Learning Centers, Part 2: How to Manage Them
- Grades: PreK–K
There are so many things to think about when it comes to learning centers. How should I set them up? How should I introduce them? How should I structure them? In this second part of a three-part series, I'll answer these "how-to" questions and more.
Before you establish learning centers in your classroom, ask yourself why you want to do it. If you want students to explore, play, and make choices, and if you want to observe and interact, then centers are a great idea for you. If, however, you like students to work independently on specific tasks with specific materials, and if you would rather assess them based on completed work, then centers may not be the right fit for you.
If you've determined that you do want learning centers, you may have many questions swimming through your head. Following are some tested tips that might provide answers.
How should I set up my centers?
Consider honestly how much space you have in your classroom, because that will determine the arrangement of your centers. Here are some ideas and tips for setup:
- Have students' main tables or desks double as centers by giving them colors or numbers.
- Instead of having main tables or desks, put them in the centers and have them double as places to go for independent work.
- Create a large open space by putting the centers around the perimeter of the room.
- If you want to avoid having children running around, make the centers small with clearly defined boundaries. Use shelving units, dividers, furniture, rugs, painted lines, or colorful electrical tape to mark the boundaries.
- Make sure there is good traffic flow, and that entrances and exits are not blocked.
- Make sure children will be visible from all areas.
- Put related centers near each other. Put quiet and noisy centers away from each other.
- Put centers that need to be comfortable on carpeting. Put messy or wet centers on linoleum.
- Determine which centers will need to be by the sink.
- Consider which centers will need electrical outlets or wiring.
- Decide which centers will need more room, like the blocks and dramatic play centers.
- Think about which centers you might want to put by windows.
- Create dual-purpose spaces, or use dual-purpose furniture such as benches or ottomans with lids that can be lifted up to store materials.
- Consider general furniture, such as shelves and child-sized tables and chairs; furniture specific to certain centers, such as sensory tables, an author's chair, or a workbench; and furniture that could enhance centers, such as child-sized couches and armchairs, rocking chairs, tents, refrigerator boxes, wading pools, pillows, lamps, etc.
- Put cozy centers in corners or partitioned-off spaces.
- Create spaces where children can be alone as well as in groups.
- Anticipate which centers will need more space for materials. A science center, for instance, could have very large materials (scales, microscopes, aquariums and cages, etc.) and very small materials (seeds, specimens, magnets, shells, etc.).
- Store materials and supplies within easy reach for children. Store items not intended for children's use out of their reach.
- Look everywhere for extra space for materials. Use the walls. Use the ceiling. Use clotheslines. Use rain gutters. Use bulletin boards, chalkboards, and whiteboards. You could put materials in plastic hang-up bags such as those used in libraries, and hang them from a rack. One teacher I know hole-punches activities and hangs them from rings on a custom-made stand.
- If you don't have room for centers, put them in cubbies, plastic bins, or boxes. Or, instead of storing the materials by center, store them in the way that is most space-saving and convenient for your students, and let them gather the materials themselves. (You will have to observe this carefully or have a responsible student from each center do it.) Optionally, you can have students spread tablecloths on the floor. Those would be the "centers," and students would be restricted to those areas.
How and when should I introduce centers?
It's important to introduce each center when you start it, when you add to it (the center changes when materials and activities change), when you haven't used it for awhile, or when students need a reminder.
Try the following when introducing a center:
- Tell your class what the center is called, how many students can be there, and what they can do there.
- Show them where the materials are stored, and model how to take them out.
- Model how to use the materials. Be thorough.
- Model how to share the materials.
- Model how to put the materials back.
- Go over rules and directions.
In the beginning, while your students learn how to work in centers and use the materials, you'll want to make it simple and highly structured. Have just a few centers, with a small number of materials at each. Too many choices can be overwhelming for children; plus, you have to introduce every center. Start slowly, and work toward more choices and more independence. Constance J. Leuenberger keeps some centers closed at the beginning of the year by stringing ribbon across the center and hanging a sign that says "Opening Soon for Fun-Filled Play!" When the center is ready to be opened, the class has a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
It's important to keep things fresh and interesting. I have many, many different types of centers, but I only have ten available every week. When a new week rolls around, I may keep some centers and replace others. For those that make a frequent appearance, I switch it up by changing the materials and activities within them.
Besides changing centers and activities every week, you can:
- Change all or some centers every day, a few times a week, or every month.
- Change all or some center activities every day, a few times a week, or every month.
- Have all centers be permanent, adding them gradually over time.
- Have some centers be permanent, and vary others by subject, theme, or interest.
- Have some centers available once a week, and other centers available more than once a week.
- Split centers in half, and do each half every other day.
Should I have required centers? Should I assign centers or let my students choose?
Whether or not you should have required centers depends on your district. Clark County, in Las Vegas, Nevada, requires two and a half hours of literacy work every day. I only have one hour each day for center time, and that includes the Guided Reading Center. So the guided reading groups are also the center groups. My centers all include literacy to some extent, but for the first half hour I meet with one group for guided reading while the other groups do only "literacy centers" (ABC, Read Around the Room, Book Nook, etc.).
For the second half of the hour, the groups are assigned to new centers while I walk around to observe, encourage, help, and get involved. Some teachers allow their students to roam freely between centers, but structured rotation gives everyone the opportunity to visit each center, including those they might not have chosen on their own. It also helps me to better keep track of who is going where.
There are many ways you can group and rotate centers, depending on your needs and preferences. You can allow choices and still have some control and structure, too. Use a method, vary it, or combine it with another:
- Let your students choose the centers, but have one required activity in each center.
- Let your students choose the centers, but put a time limit on how long they can stay there.
- Let your students choose the centers every other day.
- Have students go to required or assigned centers, but let them choose the activities within the centers.
- Have students go to required or assigned centers, but let them choose the order they go to them and how long they stay there.
- Have students go to required or assigned centers first, then allow free-choice.
- Have half your students do required or assigned centers, and half do free-choice, every other day.
- Put centers AND students in groups, and move each group of students to a new group of centers to choose from every day.
- Have students choose centers randomly by picking a card from a pile or a strip of paper from a hat.
- Rotate the centers by table.
- Help each student choose a center based on individual interests, needs, and how often they've been to each center.
- Help the whole class come up with activities from each center they can choose from.
- Simply observe the movement of students. If a child likes to stay in the same center all the time, encourage him or her to try a new one. If a child moves between centers too much, encourage him or her to pick one and complete an activity in it.
- Have a mix of "must do" and "may do" centers. Let your students choose which centers they go to and when, as long as they visit the "must do" centers every day (or every week).
Should students work together or alone?
Both. Children profit from time by themselves and from interacting with others. Grouping students doesn't mean they can't choose to be alone if they feel like it. You can encourage those who spend more time alone to work with a friend or a group, and those who spend more time socializing to spend quality, quiet time alone.
Bonnie P. Murray suggests these types of groups, depending on what you are trying to accomplish:
- Tribes — social groups that remain together for the whole year
- Learning Clubs — groups based on common interests
- Flexible-Needs — groups for practice or enrichment of certain skills
- Mixed-Ability — groups with a mix of intelligences and achievement levels
- Trios — sets of three students
- Pairs — sets of two students
- Non-Group — individuals
- Whole Group — the whole class
Having the whole group together gives children a sense of community, and a chance to see demonstrations and celebrate. Groups of all sizes are good for collaboration, sharing, and problem-solving. Small groups that meet all the time give children the sense of small families they can turn to for companionship, comfort, and help. Any kind of small group, especially with children of mixed abilities, is good for tutoring, research, projects, and buddy reading. And individuals working alone have a chance for quiet time, uninterrupted reading and writing, responsibility as a learner, self-direction, evaluation and assessment, and personal choice, exploration, and reflection.
How can I keep track of my students' movements?
Try one of the following:
- Give each child a card with icons for each center. When they visit a center, hole-punch the icon on their card, or have them color it. Below is an example from the K-Crew available for download.
- If students can write their names, put a sign-in sheet at each center.
- Use a record book. Put dates, centers, and student names in the book, and when you see a child at a center, mark it off for that day.
- Give each sudent a centers passport. Use real ones for authenticity, or staple sheets of blank white paper in blue folders or blue construction paper folded in half. Put the student's photo inside. When they visit a center, have them put a stamp in their passport (use a different rubber stamp for each center). If you are using a folder, you could also have them put completed work inside.
I modified this idea from Mailbox. I haven't tried it yet but I'm definitely going to.
How can I control the number of students at each center?
Try one of the following:
- Have groups of students rotate centers, either throughout the day or throughout the week.
- Write the centers on a chart. Have students choose centers ahead of time, and write their names underneath. When you see that a center has enough kids in it, tell them that that center is full.
- Color-code the centers. Determine how many students you will allow at each center, and put out that many colored clothespins, badges, bracelets, or necklaces for students to choose from. (They can wear these or put them next to their names on a chart.) When a color is no longer available, that center is full.
- Put a sign at each center with hooks or outlines for the maximum number of children allowed there at a time. When students go to a center, have them hang name tags from the hooks or put clothespins on the outlines. When no spaces are available, that center is full.
- Put a sign at each center with stick figures for the maximum number of children allowed there at a time.
- Put a limited number of chairs or cushions in each center. When no spaces are available, that center is full.
- Make a limited number of cards or strips of paper for each center and have students choose randomly.
- Have half your students go to table centers, and half to floor centers.
How can I display center groupings and rotations?
Try one of the following:
- Use a pocket chart, or affix library pockets to a poster. Put each center name, picture, or color on a pocket. Put each student's name or picture on a popsicle stick/craft stick/tongue depressor. Put the stick for each child in the pocket of the center they will be visiting.
- With two large circles of paper and a paper fastener for the center, make an inner section and an outer section for a wheel. Put center names, pictures, or colors on the inner section, and student names or pictures on the outer section. Rotate the wheel to change centers.
- Make a card for each center with its name, picture, or color. Make a card for each student with his or her name or picture. Affix the center cards to the left side (or the top) of one of the surfaces listed below. Next to (or underneath) each center, affix the card of each student who will be going there. Rotate or rearrange as needed.
To see how I display centers in my classroom, check out my video. And stay tuned for what to put in your centers after the jump.
I realized after I did the video that putting the center colors behind the students' pictures made it confusing when I rotated the centers. I swapped in a black background instead, and added the second centers behind the first ones. You might also notice the popsicle sticks, which I use as markers for the group captain. This is what the board looks like since I fixed it:
What should I put in my centers?
- A sign with the name of the center, if possible.
- A variety of materials for exploration and activities. Bins or shelves should be labeled with words and pictures so children know where to return them. You could also draw or cut out outlines for shelves to show where bigger materials go.
Remember that children have different strengths. They can be word smart, picture and space smart, math smart, people smart, self smart, body smart, music smart, and nature smart, to name a few. Make sure you include materials that play to all of these strengths. Use the spoken and written word, visual aids, numbers and logic, interpersonal learning experiences, opportunities for self-reflection, hands-on learning experiences, rhythm and melody, and things that include all the senses.
- Supplies. All supplies needed for a center should ideally be in that center, rather than centrally located. If they are in separate containers, they should be labeled. I have a bin of supplies for each center. The group captains are in charge of taking the bins to the centers and returning them at clean-up time.
Include different varieties of certain supplies to allow for differences in development. For instance, put in fat kindergarten pencils, intermediate primary pencils, standard No. 2 pencils, and pencil grips; plastic and metal scissors, blunt and sharp scissors, left-handed and right-handed scissors, etc.
- A portfolio of finished work. I have students put finished work in folders (or manila envelopes for centers like Cut & Paste). Every week, they put their work in the back of their folders. This creates a record of work over time. You could have your students store finished work on one side of a folder, and unfinished work on the other side. Larger work such as paintings can be kept in legal-size folders or boxes. For work that can't be kept, such as block constructions and other three-dimensional items, take pictures of those items for their portfolios.
You could have a stack of paper trays, one for each center, labeled with icons. Students can put their work in the trays so you can check it before transferring it to the portfolios.
- A list of rules.
- Lists of directions (with picture cues) for specific activities, if needed.
- Anything that makes the environment inviting and comfortable. Choose colors that create the mood and level of concentration you want your students to have. Add flowers or plants. Balance hard and soft surfaces.
How should I handle the noise level, questions and interruptions, and behavior?
To control the noise level, I use a stop light. Green is for talking voices, yellow is for whisper voices, and red is for silence. You could also use a few seconds of loud and fast music to indicate that loud voices may be used, slow and quiet music for whisper voices or silence, and something in between for talking voices. If your class struggles with noise level, record them on a good day and a bad day to listen to the difference, or use the lights and music to discuss that day's noise level.
I taught my students the sign language signals for "bathroom" and "water" so that when they need to use the bathroom or get a drink of water, they can simply signal to me and I will either nod or shake my head. Your students could also hold up a pass for you to acknowledge in the same way.
Teach your students to help themselves when they have questions or problems. Model how to look around the room for resources such as charts and posters. Let them know that it's okay to find a friend to help, and train them to ask each other before they ask you. Remind your students that they already know how to handle some common problems, like what to do when a pencil breaks.
- Put up a stop sign next to you to signal that unless there is an emergency, students must wait for help.
- Have students indicate their need for help by using a sign-up sheet or a pocket chart with name cards.
- To teach your students about sharing, read the book We Share Everything. The refrain "This is kindergarten. In kindergarten we share everything" is repeated throughout the book and is a good reminder phrase when students forget.
- When children are having trouble getting along, work with them one-on-one or as a whole group to figure out why.
- I use a rain stick five minutes before clean-up, so students can get ready to finish. When it's time to clean up, I ring a bell. The teacher in the room next to mine uses wind chimes.
What should students do when they finish work?
- Work on an extension of the activity, if you have provided one.
- Do a different activity.
- Finish past, unfinished work.
- Move on to a different center, if you are letting them choose.
- Share their work with others who have completed their own work.
There are a few other components of center management, such as transitions, clean-up, and assessments, that I could share with you, but I have provided the basic information you need to know in order to get the ball rolling. It might seem like a lot of work (okay, it is!) but the end result is well worth it. Centers are the best way to help kindergartners and PreK students learn. Small children learn by direct involvement with their environment. Plus, you can give them the best chance possible to succeed by providing a variety of grouping structures, a variety of different types of materials, and a variety of ways to learn a concept by incorporating it into each center. You will not be sorry when you start seeing the fruits of your labor. The payoff is delicious!
Do you have any management tips for learning centers? Let me know in the comments.
Have a manageable weekend!