How to Plan Effective, Engaging and Appropriate Centers

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When I was in college I heard all about centers and how fun they were.  I observed in classrooms where centers where place throughout the environment. Until I got my own classroom, I never really understood the effect that centers had a on a classroom setting.  I didn’t truly get how centers help children learn skills that I virtually couldn’t teach them.  This article will explain how to effectively plan and implement engaging and developmentally appropriate centers in the early childhood classroom.

1) Planning is the key to building a successful center area. Make a list of centers that you want to include in your classroom. Decide how large of an area you will need and where in the classroom the center area will be placed.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  1. Is the center developmentally appropriate for the age level of child I am working with?
  2. Why do I want this center in my classroom?
  3. How will children learn in this area?
  4. What will children learn in this area?
  5. Will I want to change this center out throughout the year?
  6. Where will I find the funds to buy materials for each center?
  7. Why am I putting this center here?  Should it be located somewhere else? (sometimes this is trial and error, loud centers vs quiet centers, messy centers located near a sink etc)
  8. What will your rules and expectations be? (structured/unstructured/free-choice/clean up)
    2) Organization
    : you will need to being collecting/buying materials that each center will have in it.  Remember you may change centers out so you will need to have storage for materials that are not being used.  (Storage examples: boxes, plastic tubs, shelves, closets, baskets).  Ensure that you always have an abundance of materials in each center so children do not run out.  You want children to be able to run the center on their own without needing your assistance.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Are the materials developmentally appropriate for the age of child I am working with?
  2. Will children understand how to use the materials in the center area? Remember children will be working alone, usually, or in small group.
  3. Are the materials in the center stored to where children can reach them?
  4. Is it easy for children to clean up the materials in the area?
  5. How many children will be in this center area at one time?  Make sure you have it labeled appropriately with the number, number word, or cut outs of children/stars/hearts (whatever you want to symbolize the number) to show how many students can be in the center at once.  
  6. Will I have enough materials for this amount of students at one time?
  7. Can students move from one center to another? Or do they have to stay and play in the same center?
  8. What will be the procedure for transitioning to a new center if they want to leave the center they are currently in?  (will they need to clean up what they are playing with?  Clean up their area?)

    Feel overwhelmed? Take a step back and Understand Why Centers are Important in the Early Childhood Classroom!

    3) Introduction: this happens after your centers are all set up and ready for children to engage in them.  Introduce 2 centers at a time in the beginning.  Continue to add 2 or so, when you see children are understanding what and how to learn and interact at each center.

In your introduction:

  1. Tell the title of the center, and how many children are allowed in the center at once. (show them the symbol or number that represents the number of students allowed to play)
  2. Go through the rules and expectations (free-choice/structured/non-structured/clean up etc)
  3. Show them how to interact with the materials, show them what the center is about. Keep in mind what you are wanting the students to learn or get out of the center you are introducing.
  4. Teach the procedure of transition:  Play your Clean up song-this should be the same song every day,  and played when you want them to begin cleaning up their center.  

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE: it may feel strange allowing children to play in a center and then practice cleaning up. But, if you do this in the beginning your center time will run more smoothly.  Then after the first week or so, you will be practicing with several centers until you have them all introduced and incorporated into your daily center time.

Next, after you have introduced the center and how to clean up teach the transition to the next activity, such as sit on the carpet criss cross apple sauce until all of our friends have joined us for reading time.

Some of the important things to think about are:

  • Free-Choice/Structured/Un-structured/Teacher Choice
  • What curriculum does each center cover?
  • What skills are they working on?
  • How will you defend your center areas to an administrator or parent that says you are only having children play all day?

Some centers that allow you to teach numerous concepts and allow children to learn through play, role-modeling and trial and error are:

  1. Blocks
  2. Housekeeping
  3. Writing
  4. Art
  5. Math
  6. Literacy
  7. Fine Motor
  8. Gross Motor
  9. Sand and Water Table/beans, packing materials, dirt, worms
  10. Miscellaneous
  11. Library

While children are at centers teachers have several choices. They can monitor the centers, scaffold, question, watch, listen and assess.  Or, you can have small groups of children or one-on-one meetings, where you are working on specific skills and curriculum while assessing and documenting. You can even ask a parent volunteer or if you have a teacher’s aide to come in and have an art center happening where each child is making something special to hang up in the classroom. They can even work on art ideas that go with the curriculum you are teaching.

If you are just throwing around the idea of setting up centers it is a lot of time and work, but it is totally worth your time and your child’s learning if you incorporate them correctly. Make sure you are planning, you are organized and you have an idea of the goal you are reaching for. Good luck!


This guest post was written by Tisha Shipley. Tisha has a doctorate of education in Curriculum and Instruction and has taught multiple grade levels at Moore Public Schools, including pre–K and gifted 3rd–6th graders.

You can find Tisha online in these places:

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