The Essential Guide to Learning Centers

Why Should You Do Centers?

You should do centers because students have fun, work independently, and free you up to be more effective as an educator.  When done correctly, centers give you the ultimate autonomy you so desperately need and desire, plus it gives students autonomy, which prepares them for the self-driven challenges of the “real world.”

There are numerous reasons to have centers in your classroom.  I listed a few above and here’s a more comprehensive list from Scholastic.com:

They provide an outlet for wiggles(yes, even the big kids have wiggles.  Shoot, I have wiggles!)
They provide relaxation– obviously 1 and 2 aren’t the same center.
They provide a safe learning environment where students feel comfortable making mistakes- for more on this, read our post on failure.
They allow for self-expression
They teach self-discipline
They provide intrinsic motivation, choice, and opportunities for multiple modalities
They teach collaboration through group activity
Students feel successful as they complete tasks independently

That is quite the list.  Convinced?  Great!  Step into my office…

How Do I Make Centers?

If you are a Pre-K or Early Elementary teacher, this is probably a no-brainer.  You do centers all the time.  You got this.  The question is, do you feel your centers are working to effectively teach or are your centers more like down time for your students?  I have another question: Did you know that your students can have down time while learning?  BOOM! That was your mind being blown.  Here are the 3 types of centers Teachervision.com says are typically set up in a classroom.

We will call these your center elements:
  • Enrichment- These centers are designed to accompany your unit or units for an extended time period.  Their secondary purpose is to serve multiple modalities and ensure all your students an equal opportunity to learn.
  • Skill- These centers are as their name suggests; designed as an outlet for your students to practice a certain skill or skills.  They can have unit connections to incorporate the enrichment element, or be totally separate.  My advice, though, is to make them as relevant as possible.  Our Daily Concept Builders™ program provides center activities that incorporate a word per day.  They focus on certain ELA skills while reminding students of the relevance of the vocabulary.
  • Exploratory- Again as the name suggests, these centers are designed to be completely open for students to explore their interests.  Once again, I recommend incorporating the Enrichment component to reinforce material they are learning or have already learned.  You can make this a Project-Based Learning opportunity where students work collectively and independently on a project of interest related to the subject matter.  Read more about the basics of PBL here.  You can also give them the option of doing an assignment based on a subject they’ve learned earlier in the year that is of interest.  Obviously, the key to this is that the student is excited about what he or she is doing and it is personally relevant.
Teachervision has also provided a list of thoughts for each center that you may look at if you desire:
  • Title. Provide an interesting title that identifies the center as separate from other classroom activities.
  • Furniture. Arrange necessary furniture in a pleasing and productive manner. Decide how you will set up chairs, tables, storage facilities, and the like.
  • Storage. Keep materials in a safe place where they are easily accessible by students.
  • Space. Consider the use of space within the center. Where will the activities take place? Is there a need for independent study? Will large- or small-group instruction take place within the center?
  • Materials. Determine how you will obtain materials. You might be able to obtain materials from parents or the school. You may also want to consider other sources such as local businesses, catalog supply houses, or community agencies.
  • Location. Consider the physical placement and arrangement of centers in your room. Students need to be able to move to and among centers with minimal disruption and time.
  • Responsibility. An important consideration in the development of any center pertains to the responsibilities of students and teacher to the center. For example, students need to know who is responsible for cleaning up, who will be sure there’s an adequate supply of consumable materials (paper, paint, soil, water, etc.), who will be in charge of evaluation, and so on.
  • Learning alternatives. Include a variety of learning alternatives within any center. For example, include a variety of tasks ranging from difficult to easy. Also include activities that relate to various students’ interests.
  • Instructions. Post a set of directions in each center. Plan time to share and discuss each set of directions and/or routines with students as part of one or more introductory lessons.
  • Sequence of activities. It may be important to consider how activities within a center will be sequenced. That is, will students need to complete one or more specific activities before moving on to more complex activities later?
  • Number of centers. You will need to decide on the number of centers you want to establish in your classroom. Base your decision on your management skills as well as the needs of your students. You might want to start with a single center and, as you and your students gain more competence in designing and using the center, develop additional centers later in the school year.
  • Assignment. Consider assigning students to selected centers as well as offering students opportunities to select centers on their own.
  • Duration of centers. Decide how long a center or group of centers will remain in existence. As a rule of thumb, keep a center in operation only as long as students’ interests are high and it meets your program’s instructional goals.
  • Management system. You can assure the success of your centers by teaching your students familiar routines (how to move between centers, how to work cooperatively). Devote several weeks at the beginning of the year to teach these routines.
    • This should include some type of signal that students understand as the cue to rotate, or move to another center.  You can use a clapping pattern, chant, whatever you like.
  • Time. Talk with students about the amount of time necessary to engage in or complete the activities within a center. It is not critical for students to complete all the activities within a center.
  • Help! Establish a procedure or routine that will allow students to signal when they are having difficulty with a specific center activity.
  • Assessment. Decide on the nature and form of assessment for the center(s). Will assessment be the responsibility of the students or the teacher? How will it be accomplished—informally (discussions, observations) or formally (skills test, chapter exam)?
    • Make sure you include some type of collection bin, basket, folder, etc. at each center that yields a product to make sure you keep track of all assignments
Some of these will be based on your own personal preference and how your classroom works.
Ok, now you have the why and the how.  Like any good 5Ws and H, we need the what:

What Do I Put in My Centers?

So, I have talked about how to design centers, now what do I put in my centers?  As I said before, I think incorporating multiple elements as part of your centers is a great idea.  You don’t have to have any center with just one focus.  Some simple center ideas to get you started include games, task cards, art, legos(or other building materials), computer, and reading.  Here are a couple links with more detail.

List of suggested learning centers by age group: This list is less detailed, but incorporates suggestions for older kids

To make things easy,

it’s best that you plan your centers at the beginning of the year.  Have similar types of centers so that students can establish a pattern and familiarity with each center.  If they understand the process, the path to independence will be a lot smoother.  Think about which units would be best accompanied by centers.  Preplan your materials, directions, assignments, etc. for each center and put them in a folder or bin(depending on materials).  Keep these bins labeled and that way you just pull out the bin you need when it’s time to switch out the center.  No wasted time trying to find materials!

Literacy Centers

I have found a lot of success with a word of the day approach to literacy. I teach my students the daily word, review decoding skills, then reinforce the vocabulary in my literacy centers. I follow our Daily Concept Builders schedule because it puts the words in weekly themes. This really helps my ELLs understand words individually, as well as in context with related words. It has made them successful at recognizing and decoding complex vocabulary words!

Read more about my success here!

Math Centers

I started doing math centers a few years ago and I love it! My students go to math centers while I have guided math groups just like I have guided reading groups. This allows me to meet with a small group of students at a time to practice specific math skills. We have created some fun math game cards that I use in my math centers because many of them have manipulatives. One of our bestsellers is Money Scoot. You can see all the math games here.

Where Do I Put My Centers?

 
This is a great question. Where you put your centers can make or break the dynamic in your classroom.  A good rule of thumb is to keep quiet centers together and loud centers together.  This way, students who need to focus aren’t distracted.  Another benefit to this, is that it trains students to learn which behaviors are appropriate for which centers.

Also, you can put centers anywhere.

Any empty space is a blank canvas for your creative genius.  The best way to utilize an ugly shelf top or back is to turn it into a center.  This is win-win-win.  Win for your classroom because that eyesore is gone, win for your students because it’s a fun new location for learning, win for you because it makes you look super smart and amazing.
For other ideas on center organization, read this article from aboutEducation.

When Am I Supposed to Do Centers?

There are different schools of thought on when to do centers.  The traditional format for Kindergarten is to have a designated center time of 45-60 minutes, wherein students rotate from center to center.  Many preschools have centers dominate the majority of the day, with small class instruction in between.  I personally think the best way for students to have differentiated, individualized learning opportunities is through centers.  I don’t see why you couldn’t have centers all day.  If the purpose of the center is to learn, you are merely replacing class lecture or an activity with small group learning environments that allow you more personal time with each student.  At minimum, I encourage you to have one center block in the morning and one in the afternoon.  See how it changes your students’ engagement level.

Who Does Centers?

If you are not a Kindergarten or Preschool teacher, you may be thinking, “how is this for me?”  There are older grades that also incorporate centers successfully.  Again, centers have so many benefits.  Why limit those benefits to younger kids?  The reality is, very few times will one of your students have a job where he or she spends the majority of the time listening to lecture or working in a large group setting.  Most jobs require independent and small group cooperation.  What better time to start practicing that than now?  Here is an article from one of my favorite sites, Edutopia.org, about how a secondary teacher incorporates learning centers.  Even if you have young ones, it’s still worth a look.  His assessment method is quite insightful.
 

Some extras

  • Homework center.  Students can either choose to complete homework early or finish homework they weren’t able to complete the night before.  Discourage procrastination habits by limiting the number of times the homework center is allowed per student.  You can limit it to once a day, every other day, or once a week.  Assignments wouldn’t be deemed late until the following week.
  • Include a tape recorder with your writing center.  For students who have trouble writing, encourage them to record their answer to the prompt, or assignment.  This way, you can determine whether or not they understand the material without having to sift through developing writing skills.  Students could even use the recorder to get their thoughts out, then organize into a piece of writing.
  • We have a little blurb about centers in our post about the 5 Teaching Habits Hurting Your Students. Scroll down to habit #5.

Our Center Resources

 Get a solid head start on those centers by checking out our resources:
We have cut and paste activity sheets that include a daily content area vocabulary word and a sight word. The sheets also include phonemic elements and a bonus question that encourages critical thinking. There is one for every day so it makes a great center because the students learn to do this center independently. Kindergarten students may require more guidance until they become familiar.

This is a picture of one of my students using the sight word center or as we call it: The Snap Word Center because we want to learn these words in a “snap” 🙂  We have a recycling theme for Earth Day. We always have a fun monthly theme on our cards. My students love seeing the new theme each month!

Click here to buy them!

Some of my students’ favorite center is the Memory Game Center! We have added cards with real pictures so students will have picture support with the daily calendar words.  We have included a teacher guide with differentiated ideas for the centers.

Click here to buy them!

Students love this “Read Around the Room Center“! I tape the monthly cards around the classroom and give students s a recording sheet attached to a clipboard. They use it to record their answers. You can also use the cards in a game we created called Brain Bounce. There is also a teacher guide that includes ideas on how to use the cards.
Students answering questions around the classroom

You can try all these centers for September and more when you purchase our newly bundled September Literacy Bundle. Each resource comes with a teacher guide with center ideas. We have it for over 50% off for a limited time!

 

 See more here!

September Literacy Bundle

You can try our September Calendar for Free. There is a teacher guide that gives you ideas for centers!

September Vocabulary Calendar

 

Get My Calendar!

Join us in our teacher FB group.

Check out all our products on Pinterest.

 

Thanks for reading and we hope that you will try centers in your classrooms!

Pam and Brittany

 

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18 thoughts on “The Essential Guide to Learning Centers”

  1. Kathy Heath

    This blog post is very helpful! Everything I want is here! Great job!

    1. SOL Train Learning

      I am so happy that it is everything you want! Please let me know if I can help you with anything. Thank you for stopping by and your kind words!

  2. Anonymous

    This makes me think I should create some learning centers. Hmmm.

    1. SOL Train Learning

      Great! We hope this post gave you some help with centers!

  3. Wendy

    Wow – what a thorough post – packed full of great ideas! I’m definitely checking out your Daily Concept Builders! You’ve motivated me to reorganize – thank you!

    1. SOL Train Learning

      Yay! We are so happy you are checking out our Daily Concept Builders Wendy!

  4. Denise

    This post is a one-stop overview on so much info about centers! Thanks so much!

    1. SOL Train Learning

      Thank you Denise!

  5. Anonymous

    WOW! What a great comprehensive list. You’ve got everything covered. Thanks for so many wonderful tips!

    1. SOL Train Learning

      Thanks for your comments!

  6. This is so funny! We were just talking about getting centers up and running..TODAY! Great post! Lots of things to think about when planning centers! AWESOME! Wendy 1stgradefireworks

    1. SOL Train Learning

      We appreciate that Wendy! We love doing centers!

  7. Janet (Fishyrobb)

    This is so helpful, especially for newer teachers! Thank you for sharing all your great ideas. I love the homework center idea! That is a new one for me.

    1. SOL Train Learning

      Thanks Janet! We are glad you stopped by and enjoyed the ideas!

  8. Barbara

    This has lots of great usable info for using centers in the classroom. I plan to put some of these ideas to work immediately.

    1. SOL Train Learning

      We are so happy to hear that! We love sharing our ideas! Good luck with your centers.

  9. Lots of great tips for the classroom! Thanks so much for sharing your ideas!

    1. SOL Train Learning

      Thank you for your kind words Karla!

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