Soft Start vs. Morning Work to Start the School Day

Text: Start your school day with a soft start. Photo of a child's puzzle and photo of a box of children's picture books.

It’s back to school season! That means teachers everywhere are planning their schedules and their routines, right down to the moment that kids enter the room. Have you considered using a “soft start” instead of traditional morning work for your classroom morning routine? Below are some things to think about as you make your decision. (When you finish, check out answers to frequently asked questions about soft starts in this blog post.)

Why do a “soft start?”

Think of your own work life. Do you like to settle in first or rush straight to a meeting? You probably like the chance to greet co-workers, take off your coat, and use the bathroom before digging in to the intense work of your day. In other words, you prefer a soft start to your work day.

A soft start for students mimics the way you likely prefer to start your day – with a chance to settle in before beginning work. Even with a soft start, kids still complete classroom morning routines (emptying backpacks, etc.) But when they finish, they have a handful of activities to choose from, rather than a worksheet. Kids are able to chat with friends during all of the activities. This strengthens the sense of community in your room and empowers your students with making their own choices.

The new social distancing guidelines have many of us worried about what our classroom routines will look like this year. Find ways to adapt your soft start for social distancing guidelines in this post.

What can a “soft start” include?

The activities you choose can match the materials in your room and the personalities of your students. The important thing is that students are able to start the day with a choice of quiet activities. This gentle start allows students to interact with peers as they get ready for the day.

Possible soft start activities can include:

  • puzzles
  • books (reading alone or with a friend)
  • play dough (I use Magic Play Dough on the first day for a soft star)
  • games (sometimes favorite math games like Subitizing War (see below); sometimes quick commercial games, like Hi Ho Cherry-O)
  • drawing
  • writing
  • coloring pages
  • water color paints
  • Legos or other blocks
  • paper and tape for creating “stuff”

Subitizing War is a popular morning choice. Click the photo to see this game in my store.

Kids love to write in the mornings – and I love reading their work!

As you start the year, you may provide only 2-3 choices. As the year goes on, your may add or change the choices. You might swap activities for variety. Or you may chance to activities that reflect your students’ preferences. For instance, with a class that loves to draw, you might add markers, colored pencils and water color paints to the soft start choices.

How does a “soft start” work?

First, you will want to decide which morning tasks will still be expected of students. You always put your purse and jacket away, then check your e-mail in the morning. Students will also need to be responsible for getting themselves ready for the day. You can see an example of a sample classroom morning routine in this post.

Next, choose 2-3 activities to initially include in your soft start. You will want to spend a bit of time teaching students how to carefully use these activities. Model how to use the materials and allow students to practice. Then students can choose an activity when their morning routines are finished.

As an example, you might start with Magic Play Dough as your students arrive on the first day of school. Later that day you demonstrate how to use crayons and paper, then allow students to practice drawing.

On day 2, students will complete their morning routines, then they choose either playing with the play dough or drawing a picture.

In the coming days, you will also demonstrate and practice how to use books from the classroom library – and how to put them back correctly. Once your students understand how to use the classroom library, you can make that a third choice for your soft start.

How does a soft start help the teacher?

Of course you want to make choices based on what’s best for your students, but there are also benefits to the teacher with a soft start.

Unlike morning work pages, the activities for a soft start can be completed independently by all students. (You will, of course, have to monitor behavior and intervene as issues arise from time to time, but students will be mostly independent during this time.) This independence will allow you to personally check in with children as they arrive, or talk to a parent who needs to share some urgent information with you.

Also, the materials for a soft start are already part of your classroom. You won’t need to spend time at the copy machine getting morning work ready each day. Less time at the copier is always a good thing!

Finally, your students will have natural opportunities to build independence and problem-solving skills (ex: what to do when there aren’t enough sets of watercolor paints). They will also begin their day feeling less rushed and stressed. That will impact the overall tone of your room, which will make teaching more enjoyable and rewarding!

Give it a try!

If you have not already tried a soft start to your school day, think about how you could make it work in your school. There are so many benefits to both students and teachers.

Want to know more about soft starts? Check out answers to frequently asked questions about this morning routine in this blog post.

If you do use a soft start, pleas shares of your favorite activities in the comments below. Don’t forget to pin this post to refer to later!

Text says: Start Your School Day with a Soft Start. Photos of a children's puzzle and a box of children's books.

Check out more tips and tricks for morning routines in these posts:

13 thoughts on “Soft Start vs. Morning Work to Start the School Day

  1. Hello there! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say
    I really enjoy reading your blog posts. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums
    that deal with the same subjects? Appreciate it!

  2. About how much time do you allow for morning routine and choice activities? What ideas do you have for third grade soft start choices? I’d really like to do this with my class next year because I know exactly how hard it is to get to work right away.
    Thanks!

    1. My students enter the school during a 15 minute window, so I use that plus an extra 5-10 minutes for our soft start. This includes getting their expected tasks done (such as hanging up coats, putting away backpacks, and lunch count, etc.) The beauty of the soft start is that I can extend it a bit if the kids or I need extra time to adjust – or shorten it a bit when we need to get moving quickly (for a field trip or morning assembly).

      For 3rd grade choices, I would provide books, drawing and maybe some quick games (Connect 4, Uno, War, SkipBo, etc.) to start with. Puzzles with 300-500 pieces could be fun, too. As you get to know your students better, you’ll be able to adapt to their needs and preferences. Some groups can handle things like Legos, blocks, or crafts that they work on for a bit then set aside for later; for others the transition it too difficult. You can also add some popular math games, once they are introduced. Follow the students’ lead and you’ll find things.

      1. Can you please clarify? To me, morning meeting is not independent time. Meeting on the carpet and calendar time is very structured, guided, teacher-led time. I also teach first. In my head, morning meeting would come after the soft start, but perhaps this is just a difference in terminology?

        1. I agree with you – morning meeting is a structured time following the soft start. I had mis-read the other question as morning meeting, versus morning routine. Sorry for any confusion! I’ll adjust my other response to avoid confusing anyone else.

  3. I do this. We start our day with centers. The kids love it. The centers have some learning in them. The make letters from LEGO and planks of wood . After making the letter of the week they play. Also creative writing is popular as well as using play dough to create numbers and letters of the day.

    1. Creative writing is so much fun for kids during free choice activities! And it is so easy to sneak a bit academics into soft start activities for students.

  4. Hello! I enjoyed this post and am thinking of changing my “morning groups” to include more soft start choices. However, I’d love to hear your advice about managing this time. Specifically, I’m wondering what your rules are to keep kids from becoming loud, moving around to just talk with friends, or not sticking with an activity choice. Thanks!!

    1. I follow a Responsive Classroom model, so anything I introduce starts with lots of modeling and practicing. I would start with one activity everyone could do at once (for instance, drawing). I would have students model and practice what this should look like and sound like, including discussions about why quiet voices and staying in one place are helpful (and we would create charts to show this). However, I also have no problem with some quiet socializing as kids work. After the kids have practiced with the first task (like drawing), I would introduce a second (for instance, reading.) Then I might introduce choosing a spot to work (practicing with both reading and drawing). Then I would introduce a choice between the two options. Eventually a third choice would be added, etc. During the introductory process, we would also talk about why it is important to stick with one task, and how they will have the opportunity to choose a different task the following day.

  5. I am absolutely implementing this. I was already using a non-official version of this idea. Logistical question… after you’ve introduced multiple activities, do you allow them to choose anything? Or do you post the ones they can choose from for that day/week and rotate through your activities? In your post, you mention paint and Play Dough. Is that something you have available every day? I’m thinking through the details and I’m excited to really teach this as a procedure.

    1. I allow them as early in the year as I can. So I introduce and practice a few activities independently, then once I students know how to do 2-3 different activities (ex: draw, play dough, read), I allow them to choose from those 3. The number of choices I offer depends on both my class. I’ve had groups of kids who became very independent and responsible quickly, so it was easy to offer a great number of choices. Other times I only have 3-5 morning choices. I do rotate activities, but I’m not organized enough to post them for kids to see. Instead, I would just pack something away – but I only did that every 4-6 weeks. More commonly, I would have general choice categories like “puzzle, book, game). Then I would add a new game or put away a few that weren’t being used (or were causing trouble in one way or another). I try to keep my routines as simple as possible for both me and the kids.

  6. As a first grade teacher I’ve been doing this for years! Morning jobs get finished and then the kids can read, write or draw… I’ll consider adding new activities! Thanks for validating and giving a name to what I do! Thanks for the new ideas too!

    1. I’m so glad to hear that you enjoy soft start activities! I think it is such a releasing way to start the day – for both the kids and the teacher!

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