two students working on fun morning work

No Morning Work: How We Make Free Choice Work

I know morning work is a staple in many classrooms, especially intermediate – high school. This method likely won’t work in middle to high school. However, I think elementary school is perfect for this non-typical approach to the morning. And for reference, I teach first grade.

My Set Up

Each school is different, but our students are able to trickle into class from 7:10-7:40 am. Teachers are in their classrooms the whole time. Students bring their breakfast from a cart outside into the room to eat. (no comment on the cockroach situation in an indoor/outdoor classroom. By that I mean our hallways are exposed to the elements with only a metal cover, only the classrooms are indoor A/C)

School starts at 7:40, but since we are mandated to have recess daily, administration has built this into our schedule from 7:40-8. This is great for tardy students, as they won’t miss instructional time. Our school is large, so we are not allowed to physically be on the playground every week- we’re allowed every other week. It’s honestly a huge pain to be so far away from the classroom with late students arriving and needing to eat, so we just stay inside.

The reason I set the stage is because all classes and schools are different. I know this may not be feasible for everyone. By providing my example, I hope that you can see what timeframe/situation I’m working with in order to see where you might place this time in your classroom.

In order to honor this indoor recess time for students, I provide 7:10-8 for them to have free choice centers. Some students may only get the 20 minutes if they arrive at 7:40, the start of the day. Either way, they are getting unstructured play time. ‘Play’ is NOT a four letter word in my vocabulary. But I know it is for many principals, APs, and other teachers.

fun morning work - candy land, and unifix cubes spread out on carpet


It’s able to teach SO many needed social skills, problem solving, and it’s building a classroom community. (among many other beneficial factors) I like to include STEM items in my morning centers. Things like woodbuilders, wikki stix, bunchems, and any other blocks or things they can build with. I also like to provide math manipulatives for students to play with (unifix cubes, geometric shapes, etc). There are differing opinions on this: we don’t want students to think these are just toys, etc. I think this can be solved with discussions, but it’s up to you as the teacher.

Board games (like Candy Land, Sorry/Trouble, Connect Four) are a great way to problem solve, work on social skills, follow directions, and create that classroom community. Puzzles are also another great activity to add to our non- morning work centers. There are some great 48 piece or 100 piece puzzles under $5, and the giant puzzles (pieces the size of hands) are really fun for our students also.

Some ways you can acquire these items without breaking the bank: thrift stores, garage sales, FB marketplace/Ebay, parent donations, with any school/grant money, or through programs like Donor’s Choose. I’ve gotten all my items from garage sales or thrift stores.

Morning centers aren’t just board games, puzzles, and building. I always remind students that they may do any number of other things like create art, play with play-doh, read, write, Prodigy on the computer, educational games, and use MyOn. There are a number of other things students can do, I’m sure, that I haven’t thought of yet.

students using morning work time to build words on carpet

The Fallout

Don’t get me wrong: we know kids. We know that it isn’t always rainbows and unicorns and that kids get upset, frustrated, angry, and act out. We need to make it clear to them (by role playing and acting out different scenarios) that it is OKAY to have negative emotions, but we need to handle them properly. Not sharing, playing nicely, etc. will result in us not being able to play at that center for the rest of the morning. I usually give them one warning before I take that privilege away. They can go to another center or may need to read a book or sit quietly to calm down (depending on the infraction). By the end of the year (and honestly, way sooner), there are hardly ever any infractions.

There have been times where I’ve had to temporarily remove choices because time after time, students wouldn’t follow certain rules. We would have discussions and I would put them away for a week or two. We’d discuss again before I brought them out.

In previous years I’ve only put out certain games/puzzles/building tools because I was afraid of messes, fights, etc. But I’m thinking that this year and beyond, I want to really allow for that full choice… as long as they clean it all up, keep track of their pieces, and play nicely.

The Powers that Be

You may be thinking: this is all well and good, but WHAT ABOUT MY ADMINISTRATION!? I have a few points for that argument. For most people, recess or morning time isn’t part of their instructional day. For this reason, there’s no need to have kids working literally ALL day- they need time to rest their brain. It’s actually more effective for them to take several breaks throughout the day than jam-pack their learning in. Also: this IS learning, it just looks different! There are so many books and scholarly articles that discuss why play is important… ESPECIALLY for our youngest students.

We are giving students time to socialize and work on STEM skills. This is important for many reasons (most of which I noted above). We want kids to be excited to come to school… especially in the morning when it’s hard for everyone to get out of bed. If they know they can come in and have some time to unwind and play (either alone or with friends), it will make their day and mindset that much better. This is a great opportunity to turn their sometimes-crappy morning around.

I as the teacher may also be able to check-in with individual students during this time: to see how they’re doing, to strengthen our relationship, or to quickly get some academic one-on-one time. I don’t like to pull students for academics during this time. However, if it’s only for a handful of minutes, I can justify it. (as long as I don’t do it often)

Also: when students want to use this time to READ or WRITE in the morning, it really makes me happy. They may not do it every morning, and some students will never choose those options, but it’s just so nice to give them that option.

If anyone can provide me with a well thought-out argument why this free choice time is BAD, please let me know, because I don’t think there is one. If you/someone you know is staunchly against free choice morning work, then you have that right and don’t need to incorporate it into your day… but it brings so many positives. 🙂

I want to add free choice morning centers instead of morning work this year! Click To Tweet

What do you do in the mornings before school officially starts? How do you feel about this alternative morning work?

You may also like my other teaching posts! Check them out here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *