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?