In Finland preschoolers get time every day for ‘free play’ in kindergartens. Moreover, they are given the freedom to pick and choose, what and how they learn. But what exactly does this freedom entail? How can we ensure they make smart choices? Do little kids even understand what free choice is? Let’s find out!
What is free choice?
In the context of ECEC free choice does not mean letting children do whatever they want. Rather, it is a holistic process in which the child and the environment is prepared first. Consider the scenario below.
Your little one is having a play-date with 4 friends from his kindergarten. It’s lunch time for the tiny tots and they are all very hungry.
You serve each child a prepared lunch. Some of them may not like what’s on their plate but tough luck. It’s all they will get.
- You can make sure every child gets a well-balanced and healthy meal.
- Some kids might not like what’s on their plate and not enjoy their lunch.
- They lose an opportunity to learn about how to choose food that is good for them.
You tell the 5 youngsters to help themselves to whatever they like from the fridge and larder. This way everyone is fed and happy.
- The kids will be super happy to eat their favourite thing and thoroughly enjoy lunch time.
- You can’t ensure they get the nutrition they require.
- There might not be enough food for everyone because someone took all of one thing.
Ideally what we need is to meet halfway between these 2 options. This is where enabling youngsters to make free choices come in handy.
Prepare the environment
For free choice to be optimal and effective you must first set the stage. This means you need to make sure the environment is safe and nurturing. In this example, firstly it’s important for children to be hungry and wanting to eat. Maybe they spent the morning playing and working up an appetite. Perhaps they are used to a lunchtime routine and are naturally hungry by midday. Secondly, it’s vital for the environment to be safe. The kitchen should be clean and free of any hazardous situations where kids can cut or burn themselves. If they are looking forward to eat you have already won the mealtime battle by 50%.
Provide age appropriate options
A key step in supporting little kids to make free choices, is to provide them with options that compliment their age and needs. It’s a universally known and accepted fact that kids are fussy eaters. If we give them really spicy food, big florets of broccoli or fish head soup there’s a high chance they’ll refuse to eat it. In fact, it’s more likely they’ll run away and go on a hunger strike. Alternatively, we could give them bright pink donuts or buckets of fried chicken, and they may never stop eating. However, with too much sugar and lack of necessary nutrition, they will soon become prone to health problems.
The point is you can give kids a couple of age appropriate options to choose from. You can first select few options which are tasty, healthy and young kids would like. Then you can ask them to mix and match from these options. Don’t forget to remind them to take only what they can eat and to not waste food.
Prepare the child
“Prepare, so that you can let them learn”
Finnish publisher, Montessori guide A.M.I., Fun Learning creator
The good news is little kids are curious and bursting with lots of questions about everything. Tap into their curiosity and enthusiasm to strike up discussions about different topics. In this situation, you can talk about what kind of food help us to grow big and strong? Can super-food save us from the bad guys like superheros do? What should we eat to give us the energy to play for a long time with our friends? If we are about to go to sleep or are feeling a little ill is there something we can eat or drink that will help us? More importantly, why shouldn’t we eat chocolate all day everyday? Remember learning can happen anywhere. Mealtime is a great fun learning opportunity. Encourage kids to explore the journey food takes to come to their plates. Get them involved in producing food and cooking it.
Apply the same technique to other everyday situations. Help children to acquire as much knowledge and skills as possible, and a passion for learning. This way you can empower your little one to start making well rounded choices from an early age.
Guide, support and lead through example
At the end of the day children are children. It is our job as adults to help them make sense of the world. We need to keep an eye out to make sure free choice doesn’t lead them to options which are potentially dangerous or harmful to them or others. Most importantly, we should show them the way through our example. We can all agree that the best part of adulthood is being able to do whatever you like, including eating ice-cream for breakfast. But when inquisitive pairs of little eyes are looking up to us to lead the way, making smart choices ourselves become even more important. Free choice is not an easy way out, but rather a demanding process. However, in return it will support youngsters to understand the world better, make smart choices and become responsible citizens in their societies.
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