...but getting your toes wet isn't enough.
Choice is more than a choice of color, pattern, texture, or even the kind of media used. These are very shallow choices that have little impact on the actual depth of the art created. Check out these birds below. They may be cute, but other than the choice of color and pattern you learn very little about the artist that made them, and there is little evidence that they learned anything of depth in the process.
I could have allowed even further choice, letting students pick what animal to create to represent themselves... and I do that often, but I wanted to show the difference in an obvious way. This project was to coincide with a bird unit I wanted to teach... and I had a glut of feathers I wanted to use. Choice can be as broad or narrow as you like but the CHOICE must ultimately shape the final product in a meaningful, expressive, and personal way so that no two results are the same.
Choice could also be a result of research. If you wanted to do a unit on animals, students could research their cultures of origin, and select an animal from that country of origin as the focus of their subject.
Many feel that "choice" is fine for upper grades, but younger kids need step by step directions and projects with more predictable results. I like to use this example of the common Paper Plate Fish project where children cut a pie slice from a paper plate, re-attach it to the opposite side of the plate, and you have a fish. Paint, decorate, etc. If you limit paint to a few choices, which you should anyway for the very young, you end up with a hallway full of delightful, but vapid fish. Each like the other, little distinction or expression.
Solution: Have students reflect on their personality. Are they loud or quiet? Are they active, still, or lazy? Cut the mouth of your fish to show what a big mouth you have. Make a tail to show how active you are. This tiny alteration has changed the cookie-cutter fish into an expressive, albeit simple, choice based art.
Choice alone, even if done well, is not enough in a classroom setting. It is also important o tie art content to core content with every project for student success and for your own well being. Students in core connected art classes succeed at higher rates than their peers on tests like the SAT and others. In all likelihood you already are. In my bird example I taught and used vocabulary used in a biology room (raptors, avian, plumage) and students were exposed to a broad array of birds and how their form followed function. In the self portraits project students learned about the history of that subject, comic books tie into literature quite nicely as well as the career of illustration, fish give us the opportunity to explore the undersea world. If you use color, bring out a prism once in a while, or show a video about the properties of color, the history of your subject, etc. (Again, you may already be doing this to some degree.)
Some like to argue that their approach to art education is better, be it traditional, choice, TAB, etc... There are many roads to depth and success, and ultimately it is about the student. I have used mixtures of all three in my own room at different times depending on the situation. The key, I have found, is to ensure every project connects to the student in some significant way, and that there are connections to core content in every project. The only "wrong," in my point of view, is the cookie-cutter project. They have no business being in an art classroom. (More on that HERE)