Before you move a chair, plan an activity, or think about grouping, take some time to think about grouping, take some time to think about learning centers. What are learning centers and how do you want to use them in your classroom? By developing a clear idea of what you hope to gain from using learning centers, you'll help ensure a meaningful experience for you and your students.

What is a Learning Center?

When I first started exploring learning centers, I discovered many terms used interchangeably with learning centers, for example: learning stations, activity time, free choice, and interest centers. With each came a different definition, causing some some confusion at the onset. I soon realized, though, that there was no one definition of a learning center.

Instead of focusing on others definitions and terms, my task was to form a definition that would coincide with how I intended to use learning centers. For me, a learning center is a small area within the classroom where students work alone or interact with others, using instructional materials to explore one or more subject areas. It is a place where a variety of activities introduce, reinforce, and/or extend learning, often without the assistance of the classroom teacher.

As you reflect on your instructional needs and your vision for your classroom, you'll start to see the range of possibilities in learning centers and to develop your own definition of learning centers, which may be a variation of the ones I've shared here.

The First Week

Questions asked and answered, furniture in place, centers set up. You're ready for your students! Whether you're implementing learning centers at the beginning of a school year or midway through, you can get your centers off to a smooth start by tackling some common first-week frustrations before they occur. The tips, activities, strategies, and mini-lessons that follow address a range of needs — from attending to finishing touches to teaching students how to work more independently.

Before Students Arrive

Get ready for your first day with learning centers by taking a trial run yourself. The following checklist can help you make sure your room is ready to go.

  • Color-coded name tags
    I began by dividing the class into four groups, equal in size and balanced in gender. I made name tags using four colors, one for each group. If you're implementing centers at the start of the school year, you can place these name tags on the door along with a welcome sign.
  • First-day activities
    I selected activities for the four centers, choosing activities that students would be able to complete without my assistance and those that would help students get to know one another. These types of activities will also enable you to focus more attention on management.
  • Schedule board
    I wanted students to being using a schedule board from day one. To reinforce the groupings, match schedule board card colors to the color-coded name tags.
  • Tote trays
    Label students' tote trays so that they know where to store their belongings. This is especially important if separate students desks are no longer part of your class design.
  • Letter home
    I wrote a letter to parents sharing my view of teaching, describing how the room would be organized this year, and explaining the way learning centers work. You can adapt the letter for the time of year you start using centers and to reflect your own way of teaching. Letters like these encourage parents to be informed and involved from the beginning — an important factor in students' success.

Sample Letter to Parents

Dear ,

Welcome to second grade! My name is Michael Opitz and I am writing you this letter to tell you a little bit about your child's classroom this year.

I believe that all children can and want to learn. As a teacher, my main goal is to help your child learn to be an independent, lifelong learner. To reach this goal, I will meet your child from where he/she is at and guide him/her as far as possible, planning very carefully so that your child can feel challenged without unnecessary frustration. Teaching children that their best efforts are essential when completing a task is another goal. I want your child to develop and maintain an "I can and will try" attitude. I feel this attitude enables success.

To accomplish my goals, I use learning centers. Your child will be completing activities and projects in centers around the room, each designed to focus on a different area, such as writing and listening. In addition to teaching academics, learning centers provide opportunities for children to learn other important skills, such as responsibilitiy, decision-making, and self-evaluation.

Your question may well be "Does this approach work?" My answer is "Yes!" Learning centers are more than an engaging way to teach and learn. By offering a variety of activities that draw on different strengths, learning centers help give all students a chance to learn in a way that best suits them.

I am constantly perfecting the centers as I continue to grow. I welcome any suggestions, help, and material you would like to offer as your support your child's learning experience. I'm looking forward to meeting you at open house. Your child will be able to explain our learning centers to you and I will be happy to answer any questions you have.

It's my pleasure to work with your child. I'm looking forward to a year filled with learning!


Michael F. Opitz

Excerpted from Michael Opitz' book Learning Centers: Getting Them Started, Keeping them Going.