Is It Okay For Kids To Do “Whatever They Want?”

I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a few days now after hearing a single sentence, which has made me pause. The comment was nothing more than a passing one. In fact, I bet that if I asked the person about making it, she wouldn’t even remember doing so. At the time, we were having a great professional conversation around programming and pedagogy, when she said the words that stuck with me: “It must be hard to program in here as the kids can do whatever they want.” These words made me silent, as to a degree the statement is true, but to another degree, the truth is far more complex than this.

I’ve blogged many times before about our play-based Kindergarten Program. My teaching partner, Paula, and I believe very strongly in the pedagogy embedded in our Program Document, and we really do embrace the value of free playeven though the term itself may concern us. We don’t make children do any specific activity or go to any particular area in the classroom. Or, at least, not as a rule. There are exceptions to any rule though. Sometimes, if we notice that a child is really frustrated, overly excited, or just reluctant to venture out of a particular space, we might invite them to do so. We don’t force this. We do offer some choices though, offer to sit down with them, and even offer to support them, and most times, one of these options work. For most children on most days, everyone moves freely around the room and in and out of different spaces.

While we don’t outline specific activities in any one area of the room, or even do separate times for literacy and math learning, we do embed literacy and math in every space around our classroom: indoors and out.

  • There is paper everywhere. Clipboards, markers, and pencils are found in every corner of the room, and we even have a few iPads, which kids will use for PicCollages, researching, and/or Explain Everything recordings.

  • Books, which connect to the different areas, are available in these spaces. They are lying open, they’re sitting on chairs, or they’re in little book boxes down at the children’s level. Many are texts that we have read together already, so the students know them and feel as though they can access them. Some are pattern books. All include detailed pictures and numerous sight words. These are books that students can use for storytelling or reading. Even the eating table has a bin of books on it, and many children read and talk about these texts as they eat.

  • There are small, wooden people, who students use for storytelling and dramatic play. Some children create their own out of plasticine. Others use wooden people in the block space to tell stories or make their own paper people to use in the sensory bin. The classroom is full of oral language, and students regularly use new terminology and vocabulary during play.

  • Math resources are everywhere. There are rulers out to draw lines and measure spaces. There are math books out that connect to the different areas (e.g., a book about shapes and geometry found in structures is open in our building space). There are loose parts, which function well as math manipulatives, and students use them to measure, count, and even fill areas as they play. There is a number chart that a child made on the wall, and children use it to check number formation and for counting purposes. There are even some calendars that students made to record important events, such as the pick-up schedule for the milk.

Abi was so proud of herself for writing this note to ELP 2 to ask for blocks. @paulacrockett worked with her to sound out the words, and she read back to me what she wrote. She’s beginning to blend some sounds together as she reads. Then Edward realized the connection between different shaped blocks. I think my question was a challenge, but he showed me his understanding through his actions. Now to continue with the names of these 3-D figures. Abi and Ella came back from ELP 2 with enough foam blocks to fill the bottom area of the shelf (almost). Would love to explore different shape combinations with them. Or how else could they use these blocks? I wonder if our provocation for tomorrow will help! SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #teachersofinstagram #ctinquiry #iteachk #engagemath

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  • There are also the two of us — not to mention the 26 kids in the classroom — who act as amazing resources and models for each other. We spend almost our whole day playing with, talking with, and listening to kids. This is as true inside the classroom as outside. We use this time to support reading and writing instruction, introduce and reinforce new vocabulary, encourage problem solving, notice and name literacy and math behaviours, and target small group and individual instruction depending on kids and their needs. This blog post here, and my comment on it, shows how so much of what Tracy and Cheryl wrote aligns with our thoughts and practices. 

While we may let kids lead a lot of their learning, we do ensure — through the spaces and materials that we provide — that children meet expectations and continue to grow academically, socially, and emotionally. From the outside looking in, our Kindergarten classroom may appear chaotic. It may seem as though we lack structure, but in fact, routine is a key component of the success of our program. We are incredibly routine in the flow of our day, and while we may not force kids to do activities, all children know our expectations. And maybe it’s this last point that becomes my best reply to the initial comment. Could kids in all classrooms do “whatever they want,” as long as what they do aligns with program/curriculum expectations? I think “yes.” With the materials that we provide, our provocations, student questions, our regular conversations with kids, and the conversations that they have with each other, there is no way that children can avoid meeting expectations and developing essential skills. These kids are going to be,

  • listening and speaking with each other (and with us).
  • reading and writing.
  • communicating in various meaningful and authentic ways.
  • engaging in math talk.
  • problem solving.
  • working alone and with others.
  • collaborating on projects.
  • addressing big issues, including those connected to the environment, which has driven a lot of our learning throughout the year.
  • learning new terminology and vocabulary, and using these words in different contexts.
  • learning how to self-regulate and what truly works for them.

Likely, none of this learning will look the same for every child and/or take place in the same area of the classroom, on the same day, or at the same time. Does this make programming challenging? Maybe. But it also puts kids at the centre of the learning and at the centre of our conversations around programming. I think that this might be what’s most important. It’s for this very reason that I believe that even if I left Kindergarten, I’d still be looking at students, expectations, classroom spaces, and programming through a Kindergarten lens.

Maybe children doing “whatever they want” does not need to be seen in a negative light. Possibly we just need to re-frame what this actually means and become comfortable with the messy, wonderfulness of the rich learning that can happen in this kind of environment. I believe in the value of this kind of learning, and even though it may not be a popular opinion, I want to stand up for it. What about you?


4 thoughts on “Is It Okay For Kids To Do “Whatever They Want?”

  1. Well said! I loved all the examples you used in your post. As you described, a well thought out classroom environment, along with an educator team who is thoughtful and intentional, supports learners in being their best creative, competent and capable selves!

    • Thanks Kim! I think that the comment the person made is probably true, but maybe this isn’t a bad thing. With the intentional placement of materials and exposure to experiences, kids can still direct their learning and meet expectations. Maybe it’s the difference in this approach from a more conventional one that can make it uncomfortable for many people. I get that. If others that use a similar approach though, share their experiences, could this help with building capacity? I wonder …


  2. Hello Aviva! While I totally support your thinking around free play with a predictable structure and expectations, I have noticed, as a grade 1 teacher, in the last two years since FDK has been in our school, that grade 1 students coming from this environment are greatly struggling with the structure of the ‘grade years’. While I consider myself to be quite involved with an inquiry approach mostly science and social studies and dabbling in it in math, we as a primary division are noticing kids struggling with carpet time stamina, ability to following some directed tasks, following non preferred activities, even when there is lots of openness and choice involved. Ability to organize time is difficult for them and there seems to be lots more resistance to following a bit more structure where there is a different balance between preferred/ non preferred, complete choice/more limited choice. Please know that I’m definitely not a proponent of directed teaching .. there is space for it for sure but I love inquiry and have been delving into it professionally, getting messy with it over the past four years. I try very hard to open things up, give children choice every chance I can think of, use their questions and noticings to fuel our fire and their fire. since FDK programming came into place we have noticed a distinct difference in our learners. I know there are lots of other factors as well that may have contributed to this change (family situations, parenting styles, technology, etc) but it does seem to be a coincidence in timing of FDK. I’m not at all faulting FDK… I love the philosophy behind it and believe in it. While I hope that in the future, near future we can have all curriculum and programming following true open inquiry as the Ontario FDK program does, there is quite a difference in our newest little ones adapting as the programs are so vastly different especially with more specific curriculum. My personal inquiry next year is to try to meld the K and 1 programs so that the transitions and adaptations are easier, while helping to model for other teachers how more open inquiry can be implemented in grades 1 and on even with the more restricting curriculum. A lifty goal, but one that I’m excited to tackle. On another note, I love following your social media. I love your enthusiasm, your thinking, your pedagogy and above all your love for children and learning! Thanks for all of your professional writing and wonderings. You provoke lots of deep thought for many out there! Joanne

    • Thanks for your comment and kind words, Joanne! I really appreciate you being so open here about your observations as well as your experiences. I’m wondering a bit about some of the things you’ve observed.

      1) Why do kids need carpet time stamina? Could the same things discussed on the carpet be even more tailored to individual students — or groups of students — in another meeting time option?

      2) What kinds of directed tasks are they struggling with? Why are these tasks required? Could kids demonstrate this knowledge or approach these tasks in different ways?

      3) What is it about the non-preferred activities, which are problematic? Could the same skills be linked to preferred options for different kids?

      I just wonder if there needs to be more structure necessarily in these other grades, even with different expectations. The curriculum documents for Grades 1-12 are clear on expectations, but delivery of them are at teacher discretion, with the exception of Social Studies, which does need to be taught through an inquiry-based model. It sounds as though you’ve embraced this same model for many other subject areas. I just wonder, if kids are struggling, what are they telling us and can we change our approach in our response to them? Maybe this is my utopian ideal here, but I would like to think it’s possible. It sounds as though you have a wonderful professional inquiry for next year, and I’m curious to know what you learn … and the impact on kids!


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