5 Tips for Managing Learning Centers

5 Tips for Managing Learning Centers

          Do you avoid using learning centers? Or struggle to get the children to work independently? Wish the children stayed on task better? You’re not alone. Managing centers or work stations can be quite complicated but today I’ll share some tips for making things go more smoothly:

1. Plan the Structure. Learning centers can range on a continuum from very structured to very open. At the open end of the continuum, children can choose their own center, how long they work there, and who they work with. This model is more common in preschool and kindergarten, and yet it helps children learn to make good choices, take responsibility, and learn to make social connections. (Here’s a review of research on preparing kindergarteners for learning centers.) On the other end of the continuum are structures in which children are assigned to a group which rotates through a sequence of centers that are assigned. The advantage of this model is that you can be sure all the children get the content exposure of each center. Here’s a video example of structured planning. The disadvantage is that children don’t get opportunities to learn to make choices. Many primary grade teachers use a combination of these models in which children are required to complete activities in one or two centers, but then get choices of other centers.  

2. Prepare the Centers. Be sure all materials are ready and that there are directions for the activities (pictures for younger children, task cards for children who are readers). Centers don’t have to be separate locations around the room – most rooms are not big enough for this. Consider baskets or other containers to hold sets of materials. Groups of desks can be different centers, or children can work on small carpet squares.

3. Teach Procedures. Don’t assume the children know what to do or how you want them to work. Break down the steps and teach each step by modeling it and having the kids practice. Here are some guiding questions:

  • Where does each child go?
  • What do they do when they get there?
  • What do they do if they need help?
  • How do they know if it’s too noisy?
  • Where do they put their work when they are done?
  • What do they do if they finish early?
  • How do they know where to go next?
Here are a couple of great videos: one shows center time transitions in kindergarten and the other shows center time planning in fifth grade.
4. Set Boundaries. If you are planning to work with children during center time, such as guided reading groups, or one-on-one instruction, you need to set boundaries on your attention so you are not continually interrupted. First, be sure to plan activities at centers that children can do WITHOUT adult help. Teach children what to do if they need help. Here’s a great little video showing the “Ask 3 Before Me” rule in one classroom. You could also put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign to remind children not to interrupt. Be sure to teach the children what a real emergency is, however, so they know when it’s alright to get your attention. It is also helpful to have a specific spot in the room that is the “teacher table” so children learn to avoid that area when moving in the room.
5. Hold Children Accountable. Children will be more likely to stay on task if they know you will review their work, or that there is a purpose to their activities. You can collect their papers in folders, have children write their work in Center Time journals, or schedule a presentation time on Fridays during which time the children share the work they’ve done all week.
Using learning centers takes planning and preparation, however the payoff is worth it. Children get important opportunities for developing independence and task persistence, while teachers get invaluable time to individualize instruction. Let us know what techniques have worked the best for you in managing centers!