Early Childhood Winning Ideas Contest: Top 5 Ideas for Exciting, Organized Learning Centers

  • Grades: Early Childhood, Infant, PreK–K

Congratulations to the winners of our Early Childhood Winning Ideas Monthly Contest! Each of these entrants - teachers just like you - won $50 in Scholastic products for sharing their ideas. Thanks to everyone who submitted to the contest. And remember to check the latest contest topic for more chances to win!

Learning Centers

by Melissa Haile

Learning centers are a huge part of the independent learning required in many early childhood classrooms. I teach kindergarten and the impact of having organized learning centers in my classroom has been huge. With the push towards Reading First, the use of centers focusing on the big five (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension) has been a major focus for many learning center ideas in my community and state. The use of these learning centers is established to support independent learning activities focusing on reading and writing in which students practice concepts they have previously learned. At no time is there an activity in the centers that the students do not know about.

First, establish a routine for rotating into daily centers. A chart of some sort with the listed activities helps. I found it very convenient to use a calendar chart with the days of the week at the top of the chart. The listing of five different centers is on the left side of the chart under the day marked Sunday (which I white out and label "center"). I then place students into color groups with four or five students per group depending on the class size. The colors are arranged on the calendar so that each day a different color group is at a particular center. The chart is pre-made and used through-out the school year. I can change student grouping if needed.

Next, I establish a time of day in which the centers will occur. The time never changes and students always know when we go to centers. The center time lasts for a period of 1 hour. Learning centers always occur after big group time and prior to our shared reading time. While students are working in their assigned center, I have positioned my horseshoe table in the back center of the room which enables me to view all centers as I teach in guided groups.

Finally, I train students at the beginning of the year to know what items in each center are the "must-do" items and what choice items are. I assign a captain in each color group to check students, answer questions, and make sure everyone does their center. The concept stays the same throughout the year but the content changes slightly to reflect new learning to practice. With this routine in place, there aren't any problems and I am able to use my time wisely to work with guided reading groups as students practice learned concepts from the week prior.

Holding Students Accountable in Stations!

by Kelly Brown, 1st grade teacher at Cherryville Elementary

I think the best thing I can do for my kids so they will know how to use the stations/centers is model, model, and model. At the beginning of the year I give my students specific guidelines for what they are to do and we discuss the classroom community skills (how they should interact with one another) they should use while they are in learning station/center time. I do have my students "think" they are making up the guidelines/rules to follow in centers so they feel they have an active part in the planning and expectations.

I start with setting out a few things for them to choose from and then after I have observed them doing a good job, I will add more things for them to use. I tell them I have a spy who is watching to see how they treat the supplies. (This really helps them because they don't know who the spy is but it is just ME!) This has really worked with my kids. They LOVE being able to interact with one another so they try really hard to be on their best behavior when they are in stations/centers.

I have my stations/centers organized by the different curriculum areas. Each child has a paper that they use to mark off the different stations they can visit in the room. I have attached a paper. They will use this paper for the week and they are responsible for marking off the places they have already been. They do a great job too because they really like to be able to visit each one. The different stations include the writing station, listening station, the dry erase marker board station, the magnetic boards and letters station, the math station, the language game station - I have listed the math and language stations two times since they focus on many different skills. There is a limit of 4 students at each station at a time. During station time, I have my guided reading groups so the students are always moving and busy. There is not any time for "time off task" with this system. To hold students accountable, they have to write on the back of their sheet the station they liked the best and didn't like as much and why at the end of each week. (I have them do this on the back of their paper.) 


by Kristin Steflik

I teach half-day preschool (4-5 year olds) at a Catholic school. There are several different preschool classes, and our director has our schedule pretty packed with "requirements" for the teachers. These are things we must do. I don't necessarily agree with (most) of these things, so I've had to get creative to get in what it is that I want to do with my kids.

Since my kids are only in school for such a short time during the day and my classroom is beyond small (and there are 14 kids in the class), I can't leave anything set up permanently. I also don't have the space to spread out what we traditionally call centers or stations. I have just enough room to have three long tables set up in a I__I pattern and have a few toys along one wall. Storage is definitely an issue, so most of my stuff goes back and forth between my house and my school daily.

When my kids come in, they have to go "sign in" which involves moving a clothespin with their name on it from under a picture of a house to under a picture of a school bus. After that, it's different everyday. Earlier in the year, I had different manipulatives out at each of the three tables (such as pattern blocks and frames, puzzles, stringing beads, etc.) along with some theme-based activity. The kids get to choose which table they go to (they can go to any table as long as there are still empty chairs...if not, they have to move on). I don't limit their time at each place, and they don't have to go to all of them. I've found that they are pretty good at moving around on their own without the extra rules.

Recently, our sight word vocabulary has exploded, so I started creating games to help reinforce this. I developed some file-folder games with sight words on the spaces. They have to roll a die or spin a spinner (with number WORDS on them), move that many spaces, and read the word they land on. They love these. I also have one for general sight words and one for calendar words (days, months, numbers - this one is harder). I also have a game for the color words - the spaces are just blobs of "spilled paint" and the spinner has color words on it. They have to read it and move to the first space of that color. I've made a lot of these games, and these are what I put out on the tables in the morning now. They can still go where they want when they want...they like the freedom and they do really well with it.

After circle time and snack time, we read a story, do an art project, and then it's time for "groups." I have my kids split into 3 reading/writing groups. Each day of the week, my groups concentrate on something different. 2 days a week we do a 4-square writing journal. One day the journal centers around our theme, and the other day it centers on our letter of the week. Another day of the week we work on math (concepts as well as writing the numbers). One of the days we have to do a letter notebook (this is one requirement I hate), and the last day of the week we concentrate completely on the letter of the week - formation and letter sounds. While I'm working with a group, my aide supervises the other two groups on the rugs. One group is likely doing a theme-based activity while another group is working on puzzles or reading the word wall in the classroom. My only rules for this time are 1) you stay with your group, and 2) you have to work quietly so the group with the teacher can hear. It's a small room, remember. I spend about 15 minutes with each group, so the kids who aren't with me have 15 minutes at each activity that's out. Then it's time to go home!

Exciting but not so Organized

by Judy Hoyle, Sedge Garden Preschool

I teach a class of 16 three year olds in a 1/2 day program. I would have to say that my centers are very exciting, but they would not seem very organized if you walked into our classroom.

We have a block center, science center, worship center, dramatic play center, library center, and three tables that we put out play dough, manipulatives, and art supplies. After we have our room set up for the day, we just see what happens. Just the other day in our block center was a pile of Lincoln logs, pillows from the reading center, babies from the dramatic play area, and food from our kitchen. The kids were all sitting in a circle around the Lincoln logs. If you haven't guessed already, they were on a camp out (Lincoln log fire, pillow sleeping bags, etc). I think that children learn much more by being creative, than having to use things for exactly what they are "supposed" to be used for.

Changing your dramatic play area often keeps things exciting. We have had a grocery store, a Teddy Bear Clinic, and a post office.

I will say that the kids do know how to put every thing back in its place as soon as the "Clean Up" song is played.

Make it fun for kids and they will learn MORE!!!

Centers as Learning Tools

by Linda Damman

In my Pre-K classroom, I feel that my students can learn more from centers than they do from my formal teaching!  As a result, I try to provide centers that reach a variety of interest as well as ability levels.  To maintain the interest and support growing ability levels, I change all centers at least once a year, usually over Christmas break (some centers are changed more often).  There are 12 centers in my classroom:      

  • Math Center: Contains counting and sorting boxes and number match activities as well as number puzzles. Mid-year I add patterning activities.      
  • Puzzle Center: I have wooden puzzles, box puzzles, and floor puzzles. I increase the difficulty of the puzzles mid-year.      
  • Blocks and Manipulative Center: There are Duplo Legos, blocks, construction tools, Potato Heads, Kid K'Nex, Travel Lite Brites, and other toys to promote fine motor skills. This center also includes my doll house and magnetic paper dolls.      
  • Reading Center: Here you will find a variety of books, including a wide variety of books about our current theme. There are also stuffed animals to co-ordinate with some of the books, class made books, and a "birthday book" which each child creates at home and brings to school on his/her birthday.       
  • Sensory Table: This center changes once a month. Some of the items I've used are corn and toy farm machinery; Easter grass and plastic insects or artificial flowers and flower pots; water and ocean animals (those rubber fishing lures-without hooks!-are fun too!); Moon Sand and alphabet molds; old magazines and scissors. One year we even used real snow!     
  • Writing Center: I try to provide a wide variety of papers and envelopes as well as tape, staplers, hole punches and pads, alphabet stamps and stickers, name cards and word cards, and stencils. In addition, there are magna-doodles, wipe off boards and other fun ways to practice letter formation. I am also fortunate enough to have a "Mail Center", so children can send and receive mail.      
  • Science and Discovery Center: There are science-related books here as well as items that relate to our current theme. These items are changed often. Other items that stay longer are a "rock collection", view masters, sea shells, plastic bugs and bug viewers, items to look through, magnets and musical instruments.      
  • Art Center: One of the more popular centers, it includes a wide variety of materials for open-ended creations. Some of the items are: stickers, foam shapes, wiggle eyes, tissue paper, crepe paper, magazines, pom-poms, pipe cleaners, stamps, paper punches, plain paper, construction paper, fancy and plain scissors, tape and glue. This center also contains my playdoh. I have bought many specialty items for this center, but what gets used most is old muffin tins and birthday candles. Go figure!      
  • Pocket Chart: I allow children to use the charts that we use during circle time as well as some table top charts.  This year, even the boys love "playing teacher"! For lack of a better place, this center also houses my flannel graph and story sets.      
  • Puppets: I have found some great child-sized puppets at Target stores. In addition, I provide puppets that relate to our theme.      
  • Housekeeping Center: In addition to the standard dress-up and play kitchen items, I try to provide many writing opportunities such as word cards for shopping lists, menus and order pads, calendars, and even old day-planners.      

I have twelve children in my class and they are divided into groups of four (I change groups mid-year also). Each group has four centers to choose from each day. By the end of the week, they have had a chance to visit every center if they choose to. If they have done a good job caring for the centers throughout the week, Friday is "Free-Play Friday" which means they can play in any center they choose. This has been a great incentive! To keep everything in its place, the shelves are labeled with a picture and the item's name. This is a lot of work, but it really helps at clean-up time.

  • Subjects:
    Early Learning, Curriculum Development, Classroom Management, Homework and Studying Support, New Teacher Resources, Teacher Tips and Strategies

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