

Before we get to the tips let me share my favorite play recipes you can find on Asia’s site Fun At Home With Kids:

edible paint

1. Scented Edible Paint
2. Rainbow Soap Foam Bubbles
3. Borax Free Slime
4. Polka Dot Slime
5. Foaming Dough Recipe : Magic Foaming Snowman


What I love about involving your kids in creating the play recipes is that it’s cooking and play all together. A lot of parents express how nervous they are about cooking with their kids or that they don’t have the patience for it. Well try this first. You aren’t a bad parent if you know that cooking dinner with your child will make you nuts. Maybe a play recipe like this will be the perfect compromise!

Browse for some recipes and let your child choose, she chose banana playdough. Letting your child choose the recipe they are going to make isn’t just a fun way to get them excited it’s a great way to model how you browse and read cookbooks. Flip through, read the ingredient lists together, and make shopping lists if need be. In this step along you are modeling real world reading and writing.

banana cooking

Measure out all the ingredients together making note of the numbers on the measuring cups. Cooking can be a wonderful intro to fractions in the real world for kids.banana mash

She loved mashing the bananas. Mashing bananas, avocados, cooked potatoes… and other mashable foods are always a good choice because kids can do this without you stepping in every two seconds. This builds their confidence.

banana cooking with kids

If a big bowl equals a big mess at your house give you child a little bit of the dough ( or whatever you are cooking) in their own smaller bowl and don’t worry if they spill it.

banana playdough

Time to play with it! Even if you are making real food play can absolutely follow. You can play restaurant with the completed meal, invite Barbie for a tea party, or my daughter’s favorite  play” TV Chef” Did I mention she would stop nursing if Giadia was on the TV as an infant? This girl has cooking in her DNA!

If you want the full recipe for the banana playdough  ( and so many others) grab a copy of 150+ Screen Free Activities For Kids by Asia Citro I can’t praise this new book enough. I think of it as my cookbook for sensory play. You can buy it on Amazon  —>  150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids: The Very Best and Easiest Playtime Activities from FunAtHomeWithKids.com! ( affiliate link) and check out the author’s blog here.