Teacher-Mediated Structured Choice

What is teacher-mediated structured choice on the playground, and why is it important?

It is currently recommended that children get 60 min of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per day, but research indicates the young children typically get far less than the recommended hour. Engaging in MVPA has many benefits for children, including decreasing potential health risks (e.g., obesity, asthma, physical stress), increasing appropriate behaviors, and decreasing challenging behaviors (e.g., stereotypy, inattention). Movement activities also serve as instructional contexts in which teachers can promote motor development, social skills, and communication abilities. Because young children spend a significant portion of their day outdoors, this is invaluable instructional time, whether instruction is child-led or teacher-led. For more details about the importance of MVPA, see the Teacher-Directed Physical Activity section.

EBIP_teaching children outdoors_structured choice_1Teacher-mediated structured choice is one procedure shown by research to increase MVPA on the playground. When you use this procedure, you simply offer children choices for engaging in appropriate activities on the playground. For most young children, it is appropriate to use visual supports when these choices are offered. For example, it may be helpful to have actual items or pictorial representations of available activities to assist the child in making a play-related choice. Any time you provide a choice between two actual items or two pictures representing movement activities, you are providing teacher-mediated structured choice and promoting physical activity. Simply by providing a choice between two movement activities, you can increase the likelihood that a child will get and stay engaged, resulting in improved learning and development. In fact, one study showed that compared to “business as usual” or even putting out a bucket of toys, teacher-mediated structured choice increased not only children’s appropriate engagement in MVPA, but also proximity to peers and social interactions with peers.1 Thus, teacher-mediated structured choice provides opportunity for motor, social, and communication development, as well as engagement on the playground. 

How do I include teacher-mediated structured choice with my students?

Here are procedures to help you get started using teacher-mediated structured choice with your students:

1. Begin by gathering a selection of outdoor materials that you will make available to students on the playground. Research has showed that when compared to “business as usual,” just bringing out a bucket of novel materials (without any additional prompting or praising) can increase child engagement with materials and peers for some children.1 Here are some ideas for materials for your playground bucket:

  • BallsEBIP_teaching children outdoors_structured choice_3
  • Jump rope
  • Hula hoops
  • Small parachute
  • Chalk (for hopscotch)
  • Relay race batons
  • Ribbon wands (or other rhythmic gymnastics materials)
  • “Launch” foam rockets
  • Bubbles
  • Collapsible tunnel
  • T-ball set
  • Bowling set
  • Badminton set
  • Soccer net and soccer ball
  • “Over the door” basketball hoop and small basketball

2. Decide how you will transport and present materials. For ease of transport, you might consider having a designated bag or bucket, or two bags/buckets that can be rotated. A bag or bucket that is clear-colored or has a large opening will allow students to see inside.

3. Decide how many materials you will bring out each day. Consider rotating materials, such that there are at least a few new choices each session. This may increase child interest in the materials in your playground bucket, in that they are less likely to grow tired of using the same materials over and over again. At the very beginning, you might consider bringing out just one new choice each day, such that you can directly teach students how to appropriately play with the new materials.

evidence-based-instructional-practices-134. Simply providing materials and explicitly teaching their use will be sufficient procedures for increasing engagement and physical activity for many children. For some children, you will also need to provide structured choices between materials. This can be as simple as selecting two materials (or two pictures of materials), holding them out the child, and asking him or her to “pick one.” Set up the materials and teach the child how to use them appropriately, if needed. Present a new choice if the child becomes unengaged with the materials. It can be helpful to set yourself an interval timer on a stopwatch or phone application (e.g., Simple Interval Timer, a free phone application that you can set up to beep at a set interval), to remind yourself to check on the child’s engagement and provide a new choice every few minutes, if necessary.

5. In addition to presenting choices at consistent intervals or as the child becomes unengaged, it is important to also remember to (a) teach the child how to use the material by modeling and prompting, as needed, (b) provide consistent praise and reinforcement for using the materials appropriately (see Reinforcement on the Playground), and (c) incorporate peers into play to increase social interactions. See Teacher-Directed Physical Activity for more strategies you can use to lead small or large groups in games that increase physical activity.

What can I find additional information regarding physical activity in early childhood and teacher-mediated structured choice?

  1. Ledford, J. R., Lane, J. D., Shepley, C., & Kroll, S. M. (2015). Using teacher-implemented playground interventions to increase engagement, social behaviors, and physical activity for young children with autism. Focus on Autism and other Developmental Disabilities. Advance online publication.
  2. Reinhartsen, D. B., Garfinkle, A. N., & Wolery, M. (2002). Engagement with toys in two-year-old children with autism: Teacher selection versus child choice. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities27(3), 175-187.
  3. Adamo, E. K., Wu, J., Wolery, M., Hemmeter, M. L., Ledford, J. R., & Barton, E. (2015). Using video modeling to increase moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for young children with Down syndrome. Journal of Early Intervention, 37, 270-285.

To cite this page (APA 6th edition):

  • Chazin, K.T., Ledford, J.R., Barton, E.E., & Lane, J.D. (2016). Teacher-mediated structured choice. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from http://vkc.mc.vanderbilt.edu/ebip/teacher-mediated-structured-choice