5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Setting Up a Free Choice Area

One of the best areas of my room is the free choice station. It immediately answers that usually tricky question, “I’m done. What do I do next?” Setting up a free choice station is a great way to make sure that the creativity keeps flowing in your art room, even when the projects are finished. I’ve put together the 5 most important questions you should ask yourself when setting up a free choice station along with some tips to make it run smoothly.

 Do you have a free choice area in your room?

What are the expectations for your students when they’re finished? We’d love to hear!

7 years ago

Amanda Heyn

Learning Team

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. 


  • I love having a free choice station.  It is great for kids that are done and need something to keep them busy while still creating.  My rule is that students have to show me their finished work and if I agree they are done they may head to the ‘Finished List’.  Sometimes I do send kids back to fill in things they missed or fix an area that wasn’t given their full ability. 

    I have pictures of my free choice station at http://www.msnovak.blogspot.com/2012/09/ahh-almost-time.html  I agree with all the questions Amanda presented in her video.

    When I first set up the free station I not only talked with the kids about their choices, but I sent up centers in the room for that class period and had kids rotate to each section.  This way kids understood each activity they could choose, while also understanding the expectation.  Yes, this took a day – but I now never have to answer questions about free choice.

    For my free center I have:
    Free Draw – crayons, markers, scissors, glue, paper punchers
    Art Games – Art memory, art go fish, tangrams, puzzles
    Computer Art – I set up 3 computers in the back with Kidpix (a kid FAVORITE)  I set a timer to make sure other kids get a turn.
    Sculpture – modeling clay (they get the size of a golf ball and BUILD with it – no weapons though), scraps of fun paper to build with.  (I dream to add some kind of pattern block or other building material to this area)

    •  I also take a day at the beginning of the year to let the kids explore the free choice options. I totally agree with you…yes it takes a day, but it’s really worth it!

  • Vicky Siegel

    All students make a sketchbook, so then when they are done early (with my “inspection”), then they can go to the “early finisher’s area” to get markers, twistables, stencils, or books for drawing in their sketchbooks.  I started a “contest” last year in each classroom for the “best” sketchbook drawings.  So- students are encouraged to add backgrounds, textures, color nice, etc. all year.  And- to keep working on the same drawing for multiple times.  They are really taking it serious this year!  No more tic-tac-to and “I love mom” pictures.  Plus, I’m sure mom and dad are glad they don’t get those random half-drawn pictures home anymore.  For our very last art class in June, then I have stations at each table.  I have scrap paper, yarn, memory games, spirographs, etch-a-sketches, art puzzles, stamps, and more.  They love this and are still creative.  And I get to clean up my room and get the odds and ends done at the end of the year, too!

    •  Don’t you love twistables? They are SO much better than regular crayons. Love your sketchbook idea! What ages do you teach?

      • Vicky Siegel

        I teach grades 1 to 4.  So I have to teach the sketchbook directions 32 times (32 classes a week)!- But the older students remember from year to year.  We make them from cereal boxes.   I also included this year- textures and large crayons without wrappers.  They all love making crayon rubbings.  I bought a lot of the textures through the years, but sometimes they love the ones I made with a glue gun on tagboard- zig-zag lines, spirals, wavy lines, ect.

        • Wow. I am so impressed you can get your first graders to do sketchbooks! That’s awesome. I hear you about teaching the same thing over and over. By the last one, I feel like a robot. 

  • I call my area the activity center.  When the students have completed their project and have had it checked by me for completion they are welcome to go to the activity center. They may choose from free draw, using the many drawing books we have ( a favorite section that I am always adding to ), activity sheets ( coloring designs,  imagination sheets etc..) rubbing plates ( always a hit even with my 5th graders) symmetry shapes,  tessellation animal stencils,  crazy shape/curve stencils) my 3-5 grades also have several decks of Pick and Draw in their center (they LOVE these!) myK-2 classes also have books in their center that they can read. Both classrooms have an area where the markers,crayons are stored and the students can go get them to use for their free time.  Pencils, scissors and glue sticks may also be used at free time. All free time activities must be brought back to their seat to do unless they are playing/working with a friend and they ask me first to sit together at an empty table.  I used to have blocks and tessellation shapes with trays years ago. They were popular but caused too many classroom management issues for my small space ( they vanished one day never to return )

    • I also had some things “mysteriously” disappear from my free choice area (like marble run). What was I thinking!? 

      Also, I’m curious, what are your favorite drawing books for students? 

  • I keep a variety of stencils at the Free Draw station.  Children love them because they offer instant success to draw something.  I do encourage them to trace a stencil but then to “finish the scene” with their own free drawing.  I also keep a variety of art related books at this station.  Sometimes I’ll include seasonal rubbing plates (leaves, snowflakes).

    • I love how you have the kids “finish the scene” when working with stencils. Stencils are something I struggle with. I don’t like using them in my projects, but the kids love using them. They seem like a good fit for free choice! 

  • Megan George

    I like activities that help the kids think creatively, think visually, allows them to
    have fun, work together, and not feel like they’re being punished by finishing
    early. Students are given strict rules for free time activities and if they make
    poor choices during free time they’re given a textbook to read and write answers
    from…they usually make good choices :) I’ve listed my go to activities on my blog: http://splattersandsmudges.blogspot.com/2012/09/early-finisher-ideas.html 
    Besides what’s already been suggested by other readers, I have board games like Pictureaka, Cartoon It!, Pictionary Man, and a few different types of puzzles (wooden & metal).

    • Wow, Megan. Your blog is AWESOME.  Art games are a great idea for kids that finish early!

  • Erica873

    Thanks for making this very clear, but I also have asked all k-5 students to have their own notebook or sketchbook. K-1 leave it with me so when they get to that center they have paper, but 2-5 are loving making their own visual book. I love the friendly reminder of teaching free time as a procedure, but honestly this hasn’t been much of an issue. Kids love free draw. It’s pretty simple and at least it’s relevant to our subject!

    • Erica, do you have teachers add “notebook for art” right on their supply lists, or is this something that comes out of your budget? Either way, it’s a great idea to keep all of the students’ drawing in one place! 

  • Dawn

    My students love using foam blocks when finished early.  Even the 5th and 6th occasionally ask to use them.  I love that they are quiet (the blocks, not the kids :)

    • Foam blocks have been on my wishlist! Do you remember where you found yours?

    • zmamaq

      Dawn-I think many of your ideas would work for my older students. Thank you!

  • Rhonda H

    I wonder if you would be able to provide an outline or transcript of the video? I like the video because is able to point to specific items and explain  the setup of the station, but when I want to remember the points, I’d rather have it in a typed, organized form for my classroom organization/idea file. Thanks.

    • Hi Rhonda, 

      At this time we do not have a transcript of the video. I would encourage you to watch again and jot down anything that stands out to you. So glad you found the ideas helpful! 

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  • zmamaq

    This is a great topic. This year someone offered me a couple bookcases that are working wonderfully as a center area. I teach 1st through 8th grade and my younger students-even as old as 5th grade-enjoy the center area but I admit I find it difficult to come up with engaging activities for my middle schoolers, particularly my 8th grade stuents. Does anyone have any suggestions or links to ideas for center activities for older students? Thanks everyone.

    • Hi there! Great question. It may be that the older students might need something besides centers. Here’s an idea that has worked well for secondary students: https://theartofeducation.edu/2015/08/27/transform-your-art-room-by-assigning-3-projects-at-once/ The idea is that you have multiple projects running at once. You might also try some kind of sketchbook with your older students. We have an article coming up next week with lots of prompt ideas. If you really want to do centers, think about their interests as a jumping off point. Maybe you could have blank comic strips for them to fill in, or have a contest to see which student can come up with the coolest design using Fractile magnet boards. Or, you could ask the students! What kinds of things would they like to see in that area? Their answers are likely to be insightful. Best of luck!

      • zmamaq

        Great idea Amanda. I will definitely look for the article on sketchbook prompts. The students made their own sketchbooks earlier in the year when they went outside to sketch but the other projects since have taken us away from the sketchbooks. Next week I am going to be running a couple projects at the same time so hopefully that will help the restless students.

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