Before going into the various stages of implementing a classroom set-up centred around the autonomy of the children, here is some terminology to help us address the subject clearly.
By transition, we mean a set-up whereby you retain your traditional activity sessions but at the same introduce more and more periods of autonomy. By traditional activity session, we mean sessions during which the children work in groups of 6 to 8 around the same table and on the same task. Most of the time, there are four of these sessions: a semi-supervised session overseen by the teaching assistant; a supervised session overseen by the teacher; and finally, two 'autonomous' sessions during which the children are engaged in a task which they perform on their own. This traditional set-up will therefore serve as a platform for smoothly introducing a free choice of activities. We will elaborate on how to go about this below. This transition is therefore a period of overlap which enables you to move gradually towards a fully autonomous set-up for the children. This transition period can last for as long as you deem it necessary: it might be two days, a few weeks, several months or a year of two. Do feel free to take things at your own personal pace. The feedback we have received suggests that the transition will be much easier if you have at least two age groups. It won't be impossible with just one age group, but it will be more difficult.
By Year 0 , we mean the next stage. In Year 0, you no longer offer traditional group activity sessions; instead, your class functions solely on the basis of a free choice of activities, meaning that the children choose themselves from the range of activities which have been presented to them. When they have finished one activity, they tidy it away and are free to choose another one. The functioning of the class is therefore completely centred around the children's autonomy. At this stage, the class does not necessarily contain three age groups and not all the activities you have selected are available. It is worth mentioning as well that this is a year when things need to be relaxed, so we should avoid inspections during this particular year. This first year is for 'training' the children who will be putting into practice this new way of functioning. Through their ordered behaviour, they will be the ones who enable the new arrivals to naturally assimilate the functioning of the class at the start of the next school year.
By Year 1, we mean the following year when you integrate a third age group (or more, if it is an option for you). With the help of the inaugural Year 0 group, the way the class functions will be transmitted naturally to the new arrivals. However, the autonomous functioning of the whole class is not yet very solidly embedded; this is therefore a year for 'stabilising' the mode of functioning which you initiated in Year 0. For this stage, all - or nearly all - of the materials you've selected are in place and for the first time the class is made up of at least three age groups.
'I'd like to embark on the adventure, but I get the feeling that it would be more sensible not to hurry things. I have none of the materials, and while reading your articles is very enlightening, I think I need time to acquire more detailed knowledge (...) Also, I'd really like to share this change with my nursery school colleagues and embark on the adventure together (with the assistants as valuable partners). I'm thinking about creating classes containing different age groups, but this won't be the case until the start of the school year (when I'll have third-years).’ Lydie.
If, like Lydie, you don't have sufficient materials, your project is not fully in place, you'd like to take the time to discuss things with your assistant, the local council and the other teaching staff, and you need more time to inform yourself and prepare the materials, you can begin the year with a traditional set-up but start making your classroom more aesthetically appealing, more spacious, brighter and less cluttered. You can introduce pretty green plants in brightly coloured pots and put away in the school store cupboard all the materials, games, chairs and other items which are a bit dilapidated or no longer useful – we recommend that you keep only what's essential. This way, you begin the school year as usual, without any undue haste, but with a classroom which is prettier and more pleasant.
This period during which you retain a traditional set-up will allow you to select, without undue stress or haste, activities which are suited to the ages of the children in your class. We strongly advise you to include in your selection activities which the children are already familiar with, such as the Goose board game, card games, plasticine, colouring in, lottery games, pin poking, beads, jigsaws, Kaplas, etc., which the children can engage in autonomously, either on their own or in pairs. These familiar activities will enable the children to become autonomous more quickly – they can engage in these activities without you needing to present them. And during this time, you'll be free to introduce to other children classroom materials which they are not yet familiar with.
We urge you to ensure that the activities which you select:
You can take advantage of the autumn half-term or the Christmas break to equip the classroom with some new activities which the children will be free to choose from after the traditional activity sessions. But it's not at all a problem if you want to wait until the following year. You will need to re-arrange your classroom a bit to create space for these new activities, which you should store on low shelves or low furniture, taking care to group them by theme to help the children orientate themselves (practical activities, sense refinement, mathematics, language, geography, etc.). We also suggest that you separate one or several group tables and replace them with tables for one, two or four children.
This is a classroom in transition for 25 first-year and third-year children. After the traditional group activity sessions, the teacher offered the children periods of autonomy with the classroom materials and activities neatly laid out on individual trays (beads, Kaplas, lottery games, board games, etc.).
Make sure you provide a bright and spacious library corner and a number wall chart around the classroom which goes from 1 to 200+ which you can also use during your group sessions. There's nothing to stop you keeping your group session corner too, as in the photo above (you can see one of the benches on the right), but we suggest that you demarcate this space with an ellipsis on the floor around which the children can sit. You will gain a lot of space this way, particularly on the floor – this is what we did in Gennevilliers. Thanks to the space gained, you'll be able to provide the children with a container for the mats so that they can work on the floor during the autonomous activity periods. We also recommend that you set up the three stations for the art activities (drawing, painting, moulding), which you can present individually during the periods of autonomy. And when all of this is in place, you can begin the transition - even in the course of the year.
If you think that your assistant can take care of welcoming the children at the classroom door in the morning (by taking the register and organising the canteen meals), we strongly recommend that you begin the day, as soon as the children arrive, with a period of autonomous activities that you will present, organise and oversee. To do this, you'll need to be in the classroom, fully available and focused on welcoming and individually guiding the children. As soon as they enter the classroom, you encourage them to choose an activity, and if they can't make up their mind, you can guide them towards a judiciously chosen activity. As soon as they come in through the door, they find you completely ready to welcome them and they enter a calm, serene, supportive, ordered and intelligent atmosphere. This is a fundamental learning session, establishing a framework for working which the children will resume quite naturally after the activity sessions.
We suggest that you explain to the parents during the meeting at the start of the year that the time spent welcoming the children when they arrive is already a working session for their children during which they receive completely individual support. The parents should therefore be asked to speak quietly to their children when approaching the classroom and to pass on any important messages to you via your assistant. You will however make yourself available to talk to the parents at the end of the day when class ends.
8:20am - Welcoming the children. You should therefore entrust the morning welcome to your assistant so that you are completely available for the children. He or she positions themselves at the entrance to the classroom, takes the register, notes down the number of canteen meals, takes any important messages from the parents, etc. Speaking quietly and bending down to their level, you welcome the children and encourage them to choose an activity. The first few times, explain to them that they can choose activities which they are already familiar with (beads, Kaplas, etc.) and remind them that afterwards they need to put the activity back where it belongs. But you should also explain to them they will be able to use the materials they are not familiar with once you've presented these materials to them. During the first few days, you can also demonstrate to them a few important physical motions such as 'unrolling and rolling up a mat' (so that they can do jigsaws on the mats, for example), 'sitting down', 'blowing their nose', etc. You can see how we presented these motions to the children here. In the days which follow, you can begin to present some activities which the children are not yet familiar with. In the case of the older children, you can also present the personal painting easel or the individual art activity table. Don't worry about waiting a little while before you present language and maths activities to the children. If they have not developed good executive skills, they won't retain their 'lessons'. We suggest rather that you offer these children more practical, physical and precise activities which fully command their attention.
Once all the children have arrived, your assistant can join you and assist you – while you continue with your presentations, he/she can make sure the children are behaving calmly and in an ordered way, sort out the difficulties one child may be encountering and give practical help to another. We would wish to stress once again that this approach to welcoming the children in the morning is crucial: it immediately establishes a calm working atmosphere which the children will quite naturally perpetuate during the periods of autonomy which follow the traditional activity sessions.
9:15am - Morning group session. This group session can take place a bit earlier or a bit later - it's up to you. You can include in it all your usual rituals, but you might like to add, for example, the number wall chart and move the photo of a child or several children around the chart, depending on how far they have got with their counting. You can also use this time to revisit the set-up for the autonomous period - which activities they can take, which activities they need to wait to have presented to them, and the rules for tidying things away. You can then present your traditional group activity sessions as usual.
9:30am - 10:10am Traditional group activity sessions. Once the children have finished their activity session, they can select their autonomous activities: unrolling and rolling up a mat, doing a jigsaw, tending to a plant, sitting at a table and tracing with sandpaper letters with a classmate, using Kaplas, etc.
10:15am - 10:45am Playtime.
10:45am - Traditional group session, or traditional activity sessions or a period of autonomy - the choice is yours.
11:30am - Canteen.
In the afternoon, you can choose between: alternating once again between traditional group activity sessions and freely chosen activities, or just offer a free choice of activities. As the months pass, you may even decide to forego afternoon playtime if the classroom atmosphere is studious – anything is possible. It's up to you to choose the rhythm and timetable which you feel most at ease with. We are merely suggesting time guidelines, which you should adjust according to your constraints and for your own comfort: the more at ease you are with your set-up, the more harmonious things will be, and the more relaxed you will be. Do bear in mind, however, that the slot for autonomous activities should be long enough for deep concentration to be achieved and for the children to learn how to make a free choice: the children will need time to observe, 'do nothing' and then identify the activities that genuinely interest them. In the case of children who are not used to this way of going about things, this may take several months. And when they are finally capable of choosing an ordered and constructive activity for themselves, their behaviour will change – at home as well as at school. There is every likelihood that the free choice of activities will start working very well – before and after your traditional group activity sessions – from the second half of the autumn term onwards.
What we find really appealing about this set-up is that you retain your usual reference points but gradually, and at your own pace, you can extend the periods of autonomy and reduce the time allocated to traditional activity sessions. Then, when you sense that you and your class are ready, you can 'launch' a class set-up based entirely on the free choice of activities. As soon as you do so, you will be in Year 0, which is to say that you won't necessarily have all your chosen materials or the three age groups, but you will have a completely autonomous class set-up. Some of you will decide to go completely autonomous in the course of the year, while others will wait until the start of the next school year. Still others will need two years of transition – once again, all options are open. The important thing is to choose the solution which suits you, the children and your colleagues best.
What we call Year 0 is the stage which follows the period when the two set-ups overlap, but it may also be a point of departure for those of you who wish to begin immediately with a set-up centred entirely around autonomy and the free choice of activities (without any traditional group activity sessions). In Year 0, you function entirely in free choice of activity mode, but without necessarily having all the materials or the three age groups. As a result, there are two ways in which Year 0 can begin: with traditional group activity sessions (which progressively give way to the free choice of activities), or without any traditional group activity sessions from the outset.
With traditional group activity sessions. You begin the year as indicated above: namely, you combine the two set-ups for a certain period and gradually move towards a completely autonomous set-up. In Year 0, this transition may take a few weeks or a few months, depending on the pace you want to take it at. This way of getting started strikes us as appealing because it is gentle and gradual – for the children, for your colleagues, and for you.
Autonomy & free choice of activities throughout the day. If at the beginning of the year you have enough classroom materials and supplementary activities, you have the support of your assistant and your team, you have been preparing the project for some time, you have an idea of how the first activities should be presented and you feel ready, there is nothing stopping you beginning your Year 0 at the start of the school year. That's how we began in Gennevilliers. However, if you haven't prepared the children for this set-up by going through the transitional period we've just described, you're going to have to pull up your sleeves and arm yourself with plenty of patience and understanding. In Gennevilliers, we had some pretty epic, and painful, experiences! For this great leap into the unknown, we do suggest you have a parachute in reserve: offer the children the chance to choose activities which they are already familiar with and which you won't have to present to them: jigsaws, plasticine, beads, board games, Kaplas, etc. In Gennevilliers, we laid these activities out in individual trays or in boxes for two or three children to share freely and autonomously, but arranging them so that they:
We avoided retaining activities which encouraged disorder and excessive noise: as we only had one working space (the classroom itself), we needed to ensure that the other children could concentrate peacefully on their own activities.
Whether you begin your Year 0 without or without a transitional period, we advise you to arrange a staggered start to the school year so that you will be more available to present the classroom set-up to the children: where the materials are kept, the first autonomous physical motions (unrolling a mat and putting it away, avoiding the mats when walking around, etc.), the first practical activities, etc.
We call the following stage Year 1: the free choice of activities has been established during the previous year, you've welcomed a third age group to the class, and all (or nearly all) your chosen materials are available for the children. As we've already said, this is a year in which you 'stabilise' your class set-up and this stage is therefore also a 'fragile' year: the children (and not just the new arrivals) will still need your support in order to be completely autonomous. During Year 1, you still therefore need to make sure that the children work within the framework, but do stick at it, because what happens next is wonderful.
At the beginning of the year, we advise you to arrange a staggered start to the term so that you are more available to present the class set-up to the new arrivals. Alternatively, you might decide to welcome the older children first (for a few hours or a whole day) so that they can get their bearings again and are in a position to help you with the youngest children.