LEARNING CENTERS ARE the foundation of your classroom - how well they work makes a big difference to the whole year as you look around the room, review the setup and consider the following suggestions.

Planning and Placement

Learning centers should be small, distinct areas organized according to the activities that take place in them. Some centers can be grouped together successfully (such as the block area near the dramatic-play center so children can share props). Others should be separated because of noise (blocks away from the library) or mess (art away from the manipulatives). Some centers need a large space (such as the blocks), while others are best off in a cozy corner (dramatic play and reading, for instance).

When placing centers, be sure to consider traffic flow patterns. Can children easily move around the room? Do sharp table corners stick out? Will children be running through the painting area with trucks? Think about high-mobility centers (gross-motor) as opposed to low-mobility (writing) or small centers where pairs may work (computer).

Creating Boundaries

It can be too distracting for young children if every center is visible. Try designing some visual barriers between the areas. You can define centers with textured carpet borders on the floor, shelving units, or even decorated refrigerator cartons.

In England, many teachers effectively use hanging scarves or draped fabric to define areas. Twirling Mylar strips can become almost magical dividers.

Stocking Up

Now you're ready to move the furniture and put the learning centers in place. To foster independence, make sure children can find the materials, use them, and return them without assistance. Locate see-through or sturdy storage containers to label. You can further encourage children's self-direction by putting out two chairs at the computer for pair work or four chairs at the art table for play dough action.

As you survey your centers, check to see that there's a balance of surprises and familiar favorites. In selecting materials, try to accommodate children's various learning styles (auditory, tactile, kinesthetic, and visual). Prepare for a wide range of skills and developmental abilities, as well as pair, small group, and individual activities.

Finishing Touches 

Once you've completed a final check of the centers for safety, traffic flow, materials, and organization, go one step further and add another enhancement to each center. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Art

  • Add an assortment of textures such as corrugated cardboard, foil, wallpaper, Mylar, and wax paper.
  • Change the texture of paint at the easel by adding liquid starch, dried coffee grounds, flour, or corn syrup.
  • Surprise children by having sticks, rollers, and feathers along with the brushes!
  • Put in unbreakable hand mirrors to encourage self-portraits.
  • Invite wonderful still lifes by setting up a collection of interesting items. Hang posters of artists' work to spark children's imagination.  

Blocks

  • Include juice cartons, cardboard tubes, and film canisters. Natural props (twigs, small stones, and leaves) are another nice touch.
  • Make some colored plastic tape available to create parking places for wooden trucks or roads for the cars.
  • Provide index cards and markers for making signs.
  • String, pulleys, and other materials can inspire creative machines.

Dramatic Play

  • Collect a variety of containers and packages (reflecting different cultures) from the grocery store or parents.
  • Move the furniture away from the walls to create several rooms (kitchen, bedroom, living room) just like home!
  • Add some large boxes children can turn into TV sets or buildings.
  • Add a bag with diapers, a baby bottle, and a bib for the new parents.
  • Place markers and pads by the phone for taking messages.

Drawing and Writing

  • Set up an assortment of greeting cards, postcards, magazines, and local newspapers to invite children into the world of words.
  • Markers, pens, and pads are essential - and bamboo brush es and paint are a fun change!
  • Find photos and pictures that can offer ideas for great stories.
  • What could be better for inspiring writing than some books! Provide storybooks, picture books, cookbooks, and songbooks.

Science

  • Put out interesting items such as a rain stick, photographer's light box, kaleidoscope, prism, and Rubik's cube.
  • Provide tape recorded sounds of various items being dropped (such as buttons, marbles, coins, rice, and so on). Put out the materials in covered containers for children to match to the sounds.
  • A garden is great for observing, tasting, touching, and smelling.

Library

  • Magazines and coffee table books offer an array of inviting pictures-and expose children to a world of images.
  • Dolls and puppets are fun to read to-and to act out stories with.
  • Be sure to have paper and markers available so children can write their own stories or draw their favorite characters.
  • Make board books of favorite stories with just pictures so children can add their own words.
  • Provide a huge beanbag pillow for shared reading.
  • Don't forget the audiocassette and a collection of books on tape!

Math and Manipulatives

  • Create an individual graph-cube for each child by gluing photos to separate cardboard boxes. Invite children to create three-dimensional bar graphs recording their favorite foods, colors, and so on.
  • Rocks, pinecones, stones, shells, keys, and coins are all great for counting and classifying. An assortment of clocks from old-fashioned to digital offers a new take on numbers.