Freedom of Choice in the Tejasvita Preschool Classroom

– BY GAYATHRI TIRTHAPURA, CO-FOUNDER TRUSTEE AT TEJASVITA TRUST

One of the core characteristics of a child-centric environment is the freedom of choice for the child. If one hasn’t been exposed to an environment where children make their own choices, he/she may wonder how it is even possible for young children to make choices for themselves and learn what is important to succeed in this complex world. Contrary to this belief, various studies have shown that when children (even infants) and adults are given choice in a learning environment, they learn better and also engage in tasks more and longer. Choice has also been shown to increase the emotional well-being of people. Consistently having the freedom of choice helps children learn to make decisions, hold themselves responsible for their choices, and become self-directed in their learning. These are very important skills to possess in order to thrive in this complex world and what better time to build them if not in childhood, when children can practice these skills in safe spaces! 

Freedom of choice is central to the Montessori method, which is one of the most well-defined and widespread methods of child-centric education, in the world. Having chosen child-centric education as our modus operandi for the Tejasvita preschool program, we borrowed many ideas from the Montessori method, but we also employed  out-of-the-box thinking to design an environment to suit our specific context. As visitors to preschool classrooms in low-income communities, we are graciously permitted to spend six school hours every week with the children by our partner schools. While six hours a week provides ample time to implement a fairly holistic curriculum, we also wanted to build a program that could be scaled to other schools in low or middle income communities for a much longer period if needed. Hence our design not only had to be portable but also modular and low-cost in order to support scalability. 

Through an example of one of our classroom processes called Books Library Time, I’ll demonstrate how we have incorporated freedom of choice in Tejasvita’s preschool environment and also the results we are seeing. Our main curricular objective for the Books Library Time was to build English comprehension, speaking abilities and vocabulary. We wanted to create a safe space where children interact over books,  among themselves and with the teacher. An additional objective was to get children to experience the joy of books.

Dr. Montessori found that in order for children to make productive choices, the environment has to be prepared to stimulate constructive activity in children. For this, 

  1. The appropriate choice of materials have to be chosen based on the objectives of the curriculum 
  2. The optimal quantity of materials has to be prepared or arranged to limit the choices (research studies have shown that abundance of choices may limit constructive work)
  3. Materials have to be arranged in an orderly fashion so that children can find what interests them easily
  4. The materials have to fall within the optimal challenge level that engages a large number of children
  5. The materials are easily accessible to the children

Following is how we have applied these principles for the Books Library Time.

Since the children we work with have limited exposure to English language compared to their privileged peers, we have paid special attention to choosing books that provide them the optimal challenge for growth. We use books with big vibrant illustrations and limited text,  which the children can comprehend fairly easily when teachers read them aloud with gestures and voice modulation. We make sure that the books have multi-dimensional features in terms of attractive illustrations, variety in illustration styles,  rhyme and repetition, variety of settings that mirror their real-life scenarios and have intriguing plots so that it would engage children with a wide range of abilities at the same time. The books can be enjoyed by children by either browsing on their own,  by engaging with the pictures or by choosing to have the teacher read it aloud to them.  

For a class of about 30-35 children, our teachers pack 45-50 books in a bag and transport them from our office to the classroom before the session (add a picture here). We vary the selection of books a bit every week so that children are exposed to at least a few new books regularly. The Books Library Time is held for about 45 minutes every week. 

Just before the Books Library Time, our teachers arrange the books in an orderly fashion in one corner of the classroom in a way that is easily accessible to the children. During the session, the children choose the books they like and sit with it in a space on the mats we lay out at the other end of the classroom. While one of our teachers facilitates the books selection by the children, two more teachers are available for the children if they want the teacher to read-aloud the book they have chosen for them. After having enjoyed the book to their heart’s content, the children can choose to exchange the book at their will from the book display corner.

In classrooms where children are experiencing our program for the first year, it takes a few weeks for all children to understand the rules of the Books Library Time. In fact, one of our findings is that because children have hardly been given the freedom of choice before in their life, they don’t yet understand how to handle this freedom responsibly. But when our teachers explain and enforce the rules patiently, empathetically and repeatedly, children begin to understand and practice the rules. What we start to see typically after the first few weeks is that the majority of the children become comfortable with the balance of choice and responsibility and in fact, start to expect it. We start to see the whole classroom engaged in books.

An onlooker who is a novice to child-centric education, could interpret a snapshot of the classroom as chaotic because he/she would see each child engaged in something different – some children may be moving around trying to find the right “next” book, some may be sitting and browsing their book, others sitting in pairs could be pointing to the pictures in the book discussing it, while some others could be sitting around a teacher listening to a read-aloud and discussing the book with her. But an expert onlooker will realize that every child is engaged in a purposeful activity based on their interests and that an environment that consistently emphasizes freedom of choice can start to create magic in children’s lives. We’ve found that even children who were earlier not interested in books, start to explore picture books in their own terms and progress to exploring a variety of such books and start requesting teachers to read-aloud the book to them. Slowly they start to comprehend English, and enjoy both the illustrations and the English language content in the books. Some children develop favourites and pick up and ask the teacher to read it aloud several times during the academic year, while others are excited with every new book we take to the classroom and are anxious to get a turn to browse it and have the teacher read it to them. Occasionally, a child may still not get the book they want, when they want it, ‘cos some other child may be engaged with it. This is an opportunity for the teacher to help the child practice waiting for his/her turn or maybe even learn to negotiate with the child to read the book together.  

We find that when freedom of choice is built into a learning environment on a consistent basis, it not only leads to academic learning but also helps build many life skills like decision making, self-responsibility, collaboration and self-directed learning.

Books Library Time is only one of the several classroom processes we have, where children have freedom of choice. Children get to explore thinking activities, art and music-movement this way too. While we have seen children progress from strength to strength in our classrooms, what is heartening to see is that parents and partner school teachers are also reporting a lot of progress in the children that they attribute to our program. During the 2019-20 academic year, more than 80% of the parents of 54 children we interviewed and 85% the partner school teachers reported that their children show more enthusiasm for learning because of our program. Also, 70% of the partner school teachers reported that children showed improvements in academic abilities that they can attribute to our program. When we think about the benefits of freedom of choice, it’s no wonder that the acceptance of our program increased multifold in our partner schools in the past couple of years.

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