One popular teaching strategy found in classrooms of all grade levels is the use of learning centers. With careful planning and organization, teachers find that learning centers serve as an excellent way to cover a wide amount of curriculum while effectively addressing the individual needs of each child. These carefully planned stations may look like a lot of fun – and indeed, they often are highly engaging – but their usefulness extends far beyond amusement.
Benefits of Learning Centers
- Variety of Useful Applications – The teacher can use the learning center to teach a skill or concept, introduce material that will be needed for a future unit of study, provide opportunities to practice a skill currently being taught, enhance student mastery through review of material that has been covered, use projects to extend a current unit of study, and design “free time” activities that are directly connected to the standards.
- Practice of Valuable Life Skills – Students work independently at learning centers, so they acquire skills – such as time management, staying on task, and prioritizing tasks in a multi-step project – that they will use later in the workplace. To ensure acquisition of these skills, the teacher should always make sure that she carefully explains each center before students use it, and that all students clearly understand correct procedures and behavioral expectations. It’s advisable to model a run-through of how to use the center. Ideally, the teacher includes step-by-step instructions for each activity and posts learning center procedures in a clearly visible spot. Instructions and procedures may include pictures and symbols for younger students.
- Individualized Instruction – Learning centers allow the teacher to include activities in all of the multiple intelligences. She can also encourage student engagement by drawing on what she knows of their interests and making connections to the curriculum; many teachers begin the year with a student interest survey. Other ways that the teacher may use learning centers to individualize instruction include providing different levels of activities at each center, and contracting with each student to complete self-selected (but agreed upon) learning activities to meet his specific needs with regards to the grade-level learning objectives.
- Making the Most of School Day Hours – Once students are familiar with the procedures necessary to work independently at learning centers, the teacher is freed to multitask to make the most of the limited hours in the school day. She can teach large-group and small-group lessons while students who have already mastered the lesson material can work in centers. Additionally, she can work one-on-one with students – this allows for conferencing about ongoing projects, or for assessing individual skills.
- Acknowledging Children’s Need to Move Around – While it is appropriate for students to learn how to sit and work quietly, experienced teachers recognize that children do need to move around. Many children learn best through bodily-kinesthetic ways, and brain research supports the importance of movement in learning. By integrating periods of quiet work with periods of purposeful movement, learning centers can oxygenate the brain for optimized function, enhance the student’s day with variety and novelty, and minimize behavioral problems that can otherwise arise when even the best-behaved children grow fidgety.
Types of Learning Centers
With all the activity that is characteristic of learning centers, the teacher must be very organized. Not only must the center include all necessary materials, it also needs to be situated out of the way so that it does not interfere with other classroom activities. She might use bookshelves or partitions to delineate learning center areas. Each center should have seating and/or table areas that fit the needs of that center; for instance, beanbag chairs may work fine in a reading center, but a science center may require a low table for microscopes or experiments. There should also be reference materials in each center as appropriate; these can be housed in plastic baskets, bins, book carousels, or bookshelves.
There are many different types of learning centers. Which types the teacher chooses to incorporate will depend on such considerations as the grade level of her students, the space constraints of her classroom, her school’s vision and philosophy, her own educational philosophy, and the curriculum content associated with state standards. The following list is certainly not exhaustive, but it does illustrate the broad variety of learning centers that are typically used in classrooms today.
- May also be called something else, such as Literacy Center, Book Nook, or Classroom Library.
- Typical activities include independent reading, quiet buddy reading, or research.
- Components may include a variety of age-appropriate reading materials that are easily accessible via open baskets or other system that the children understand; comfortable seating; and appropriate lighting. Sometimes the center will also include a poster to chart titles or number of books that students have read; library card checkout system; or bookmarks.
- Things that parents can contribute: age-appropriate books; baskets for book display; shelving units; lighting
- May also be called something else, such as Publishing Center.
- Typical activities include writing or typing of school assignments; publication of books, poetry, or newsletters; independent revisions of work in progress; and peer editing in pairs or small groups.
- Components may include computers located nearby for word processing; a variety of writing materials; posters offering reminders for punctuation, capitalization, and grammar; and at least one dictionary and thesaurus. Sometimes the center will also include a binding machine and other book publication materials.
- Things that parents can contribute: paper (all types – lined, unlined, colored, graphing); old typewriter; pens; pencils; colored pencils; erasers
- May also be called something else, such as Calculation Station.
- Typical activities include retrieval of math manipulatives for lessons; projects and games that utilize current and review math skills; quizzing flash cards with a buddy; and checking work.
- Components may include storage for math manipulatives and other supplies; a variety of math tools; and supplies needed to complete tasks. If the teacher has expanded this area for Calendar Time (a common practice in many classrooms), the center will likely include a large area of wall space for the calendar, as well as a carpeted area for whole-group gatherings.
- Things that parents can contribute: tangrams; attribute blocks; buttons or other small items for sorting; geoboards; rubber bands; dominos; dice; flash cards; graph paper; rulers; compasses; calculators; adding machines
- May also be called something else, such as Classroom Laboratory or Health Lab.
- Typical activities include ongoing science experiments; completion of Science Fair projects; and hands-on exploration of topics being studied in class.
- Components may include real-world objects that represent what is being studied in class; models of the human body; and tools suited for the current topic. Ideally, a Science Center is located near a sink.
- Things that parents can contribute: collections of natural items such as seashells, leaves, and rocks; microscope; useful apparatus such as thermometers
Social Studies Center
- May also be called something else, such as History Center or Geography Center.
- Typical activities include map and globe projects; historical or cultural research; and games or projects that extend what is being studied in class.
- Components may include a globe; a large map appropriate for the region of focus; and real-world artifacts that relate to the current unit.
- Things that parents can contribute: maps; artifacts
- May also be called something else, such as Letter Center or Word Works.
- Typical activities include practice of spelling words; alphabet projects; or practice in dictionary skills.
- Components may include materials that will lend novelty to practicing spelling words. These may include sand, in which the student may practice writing letters with his finger; magnetic letters; rubber stamps and inkpads; pipe cleaners or wax sticks for practice with forming letters; and wooden letter blocks.
- Things that parents can contribute: any of the components mentioned above
- May also be called something else, such as Computer Corner.
- Typical activities include practice of keyboarding skills with a good typing program for kids, online Internet research, and the use of word processing to complete projects.
- Components may include the computers that have been allocated to the classroom; one or more printers; and appropriate seating.
- Things that parents can contribute: mouse pads; keyboard masks; earphones
- Note: Parents should check with the teacher before donating software. Licensing constraints or installation policies may prohibit her from using software that has not been purchased and installed by the district.
- May also be called something else, such as Artist Loft or Classroom Studio.
- Typical activities include art projects that relate to the current unit, practice with a variety of media, and implementation of skills and topics in the art curriculum.
- Components may include one or more easels; a variety of art supplies; and a place to dry projects. Like the Science Center, the Art Center should be located near a sink, if possible.
- Things that parents can contribute: Construction paper; butcher paper; newsprint; unlined copy paper; origami paper; aluminum foil; wax paper; yarn; chenille stems (pipe cleaners); google eyes; glue; paste; crayons; pencils; pens; charcoal; pastels; watercolors; finger paints; baby food jars; egg cartons; milk cartons (washed and dried); paint brushes; markers; colored pencils; scissors; fancy scissors (that create a variety of shaped edges); ink pads; stamps; wallpaper sample books; large shirts or paint smocks; play dough; zip-lock baggies of all sizes
- May also be called something else, such as Performance Center.
- This center may be used for free-time dress up or role playing, as well as puppet activities. Students may act out historical simulations from their current social studies lessons, or create a play based on a literature study.
- Things that parents can contribute: clothes or costumes (the fancier the better); uniforms; props; puppets; large appliance box (to make a puppet theater); pegged puppet stand
- Note: Parents should check with the teacher before contributing hats or wigs. Health policies may prohibit her from using them in the classroom.
- May also be called something else, such as Post Office or Message Central.
- A classroom post office promotes writing with a purpose, as well as encourages literacy as students read one another’s messages.
- Things that parents can contribute: adhesive labels; envelopes; pretend stamps (such as those that are used to market book clubs and magazine subscriptions)
- May also be called something else, such as Tape Center or CD Center.
- Many students learn best by listening. This center provides opportunities for listening to books on tape; reading along to the adopted textbook, which often comes with taped versions; and hearing first-hand sounds that tie into the current unit.
- Things that parents can contribute: Personal type or CD players; headphones; books on tape; interesting recordings (such as bird calls or other nature sounds that might tie into curriculum); music recordings (instrumental; classical; or child-centered); poetry recordings
- May also be called something else, such as Performance Center or Rhythm Center.
- If the recordings of a composer or musician currently being studied are available, they should go in the Listening Center instead of the relatively noisier Music Center. This station is normally designed to construct musical instruments and experiment with a variety of patterns, rhythms, and dynamics.
- Things that parents can contribute: empty oatmeal containers (to make drums); child-sized musical instruments appropriate for classroom use (such as xylophones; tambourines; castanets; rhythm instruments
- May also be called something else, such as Blocks Corner or Building Center.
- Students of all ages enjoy constructing things. This center can be used for purposeful free-time activities, or the teacher can assign projects that relate to the current unit.
- Things that parents can contribute: Legos; Tinker Toys; Lincoln Logs; blocks; illustrated books on architecture or bridges
- May also be called something else, such as Strategy Corner or Puzzle Club.
- Most likely, this center will be used for directed free-time activities. Sometimes the teacher will put out games and puzzles that specifically relate to one of the current classroom units.
- Things that parents can contribute: inexpensive chess or checkers sets; jigsaw puzzles; strategy games (like Battleship); playing cards
So, are learning centers all fun and games? Hardly! If your child’s teacher uses learning centers in the classroom, you might ask your young scholar which one is his favorite. His answer will probably provide you with valuable insight into his preferred learning style, interests, and particular areas of aptitude. With that knowledge in hand, you’ll be able to make sure your child’s learning needs are addressed appropriately throughout his educational years.