Rocks vs. Sucks: Free Choice

Welcome to the last Rocks vs. Sucks installment for July. We’ve had some great conversation about art ed’s trickiest topics. If you’re just joining us, make sure to go back and tell us what you think about Follow-the-Teacher Lessons, Gridding and Taking Work Home.

As we tackle Free Choice today, please remember to keep your comments respectful. The goal is to disagree with ideas, not people!

Rocks vs. Sucks #4: Free Choice

Rocks vs Sucks 4
There are countless ways to run free choice in the art room. From a single free-choice center to multiple free choice stations, the options are endless. We all know we have to do something to combat that inevitable question, “I’m done. Now what do I do?” Let’s explore the pros and cons of free choice in the art room.

Let’s Discuss



Free choice ROCKS. Free choice provides students with much needed exploratory time. It’s great to be able to offer students a wide variety of materials and activities beyond the assigned project. It’s so fun to see what students come up with without any teacher direction. Free choice also allows students extra time to practice and discover new skills and collaborate with others. It’s the best! A well thought out free choice system also makes it a breeze to have a guest teacher in your room. Everything is already there!


Free Choice SUCKS. Having a free choice station seems like a good idea, until it comes to logistics. Clean up takes twice as long with so many materials out, which takes away from project time. Not to mention the bickering over who gets to use the LEGOS and who gets to use the smelly markers. Plus, the free choice materials inevitably get ruined beyond use with so many hands using them all day long. And can we talk about the kids that rush through their projects just to get to free time? Maddening! It’s much better for students to have a second project to work on or their own sketchbooks to do an alternative assignment in when they’re finished.


What do you think? Is free choice a logistical nightmare you’d rather not deal with or a chance to allow students more choices int he art room? Let us know in the comments below!




Amanda Heyn

Amanda is the Senior Editor at AOE. She has a background in teaching elementary art and enjoys working to bring the best ideas from the world of art ed to the magazine each day. 


  • Ashley Fournier

    I feel both ways about free choice. I often joke that they would be the happiest if I just gave them free choice everyday! Unstructured Free Choice can lead to management issues, however, when I prepare a planned day with free choice activities students thrive. Pattern blocks, free draw table, drawing book tables, etc… helps the free choice day better all around.

  • Laura Wilson

    Free choice works great with stations so students can switch and try all the materials. Great for end of the year day(s) or guest teachers. Not so great for “When you finish you can do a free choice.” (Thats when the rush to finish first starts)

  • Karen Lundgren

    Choice is an awesome idea and has great benefits. I think the amount and success of free choice is totally dependent on the teaching style and personality of the teacher. Teachers need to experiment to find what works best for them. I teach high school and am fairly laid back. If I give total choice, my supplies get decimated and a handful of students use the variety of activity to hide that they aren’t working. It also can distract some students who need a quiet and organized environment to focus. For my classes, I limit my choice. I usually give two options for the project and standard I am teaching. Often the choices are very different from each other. If I have a student who is inspired to do something other than the two choices, I usually allow them to move in a different direction. This works really well for me. My first attempt at choice involved four project choices. That was more than I could manage.

  • Toby

    Free Choice in my room is known as Free Draw. The kids respect the materials and I change what they can explore with from time to time. The problem that can arrise is I have a couple who want to cut and glue and then we have a monsteriously large piece or just glue everywhere. So cut and glue is sometimes forbidden.
    I have three different sets of Art Books and a reading station. Many prefer to go get a book to read when they are done…. Many FIND who or what we are studying in the books and have to share. But that’s good!
    I also have a friendly loom they can weave on. Some want to organize and tidy things and depending on who it is that’s ok too!
    I plan on adding some more stations as the year begins… Such as a modeling clay station.

    • hahaha, Toby. I’m with you on cutting and gluing- sometimes it just gets out of control!

  • Ellen K

    I think to avoid a minimal solution to any project, there needs to be qualifiers for success. For example, in the project shown I would have told students a specific number of sticks needed to be used. I always include a primary goal as well as a secondary goal for each project. In a still life, for example, I might have using correct proportions and composition as primary goals, but would also include use of media or maybe full range of value as a secondary goal. While I support a certain amount of creative freedom in the classroom, too often in a secondary class, that can lead to students turning in schlock.

  • Tina

    I love free choice. I don’t have a big problem except if 2 or 3 people can’t share I tell them to either work it out or put it away if they can’t resolve the issue. For those who rush their project have to ask me first if their project is done and if I know they rushed I will have them go back and fix or work on more things for their project. It’s nice to see what they can do on their own and have them explore further.

    • That’s my rule too, Tina. If they can’t share something, it goes in the closet!

  • The majority of my students learn, in our 9 weeks together, that awesome self-discipline and responsibility affords them the gift of more freedom in the classroom. I insist that art class is a place where you can have fun and relax (disguised as a place where you can learn thinking and life skills that you will use for the rest of your life).
    First, as I introduce them to the art room and procedures/locations of materials (in my Vanna White meets Jim Carrey style) I communicate that the more creative they can be within the structure of the lesson, the more fun they will have. (We have 4 marking periods, 7th and 8th graders). Most find this to be true right away. If not, I herd them like my border collie would. Why oh why do they laugh at me?
    This is where choice comes in. In the beginning we work on certain assignments that give them more creative thinking tools. When we master these, as a class, they earn the choice to do a provided structured assignment, or they can propose their own projects. This works in most of my classes, which all have different dynamics and chemistry coming in.
    Thusly, the students who are ready to work independently, or with a partner, or in a small group, write their proposals in steps, with sketches, materials needed, and estimate how long it will take. I show them examples of successful proposals if needed. The result is much more focus, brainstorming, improvisation, creativity, engagement, collaboration, and FUN (and even better clean up) than when we just do the traditional one-assignment-at-a-time structure.
    Having said that, there are a few classes that benefit from a step-by-step, totally guided approach.
    Over all, I find that giving them structure to begin with can allow most of the students to step or leap into making creative choices and producing amazing projects.

  • Joules Newton

    I used to let students use their “devices” to play games or listen to music, but they had to be 1) finished with their class work and 2) completely cleaned up. Then I had students just playing on them all the time, not just listening to music but taking selfies and sniping classmates. So, I am banning ALL ELECTRONICS this coming year. I’m going to get a container that will go under my desk for all devices. If we listen to music this year, it’s my choice and I bought a stack of classical music CDs the other day. So, I’m going to need to come up with a new plan for early finishers.

  • erica

    I love free choice! It’s a really important part of my curriculum. I just got a grant from donors choose for more free choice materials. You can see how I worded it here if you are interested in doing anything like this for your classrooms.

  • K Hyman

    I think it is important to supply some opportunities for free choice for students. I like to occasionally offer the option of free choice and most often will even expect students to freely complete a project with their own choices so all the work won’t look cookie cutter. I like the idea of a free choice classroom but the everyday aspect of it terrifies me. Maybe I am old school but I need to maintain some control over things and just can’t seem to let it go totally free all the time. I think I would spent hours every day reorganizing the chaos!

  • Pat

    I agree with the pros and cons that have been mentioned and feel that it is really a decision made based on your students and your resources. I have had success the past few years with multiple options for free choice activities. If I notice a student who rushes his assignment to get to those free choice activities, I will ask them to revisit their assignment and make improvements. I have found that my blocks are the most popular and that spans all grade levels. K-5. Glue sticks are the only option and free drawing paper is limited to one piece. I let the K-2’s use coloring pages as I firmly believe in their need to improve their gross motor and fine motor skills. Coloring is great for those two skills to improve. No one mentioned the fact that having students participate in these activities gives the kids who take forever to finish a project, the much needed time to do so. It also gives me a small window of time to ready supplies for my next class if everyone is fully involved in an activity and that time is invaluable.

  • Jules

    I teach a choice-based art program, but do not allow “free-time”. Students must research and plan each project (unless it was a project I introduced in a mini-lesson) and conference with me before beginning. When they have completed a project they write an artist statement and then have a quick conference/critique w/ me again. The cycle continues with them planning for their next project. No down time/free time!

    • Tina Lojacono

      I am just beginning TAB and this is how I am beginning. No “free” time is necessary because they are working on what they choose and developing their own work once completed they begin the artistic process once more.

  • Betty

    One of the free choice options my students are eager to do is a picture search – Without even knowing it they are comparing line quality, shapes and implied textures and dealing with negative space. Sometimes 2 kids will choose to work together rather than independently. They can color the hidden objects as they find them or simply cross them out. This is an engaging way to improve observation skills. Also, if they don’t complete their sheet in the time we have remaining they can just take it with them. I use this with kids in grades 2-6. Inexpensive, minimal training required, minimal clean up.

  • Trina

    At the beginning of each school year all the students grade k-5 create their art portfolios. Then grades 3,4,5 also make a drawing folder from a manila folder. When there is time left for some, they can “practice draw” and put these drawing into their folders. While they can do their own creative drawing, they also use the many drawing books in the room. Often I will ask them to draw something that is in the room, even if it is a glue bottle or they can draw their hand or use a mirror to study their face. When they do this they are proud to show me what they have drawn. Sometimes I will put out supplies for collage work. If they do not finish I keep it to complete another time that they may have free. The younger students are given a large white drawing paper and they use crayons or markers to make their own personal pictures. They love this as the other artwork we do does not go home as it is kept in portfolios. I will also have a critique so the students bring their chairs to the front of the room and hang their work on the whiteboard to share and discuss. The children still working can stay at the tables to finish but can still hear and see the critique while they are working. Their work will be added at the end even if it isn’t quite finished. Many children do not have supplies or supported at home to create so they really love it when they can do their own creations. The wonderfulness of art!

  • gretchen in greenwood

    I have a bookshelf and reading area, with many levels of books (I teach K-8) and room for 3 to sit at a time. I have “How to Draw___” books and free draw paper, and I have a separate area with multiple coloring, hidden picture, mazes, and dot-to-dot sheets. Leftover colored paper scraps go into a drawer for general use. NOBODY can go to any free time area unless they have completed the project and reviewed it- I occasionally send a child back to improve the work if I feel it is rushed. Everybody knows the free time activities are a privilege, and bad behavior means you may not be allowed to have free time. Mostly the early finishers are the ones who engage in these activities but sometimes I have free days for everyone so the slower workers get a chance to do the fun stuff.