Center Time in the Early Childhood Classroom: Basic Set-Up
Many preschool and kindergarten classrooms provide students with "center time." Centers can be set up in a variety of ways to best accommodate the individual dynamics of each classroom, and can be used as a supplemental learning tool or simply to provide time for students to learn independently. This individual or small group time allows students to explore new concepts through hands-on activities rather than guided teacher lecture.
Classroom centers can be set up in a variety of ways. How centers are arranged may depend on the room size, the number of students in the class, or whether the room is shared with other educators. Centers can be permanent "stations" or can be portable learning units.
A permanent center may take up a certain corner or area of the room. The area should be large enough to allow 3-4 students space to work, while being small enough that the center blends into rather than taking over the room. Centers may be set up on a table or on the floor as appropriate to the included activities. Permanent centers can be decorated to match the theme or activity being explored. A rug with pictures of streets may fit in an area about cars, while glow in the dark stars may hang from the ceiling above a space themed center. Posters can be hung on nearby walls, and a wall or shelf area can display center-related artwork that students create.
Portable learning centers can be contained in plastic tubs with lids. Each tub can hold all related games, puzzles, books, art supplies, manipulatives, and other center related materials. The tubs can be decorated to match the center theme, and pulled out into any open space in the classroom. The tubs can be shared by several teachers, and can easily be moved to other parts of the school for convenience.
Educators will want to determine how many centers are set up at the same time based on the number of students in the classroom and the size of the available space.
Centers can be set up around a specific theme, a subject area, a skill, or an activity.
Theme based centers can be used as an extension of a theme currently being studied in the classroom. Common classroom themes are space, the ocean, or dinosaurs. A space center for example might include plastic or styrofoam planets, stars, and moons, space puzzles or games, and space related stickers or activity books.
Subject area based centers focus on one particular academic area such as language arts, math, music, or science. For example, math based centers may include manipulatives such as beads or bears that allow for counting or sorting, clocks for learning to tell time, or paper materials that encourage patterning.
Skill based centers may focus on life skills or social skills as developmentally appropriate for the children in the classroom. Life skills may include activities that allow students to practice lacing, tying, zipping, or buttoning. A cooking and eating area could offer both life skills and social skills as students practice cooking safety and table manners. Centers that promote good social skills may also include cooperative games that encourage students to work together.
Centers can also have a focus based on a material or activity of interest to the students. Although not directly linked to a specific skill or academic subject, activity based centers can offer students the chance to learn more informally. For instance, a center that includes blocks or toy cars may encourage safety and engineering skills.
When Students Go To Centers
Depending on room size and classroom dynamics, educators may want to send all students to centers at once, or may want to allow just one or two groups of students to go to centers while they do a group activity with the remainder of the class.
If an entire class will be splitting up into multiple center groups, educators should plan ahead for how students will move from one center to another. How long should each student remain at one center, does each student need to ask before moving to another center, or are the centers free flowing as long as there are no more than 3 or 4 students in each center? It may be advisable to keep the center transitions more structured at the beginning of the school year while students are still adjusting to the classroom dynamics. Once the centers become free flowing, educators may use center assignment charts to keep track of which students are at what center. The chart can be a simple pie chart with pictures depicting the themes of the centers. Each student can have a clothespin with his or her name on it (a special picture or color works for pre-readers). The student can move the clothespin to the part of the pie chart that reflects his/her center of choice.
For cost effectiveness, many centers may include similar activities or objects. Puzzles, books, and games are available for a variety of topics, and art materials such as crayons or markers and paper can be placed in almost any center to encourage artistic expression of what is being learned.
Above all, centers should be fun place for students to go. This is a time that students may see as "away from the teacher." They are testing their independence, learning on their own, and sometimes simply doing that equally important task - playing.
Published: February 2003