Centers

I am so happy that you are reading my blog, and I love getting questions or comments.   I truly know there is not one right way to do anything in your classroom, I hope I have said that before.  I am just trying to encourage you to make conscious choices about everything you do, and to be able to explain why you made those choices if any one asks you.

Centers are defined and used in so many different ways.  Through the years I tried lots of different systems, there are pros and cons to almost anything you do.  I don’t think my way is necessarily right, but I would like to share what worked best for me, and why I made these choices.

In my classroom centers were strictly free choice activities.  Everyday there were projects and activities that all children were expected to complete, but at center time they chose where they wanted to go and how long they wanted to stay there.  One of my reasons for this was because I believe that children often feel powerless, all day long people are telling them what to do, and how to do it.   I tried to find as many opportunities as possible to allow them to make choices.  I found that many children are much more cooperative when you ask them to do things, when they are allowed to choose for themselves at other times during the day.  That is a strategy that I think is very important for all children, and we try to allow Owen to make choices as much as possible too!

Some of the materials at my centers remained the same all year long, some I changed.  For example, at the Art center I might add sticky foam or fabric scraps, but there were always paints, fun scissors, paper, markers, etc.   During the course of the year the Math center games would change, but basic materials like unifix cubes and pattern blocks were always there.  I did change materials in the tubs of literacy activities as the children became confident with letters and sounds and moved on to emergent reading.

I am a huge advocate of socio-dramatic play so I had two areas in my room that specifically encouraged this kind of interaction – the Story Telling Cottage and the Play Center.  Of course I know that children also engaged in dramatic play at the blocks, art center, play dough, and lots of other places.  Please check out my posts on play and dramatic play if you’d like to hear more about them.

The Play Center changed throughout the year to things like Mission Control, Driver’s Training Center, Bear Hospital, Dentist Office, Restaurant, etc.  I changed the name of my Housekeeping center to Story Telling Cottage to encourage the children to take on roles and act out a story (usually one they created).   I modeled and got involved in the play at all the centers, at the Story Telling Cottage we talked about how the children might be the Dad or the mailman or the Ballerina, they would need to decide where they were – at the office?  At someone’s house?  I had gotten very tired of the kids just pulling out all the food and dress up clothes, throwing everything on the floor and walking away.  With the changes I made that included reducing lots of the stuff the play really became more meaningful.  Once in a while I might add something to the house, but I usually encouraged the children to think of what they could use or make to enhance their play.

I wanted a system that encouraged children to think about where they wanted to play – not just to wander around the room and look for where their friends were playing.  I also wanted to limit the number of children who could play at each center – mainly because there were limited materials.   I made this Center chart one of the first years I was teaching, and used it about 20 years!

The chart itself was made from a piece of canvas that I bought at JoAnn Fabrics – I think it is used for lawn chairs.  I left the selvage edges on the sides, but hemmed the bottom on my sewing machine and made a simple casing at the top, I put a yardstick through that casing and held it up on the magnetic chalkboard with Magnet Men.

My centers were color coded.  Around the classroom I suspended a different colored sign from the ceiling over each center.  I went to a bunch of stores to find all different colors of posterboard, I made a few out of construction paper but they faded very fast.  Then I made simple signs with recognizable pictures to label each center.  These pictures were posted on the suspended signs, and I made tiny reproductions of the identical signs for the center chart.

I didn’t save a copy of my original center signs, but I made a few you might be able to use.  There are lots available on the internet, check out Environments!

center charts

Here are small versions:

Small chart

You can easily make your own center signs using clipart – or Google Images.  I had purchased some really cute signs with little animals using materials at each center, but I decided I liked the very simple ones better.

I glued the small version of the center charts onto 3 x 5 cards (or posterboard cut that size).  The colors on the chart matched the colors hanging over the centers, and so did the signs.  Then I bought heavy clear plastic that is sold by the yard at fabric stores.  I cut the plastic into pieces about 5 1/2 by 8 inches, one piece for each center.  Then I folded the plastic in half and zigzag stitched them onto the  canvas chart.  They were the right size to slip the cards into, and they lifted up so we could clip matching colored clothespins onto the bottom of the plastic.    I hope this makes sense!

I bought plain clothespins and lots of cheap spray paint.  I just put the clothespins on newspaper and sprayed them.  The paint lasted for years and I repainted most of the clothespins to be fresh each school year.  The children would come to the chart, look for where there were available clothespins, take one and clip it onto their shirt – then go to the center.  If they wanted to go to a different center they would return to the chart, replace that clothespin and take another.

Of course there are always little issues –  I painted extra clothespins because occasionally a child would forget to put one back and take it home.  They sometimes got lost at centers, they sometimes slid apart and I became an expert at putting that little spring back in.  One year I had a class that would hide a highly desirable color of clothespin so they could use it again!  But in general I really liked this system.  I could close a center by removing the clothespins,  or add extra clothespins if I wanted to.

I did not formally keep track of which centers children chose, or how long they stayed there – except when I opened a new play center.  All the kids usually were anxious to go there, so I usually put up a class list and checked them off until everyone had a turn, then it was open for anyone.  There were some children who consistently wanted to play at the blocks or the doll house, but they didn’t always get first choice of clothespins.  I did keep informal notes about where kids chose to play, parents often asked and it gave me interesting information too.  There were a few less popular centers – and that differed from year to year. I found that where the center was located in the room sometimes made a difference in how popular it was.

I knew the children were learning at the centers because I provided appropriate materials, and interacted in their play; but I did not have an agenda or specific goal for these centers so I didn’t worry about what they chose.  BUT I did spend time making Math games, which were part of our Math program, and literacy games and I wanted children to use them!  So there were times during the day that the children could ONLY choose math activities or ONLY literacy activities.  I had a specific set of shelves that contained about 8-10 tubs of materials for Math and another set for Literacy stuff.  During these times the children still got to make choices about what to play with, but all the choices were math, or all the choices were literacy.  Usually I would have center time during the morning, and during an afternoon choice time I would tell them only math or only literacy.

Center time was just one part of our day – but I think it is important to value play by interacting with the children and making this time a consistent part of your schedule.  I know there are so many curriculum demands, but with the luxury of full day kindergarten I felt like I had time to do it all – Reader’s Workshop, Writing Workshop, Everyday Math, whole group and small group directed activities, and still have time for centers.  I think it is important to be able to tell parents and administrators why you value centers and play time.  I posted this chart in my room.

Printable copy:

Kindergarten Centers

There is a lot of research about how children learn, and how important it is for them to have sufficient time for free choice play activities.  Center time is a highlight of a long day for many children.  It is a time for every child to be successful and joyful.  If you feel pressure to leave this out of your day, I think it is our responsibility as advocates for young children to educate and explain what we know is best for our kids!

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sandra
    Aug 03, 2011 @ 09:53:21

    I recently discovered your site and I love it. You offer lots of ideas and advice and I feel that we are just sitting and having a conversation over tea! I have only been teaching K for the last 4 years and it is nice to have some confirmation of my beliefs as well as opportunities to think about ideas from a different perspective. Please continue to update your site.

    Reply

    • dbsenk
      Aug 03, 2011 @ 14:49:23

      I loved your comments Sandra, I wish we could sit and chat over tea! Talking about Kindergarten and children is one of my very favorite things to do! I think most kindergarten teachers are kindred spirits! Teaching can be quite isolating – you are closed in your own little room all day, and in many cases you don’t have a lot of contact with teachers of older grades. There just isn’t time at school to sit and talk! I know I liked going to workshops and meetings that validated what I was doing and gave me new ideas. Thank you for reading – and writing!

      Reply

  2. Linda in NH
    Aug 03, 2011 @ 10:38:49

    Hi Diane… Would you please send me the dimensions of the puppet castle??????????
    Many thanks……………
    Linda
    cgfmom4@yahoo.com

    Reply

    • dbsenk
      Aug 03, 2011 @ 14:37:26

      My castle is 74 inches tall. Each side is 16 inches wide. The top door which is on the back side of the castle is almost 26 inches tall. The bottom door is almost 48 inches tall. When my husband built it I had to decide which way the doors should open. I kept mine close to the wall because I didn’t want the children to see inside when I opened the doors, I had to decide which side of the castle I wanted to stand on to open the doors. The front and sides of the castle were decorated – the front has a pretend castle door that is painted gold and rounded at the top. On the sides my daughter in law painted Nursery Rhyme scenes on plastic that is cut to look like stained glass. Inside the castle the shelves are about 12 inches apart. There are 2 shelves inside when you open the top door, and 4 shelves in the bottom. Hope this helps – sorry my first email got lost in cyberspace! I’m sure I hit a wrong button somehow!

      Reply

  3. Lisa
    Aug 03, 2011 @ 12:12:40

    Thank you so much for the ideas! I loved your comment about how important play is especially in the socio-dramatic areas. I took initiative this year to speak with our principal about the importance of this area. We still have the blue fort, but other than that the play area in our centrum was looking rather run down. So I wrote a proposal to our PTA for new play equipment and it passed (we were given $2500 to spend)! I can’t wait to get in there and start setting up all of our new things!

    Reply

    • dbsenk
      Aug 03, 2011 @ 14:44:19

      How exciting! It is wonderful to have such supportive parents! We were very lucky at Country Oaks too, but I never thought to ask about this kind of equipment – I just asked my husband to make it. He often called teaching my expensive hobby! He also always needed to buy some kind of new tool every time he made something for my classroom! I love hearing from you!

      Reply

  4. Katie
    Aug 03, 2011 @ 12:57:36

    Thanks for your ideas about centers. I have a small class and am going to try your system! Kate

    Reply

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