Learning Centers

The basics of centers - how they work, how to create one, and more

A learning center is a self-contained section of the classroom in which students engage in independent and self-directed learning activities. Get information on learning centers and how to incorporate them in to your instructional routine using this advice.
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Parts of a Learning Center

The following ideas provide you with any number of options to include or consider for a center. It is important to understand that no two centers will ever be or look the same. Centers can range from elaborate displays to a card table set in the back of a room. Establish learning centers as formally or informally as you want—the primary criterion is that they match student interests with curricular needs. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Title. Provide an interesting title that identifies the center as separate from other classroom activities.

  • Furniture. Arrange necessary furniture in a pleasing and productive manner. Decide how you will set up chairs, tables, storage facilities, and the like.

  • Storage. Keep materials in a safe place where they are easily accessible by students.

  • Space. Consider the use of space within the center. Where will the activities take place? Is there a need for independent study? Will large- or small-group instruction take place within the center?

  • Materials. Determine how you will obtain materials. You might be able to obtain materials from parents or the school. You may also want to consider other sources such as local businesses, catalog supply houses, or community agencies.

  • Location. Consider the physical placement and arrangement of centers in your room. Students need to be able to move to and among centers with minimal disruption and time.

  • Responsibility. An important consideration in the development of any center pertains to the responsibilities of students and teacher to the center. For example, students need to know who is responsible for cleaning up, who will be sure there's an adequate supply of consumable materials (paper, paint, soil, water, etc.), who will be in charge of evaluation, and so on.

  • Learning alternatives. Include a variety of learning alternatives within any center. For example, include a variety of tasks ranging from difficult to easy. Also include activities that relate to various students' interests.

  • Instructions. Post a set of directions in each center. Plan time to share and discuss each set of directions and/or routines with students as part of one or more introductory lessons.

  • Sequence of activities. It may be important to consider how activities within a center will be sequenced. That is, will students need to complete one or more specific activities before moving on to more complex activities later?

  • Number of centers. You will need to decide on the number of centers you want to establish in your classroom. Base your decision on your management skills as well as the needs of your students. You might want to start with a single center and, as you and your students gain more competence in designing and using the center, develop additional centers later in the school year.

  • Assignment. Consider assigning students to selected centers as well as offering students opportunities to select centers on their own.

  • Duration of centers. Decide how long a center or group of centers will remain in existence. As a rule of thumb, keep a center in operation only as long as students' interests are high and it meets your program's instructional goals.

  • Management system. You can assure the success of your centers by teaching your students familiar routines (how to move between centers, how to work cooperatively). Devote several weeks at the beginning of the year to teach these routines.

  • Time. Talk with students about the amount of time necessary to engage in or complete the activities within a center. It is not critical for students to complete all the activities within a center.

  • Help! Establish a procedure or routine that will allow students to signal when they are having difficulty with a specific center activity.

  • Assessment. Decide on the nature and form of assessment for the center(s). Will assessment be the responsibility of the students or the teacher? How will it be accomplished—informally (discussions, observations) or formally (skills test, chapter exam)?

Suggested Learning Centers

Here is a partial list of suggested learning centers you might want to consider for your classroom:

Elementary Middle School/Secondary
ABC/Spelling Center Listening Center
Art Center Writing Center
Pocket Chart Center Readers Theatre Center
Free Reading Center Free Reading Center
Storytelling Center Drama Center
Big Book Center Poetry Center
Numbers Center Map and Chart Center
Puzzles/Blocks Center Invention Center
Science Center Biography Center
Water Center Weather Center

As you can see, there is no limit on the type and number of centers possible for your classroom. Take advantage of this instructional tool, and watch students' interest increase.

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