3 Tips for Structured Free Choice Time

Teaching our kiddos to play independently is such an important functional skill! First, if a kiddo can play independently at school, then it can give teachers/staff the time to prep materials for the next activity, to pull small groups or to do 1:1 instruction. At home, independent play is just as important! If a child is able to play independently, then a parent can cook a meal or shower without being interrupted! I know a lot of teachers don't take the time to teach independent play, but I truly think it's SO important! I want to share a few tips on how I structure free-choice / play time so that my kiddos can play independently.

1) Give kids the physical boundaries
I like to use rugs, furniture, tape, etc. to show kiddos where they should be doing specific free time activities. For example, some kiddos do free choice at their sectioned off desk area, cars are only played with on the road rug, books stay in the book area and all light table toys stay at the light table.
The boundaries of our light table and toy area. 

Rug is used as a boundary for kids (cars and trains are only played with on this rug).

The boundaries of our listening book area.

This student's boundaries are made clear by furniture.
2) Provide kiddos with visuals 
Visuals are great for showing kiddos their choices AND for how to play. I like to use choice boards for free-time activities so that my students and staff know exactly what activities are available at the time. Using choice boards will ensure that students and staff know what is available and what isn't (for example, if iPad isn't an option during morning free-time choice, then it won't be on the choice board and it will be clear to staff and kiddos). I also take and print pictures of how to play with each toy to help students to play independently.
Choice board for light table activities. 
Choice board for one student.

Picture visuals for how to play with dinosaur toy.

Picture visuals for how to play with Mr. Potato Head.
I found this great visual for free here!

3) Model, model and model some more!
All of these ideas and tips are meaningless if you don't model how to play to your students! Whenever we get a new toy or activity, I make sure to get REALLY excited and to show my kiddos how to play with the new toy.  I will model and play with the kiddo and new toy numerous times before I expect the kiddo to do it independently. I also like to use video modeling on the iPad. To do this, I simply video myself playing with the toy and then let students watch the video a few times before they're given the opportunity to play with the toy independently. Note: when we are first introducing video modeling, we often need a staff member with the kiddo to support.

Do you have any tips or ideas for how to teach kiddos to play independently?

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