Centers: Creating Choices for Play

by Morgan Alber 8 days ago in how to

Learning while Playing

Centers: Creating Choices for Play

Centers are important for many reasons but the foremost among them is the important work of play. Children learn about the world and are able to process that information by playing. They learn early concepts of math, reading, writing and social roles by playing. Play is our work in preschool.

Children need opportunities to be in charge of their activities. They need to prioritize and plan their day. Having the choice of organized centers is as important as the centers themselves.

Organizing the classroom or playroom into centers helps the children keep track of where things belong, it makes it easier to see what the individual children are interested in, it separates noisy activities from quiet ones, and it helps keep the traffic flowing smoothly as the children move around the room.

I had some small posters that I hung up explaining each center. I wish I remembered where they came from. If anyone knows, please send me an email so that I can give them credit. The sayings from the posters are in quotes. The centers I found the most useful were the following:

Discovery (Math and Science)

“I am learning:

  • Analytical thinking
  • Logic
  • Problem solving
  • Beginning number concepts
  • Appreciation of nature
  • My five senses
  • Exploring and experiencing”

This area was a quiet corner with shelves that held a variety of objects to explore. I brought in seashells, pine cones, pretty rocks, magnets, plants, dried flowers, dead butterflies, magnifying glasses, and prisms. There were also baskets of wooden numbers, small blocks, number puzzles, sets of bears that were different sizes, and other small objects to explore.

A little girl spent a lot of time in this center. Although she was uninterested in writing or learning the letters in her name, she was fascinated by the alphabet blocks and wooden numbers set. She liked to play by herself and made patterns and towers with wooden numbers and letters. She also loved the exploring the science materials. She especially liked the plants and seashells. She didn’t talk much and was quite content to work on her own.

Library Center

“I am learning:

  • Foundations for reading
  • Love and respect for books
  • Foundations for Writing
  • Speaking and listening skills
  • Visual discrimination”

In this center I kept a rotating set of books that reflected activities that were going on in the classroom. For example, in the Fall I set out lots of books out about going to school, families, autumn leaves, animal hibernation, harvesting, Halloween, and other books that reflected that time of year. I also kept writing materials and paper nearby so the children could write and draw their own stories.

One year I had a little girl that was fascinated by books. As the year progressed, she not only asked us to read every book she could get her hands on, she also asked us to write down her own stories. She told a lot of stories about her family, school, friends and fantasy stories about princesses and dragons.

She taught herself how to fold paper and staple it into little books that she then illustrated. She soon started to copy letters into her books and no longer asked us to write the stories, she wrote them herself with a mix of letters and shapes.

The other children began to watch her work and she taught them how to make books as well. All this came about because the materials were available in an organized center. She took what we taught her by reading to her and writing her dictated stories and ran with it. She then shared what she learned with her friends essentially becoming the teacher. This is what happens when the children have free time to use the materials, they challenge themselves to take that next step when they are ready to do it.

Art Center

“I am learning:

  • Eye-hand coordination
  • Fine motor control
  • Shape, color, and texture
  • Creativity
  • Expression of my feelings”

The best place to locate the art center is on a bare wood, tile or linoleum floor that is easy to clean, because it is the messy center! Here I kept a large upright easel stocked with tempra paints, paper and brushes. There was a small table with playdough and kitchen tools, a large table with an art project of the day going on, and space to pull out the collage box and glue.

The key phrase here is “Process, not product!” Meaning that the value of the child’s work is in the process of creating, not in what the product looks like when he or she is finished.

One year I had a little girl that just loved paint. She spent every morning at the easel. She did a lot of two-handed painting, one big brush in each hand. Most of her paintings ended up being the color of mud, but they were beautiful expressions of her enthusiasm. She also liked to use her hands. Although, we frequently put out the finger paint and let the children sit at the table with really large sheets of paper, it wasn’t often enough for this little one. We frequently found her at the easel with tempra paint to her elbows as she enthusiastically smeared handfuls of paint on her paper. She knew somehow that she needed that tactile experience and the larger movements of her hands and arms. I was amazed at how many paintings she would complete in a morning.

Games and Puzzles

“I am learning:

  • Self-discipline to finish a task
  • Cooperation with other
  • Foundations for math
  • Rules and limits
  • Social/emotional development”

This area was a continuation of the shelves used for the science and discovery center. Here I had simple memory games, puzzles, small toys and games that could be played alone or with a friend. The children needed a lot of adult interaction in order to play a game with rules and objectives. The older children (four or five-year olds) loved the challenge and would often request that the teacher play with them. They learned a lot of social skills like taking turns, being polite, being a good sport, counting and listening to directions.

Blocks and Manipulatives

“I am learning:

  • Large and fine muscle control
  • Visual discrimination
  • Problem solving
  • Foundations for math
  • Planning and creativity
  • Self-discipline
  • Cooperation”

Here I kept both the small set of blocks and the large hollow blocks along with some cars and trucks, little people, a train set and some Lincoln logs. I always kept the blocks center next to the dramatic play center because the children often used the blocks to build house or beds for the dolls and stuffed animals in the dramatic play center. The blocks were kept on open shelves so the children could easily see what they needed for their projects. There was a large open space on the carpet in front of the shelves with room for several children to build and drive the little cars and trucks around. They did very elaborate building projects.

A favorite activity was to stack the blocks until the stack was as high as the child was tall. This took a lot of discipline since gravity had a way of sneaking in there and tumbling the blocks to the ground before it was as tall as the child wanted it. It was a huge celebration when they managed to build that stack as high as they were.

The children also built representations of houses, farms, towns and roads. One day several children got together and used the big, hollow blocks to build an airplane. They took the globe with them so they wouldn’t get lost and traveled all over the world.

Dramatic Play

“I am learning:

  • Language development
  • Planning
  • Problem solving
  • Classification skills
  • Social development
  • Emotional development”

The dramatic play area had a small play kitchen, a baby bed full of dolls and stuffed animals, dress up clothes, hats, baby blankets, lengths of material, play shoes, masks, puppets, dishes, brooms, mops and other things to use to pretend. Here the children learned to be Mommies and Daddies. Learned to keep house, dressed up as firemen, sheriffs and princesses and worked out all of the problems associated with life.

After the sheriff came to visit one day, the children put on old band hats that they decided were “cop” hats and played cops and robbers. They used soft lengths of yarn to tie up the bad guys. Then they switched sides, the robbers were the cops and the cops became robbers. Then the house caught on fire so the cops and the fire fighters all ran to put out the fire and save the babies. Boy, was it a busy morning! I think the house burned down a half dozen times. Fortunately, the sheriff and the fire fighters were all on hand to save the baby dolls and each other and no one was hurt.

I learned so much about the children by playing with them in the dramatic play area. They reenacted scenes from home, from books and movies and stories that they made up on the spot. The negotiations to decide who would play which character rivaled those led by world leaders.

I found it interesting that the children who spent the most time in the dramatic play area were often the ones that I knew lived on the most isolated ranches. The only children and the ones that lived far from cousins needed that social play. Their brains knew they needed to learn to play with other children, so that is what they did.

Children who lived with large families or closer to town where they had more opportunities to play with other children did not spend as much time in that area. Their brains were ready for something else, so the majority of their time was spent in the art, math or science centers. Observing the children gave so many clues to what they needed, what their brains were ready to learn. It made it easy to design lesson plans that would help them along on each of their learning journeys.

The last special area I had in the classroom was the sensory or water table. This was a large table with a shallow tub that had a drain at one end so it could be filled with water and easily drained out and washed. I used that table for so much more than water. At different times I filled it with bubble solution, water, cornmeal and beans, shaving cream, dinosaurs, whales, gravel, sand, popcorn kernels, measuring cups and spoons, anything I could think of that needed its one special spot. Sometimes I filled it with a mixture of cornmeal, and many different kinds of beans such as black beans, split peas, pinto beans, white beans, lima beans etc. This gave the children a lot of different textures and different things to sort and classify. I used to draw shapes, letters and numbers on the big, white lima beans and then help the children find them.

I always tried to link our activities in the centers and in the sensory table to what was happening in the world. Such as putting blue water and lots of different plastic whales in the table during the humpback whales’ migration in the fall and spring. At the same time, I would put out the books on whales so we could read about them.

The fire man hats were in the dramatic play area during October which is fire safety month. I also invited our local fire fighters to come and visit. Again, I would set books about firefighters out in the library.

The centers should not be static, but should reflect the different interests that the children express and should reflect real life activities, holidays and seasons.

Centers can be created on a smaller scale at home. A large shallow tub can be used instead of the fancier water table. Paint and playdough can be brought out regularly and blocks, puzzles and things found outside in nature can be placed on shelves alongside the books. Dress up clothes, dolls and stuffed animals are easy to keep within reach for the children to play with and you can take the children to visit a fire station a library or a museum.

Have fun creating these special centers for the children. Then step back and watch the amazing growth and learning that takes place as the children play.

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Morgan Alber
Morgan Alber
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