Early Childhood Centers!

I do not know about you but most of my fondest memories of elementary school revolved around centers time. I LOVED the kitchen area, dramatic play and dressing up, and painting.  Of course, at that time I had no idea how much thought and planning went into the set up and teaching of centers.  It still did not even dawn on me until I had my first Pre-K 3 classroom and let me tell you, that was all it took! I spent so much time filling those shelves with blocks, dress up clothes, books, puzzles, art supplies etc.  In my head we would go to each center kind of like we did in kindergarten and chat about the center and how we transition and what we do in that area.  My real-life experience could not have been more of the opposite. I remember sitting in the parking lot that evening at 6:30 pm crying and eating the lunch that I never got to. In reality, I had not thought about the fact that 98% of my students had never been anywhere besides home, a doctor’s office and maybe a family party.  They had never been in a structured center and there was dumping of toys, running, slipping on puzzle boards and pure chaos.  I had never felt so frazzled in my life.  That’s all it took though and by the next day everything was revamped.  So, let’s talk about the truths behind setting up centers and what it might look like in your early childhood classroom! The following images are a mix of my previous classroom and daycare classrooms that I go into! Centers are everywhere!

What are the benefits of center time?

Centers are so incredible for many reasons.  I cringe when I hear people say things like, “oh it must be nice to just let kids play for so long”.  First, if you have kiddos who have never experienced centers or a structured setting, learning what to do in centers takes a lot of modeling from the adults in the room.  We will get more into that below but not all kids “just play” in centers.  Learning the possibilities behind building, exploring, and expanding play is an actual skill!  Centers time is also great for social emotional skill building.  We learn to communicate with each other, share, take turns, problem solve, balance emotions (happiness, disappointment, anger, etc.) and so much more.  I used to work on many “table skills” in centers.  We don’t only count objects when we are at a table, practice using an AAC device, or read books during teacher time.  Centers is also an amazing time to see how kids are generalizing skills.  Have they learned that when they see a bear in a book that it might also look differently as a puppet in centers and that it’s called a bear?

What should I have in centers?

Centers may vary from school to school depending on access to materials. I worked in a Title One school throughout my career when I was in the classroom. We were always accredited by the state which comes with very strict expectations on what is to be included. Honestly, it was incredibly overwhelming to me the number of things I needed in my centers because for kids just coming in, it was just a lot of dumping. I had to work my way up to the amount for sure so don’t feel bad about this if you do too! Going through accreditation though did show me a lot of amazing possibilities for centers.  We always had literature that connected with each center (i.e.: books on math in the math center, community helpers, brochures, and world maps in others) and the visuals that matched each basket were SO organized which supported independence.  If you are not supplied with a lot, I have never had a problem finding families who have outgrown blocks, puzzles, books, and other things that easily could fill shelves. We also took time around the holidays to make things for our centers which also created more connection between the kids and each area.  For example, during the fall, we made pumpkins for a pumpkin patch stand!

How do I structure centers?

Now we get to the fun (i.e., exhausting part lets be real).  The structure, the expectations, and the teaching of these amazing centers.  In the beginning of the year, I would physically close off centers with a small wall divider or rolling shelf.  This created a visual of “closed” instead of having to constantly redirect kids out of the area.  They were eventually open, but not in the beginning months until my students learned the schedule of the day.  Plus, littles in general are still developing their receptive language skills! Depending on how many students I was starting off with, I may have only a few centers open at a time so that the educational assistant and I could go in model what to do and how to transition. I was never a huge stickler for making kids stay in one area the whole time.  Their attention span is much shorter and if they cleaned up what they were playing with and there was room, we allowed them to switch!  The centers picture on the schedule was a bright green and I had pictures of the actual centers up on a board. The kids would take their picture from a bag and place it where they would like to start off at.  I also always had some kiddos who enjoyed just moving about the room at this time which I also honored.  It is so worth the time up front to teach center time.  Sometimes this was our “work with teacher time”.  I would also bring certain activities and teach them during the “work with teacher time” that way we could practice taking turns, what to do during the activity, and then when it appeared in centers, they were ready!

You must find what works for YOUR kids and you may not know that until you get in there. I do recommend not filling your shelves completely in the beginning (it’s ok that they look bare for now), having physical boundaries to help define areas, visuals for centers choice (even if they end up switching later), visuals of where items belong, and time mapped out to teach these incredible areas! Happy learning!

Gina Russell, B.S , M.Ed
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