Why Preschool Centers Are So Important

Setting up centers in preschool and kindergarten classrooms can be a pretty daunting task, especially if it’s your first time doing so. Where do you start? Centers are activities located in specific areas around the classroom, and often, each specific area is also referred to as a center. Children typically work in small groups during center time, and they can also work independently. Centers can be done at one time during the school day, with a variety of center topics available. Centers can also be split up into different parts of the day. For example, literacy centers might be held in the mornings, with art centers after lunch. The decision is based on teacher preference and class schedule.

There are so very many reasons to have centers in early childhood classrooms:

1. Centers help kids grow socially. They navigate interactions with their peers during this time, and it is happening almost constantly. Here are just some of the ways centers help children socially:

  • Kids need to find a way to join in on play that’s already established at one center.
  • Kids need to negotiate the guidelines to what they’ll be doing in the center.
  • One child may want some time to herself at a center, and she needs to express that to her friends.
  • Children constantly work on who is using what material at any given time, and if they’re willing to share that with some friends.
  • When it’s time to clean up, the kids need to divvy up who will be responsible for what task.
  • A child might be struggling with a task he very much wants to do. He can ask a friend for help, a friend could offer to help, or some combination thereof.

2. Centers help kids become more self-aware. In addition to the social aspect of centers, children are learning a lot about themselves at this time. They’re practicing and exploring many important concepts in a safe environment. Here are some examples:

  • Time management is one big part of centers. If your centers last an hour, and a child knows she wants to go to the math center AND the science center that day, she needs to figure out how to accomplish that.
  • An amazing amount of self-regulation is practiced during center time. There is always some friction when children are sharing an area and materials. There’s a back-and-forth that the kids need to navigate, and sometimes that can be frustrating. So the kids have to keep an eye on how they’re talking to their peers, keeping their hands to themselves, and even regulating their own emotions throughout center time.
  • Kids can take the time to explore and figure out what they’re interested in. Since each center should be stocked with different kinds of materials, the children can determine what they like and don’t like.

3. Centers help kids learn. Of course early childhood centers also help children when it comes to early learning skills. As with the social and self development concepts listed above, there are so many ways centers help with early academics:

  • Center time is a safe place to make mistakes. This seems like such a small aspect of the conversation, but it is so very important. Mistakes are a part of the learning process, and center time allows for a low-stress time.
  • Practice makes better! Children get to practice concepts they’ve been taught during centers in preschool. For example, say a child is learning to count to 10. She can explore this concept as she counts the blocks of a structure she made in the block center. Playing with the animal counters in the math center will give her more time to explore the concept. Maybe she and her friends are setting the table for 10 people in the dramatic play center. Yet another chance to meaningfully practice the concept.
  • Kids can also extend early learning concepts. If a child’s mastered the basic AB pattern, maybe he’ll go on to playing with the more complicated ABB pattern. Learning new skills will also crop up while children are playing and learning in centers.
  • And we can’t forget to talk about the language development that happens during center time. Because preschool centers allow children to interact with their peers so much, there is almost constant discussion between kids. Even children who don’t like to talk as much, or who are learning a new language, benefit from this. Speaking, listening, learning new vocabulary, hearing the flow of language, learning how to take turns during a conversation – these are all important language skills.

Below are some examples of centers that an early childhood classroom could include. These are the general centers to have around the classroom, so the specific activities would change based on your theme or project, the time of year, your students’ needs, etc.

Reading Center
A cozy spot set up in the classroom, with a variety of books available for the children to read. Books related to the theme, class-made books, big books, interactive writing charts, and pocket chart poems are just some of the things that can be included in the reading center.

Writing Center
A place where students can practice the various stages of writing. Sometimes this center is “free writing”, with the kiddos deciding what to do. Other times, the activity is teacher-directed. Some ideas include making words with letter tiles, writing in journals, writing in sand, and book-making.

ABC Center
This center allows children to explore letters — how letters look, how they compare to each other, how they combine to form words. If you have a teacher easel with a magnetic white board, that’s perfect for this little center. Sometimes I have the children sort magnetic letters, match uppercase to lowercase letters, make words, write words, work with word families, etc.

Building Center
Having a large spot set-aside for building and creating is an important part of early childhood classrooms. Building can include blocks, racetracks and cars, Legos (although sometimes people keep these in the math or fine motor area), and so many other creative building supplies. The children can have free reign to build whatever they wish, or they can build within certain guidelines. Sometimes I like to give a suggestion to the kids, then let them go.

Dramatic Play Center
A center just for pretend play, some of my kids referred to it as the home center. “Kitchen appliances”, a table, and chairs set the backdrop for this center. Some ideas are acting out favorite stories, running a flower shop, selling produce in a roadside stand, and caring for patients in the ER.

Sensory Center
The sensory center in preschool helps kids focus in on their senses. This center might hold water, rice, shaving cream, beads, straws, dyed corn in a rainbow of colors, and so much more. Ideally, the materials would be rotated so that different senses are explored throughout the year.

Science Center
The science center in preschool helps the children learn to investigate the world around them. I love stocking this center with magnifying glasses, tweezers, and kid-sized safety goggles. Depending on what your class is learning, you might have pumpkins to dissect, rocks, shells, insects to observe, or snake skins in the center.

Math Center
Kiddos use this center in preschool to learn more about shapes, colors, numbers, quantities, and such. Some ideas for this center include playing dice games, sorting jelly beans, matching numeral cards to quantities of items, sorting items, and much more.

Art and Crafts Center
The purpose of this center in preschool is to let the kids explore their creativity. For this center, you might put out art materials the kiddos can use with minimal supervision. Or some days you might introduce a new art technique or material that requires and adult to hang out for most of center time. Students might paint self-portraits, make play dough, or paint with corn cobs. Children might see what happens when they mix different paint colors, or maybe they want to experiment with mixed-media art or sculpture.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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