Learning Centers

Providing a Wide Variety of Learning Activities

Learning centers can help meet the diverse needs and skill levels of young children. Children learn by doing. They actively construct knowledge by interacting with the world around them. Teachers can facilitate learning by providing organized centers that encourage independent activity. Learning centers enable the early childhood teacher to work with individual children or small groups of children on specific skills while the rest of the class are actively learning. Learning centers can be offered in all content areas, on a variety of levels. Students can work independently, or in small groups.

Learning centers can provide necessary review of basic skills such as creating word families, or practicing math facts. But learning centers can also be used to develop essential content vocabulary, provide opportunity for student research, and simultaneously enrich learning for every student. In classrooms that integrate content themes into dramatic play with six- to eight-year-olds, sophisticated productions of reading, writing, and oral language result. Learning centers do not need to be complex or expensive. They can be structured activities with a specific sequence of tasks, or open-ended materials that stimulate student creativity and oral vocabulary. Teachers introduce materials and how to use any tools. Materials should support learning from initial explorations to mastery levels. Centers are best organized not only to promote order and ease of cleanup, but more importantly, to support independent activity in content areas that will strengthen the students’ understanding of vital skills.

Teachers should assess the needs of the students and let those needs dictate the learning centers. Young children learn best when they are able to make real life connections and apply the skills they are learning in the classroom. Years ago, early childhood teachers recognized the importance of math tubs to explore numbers and operations. Learning centers can be equally successful in promoting literacy. Literacy centers increase the number of children participating in vocabulary development, functional writing and informational reading.

Student motivation is increased through activities that offer opportunities for collaboration. Children benefit from opportunities not only to work independently on a learning center, but also to work cooperatively with other students, and to talk with peers about the variety of ways a problem could be solved. Child-initiated learning activities seem to help children develop their social responsibility and interpersonal skills so they become more intellectually and socially competent. It is difficult to provide these rich learning experiences if all classroom teaching is group and teacher directed.

Teachers must be able to articulate key skills being learned at each center and to evaluate the success of that learning center in promoting key skill development. Center signs can help identify learning goals and pertinent questions for parent volunteers, classroom aids, and visitors. The pertinent questions can take students forward in their thinking, and provide scaffolding for students beginning to build their own understanding. As problems arise, students can participate in helping to write suggestions or rules for using a center. This helps all students learn to plan and implement solutions to problems.

It is helpful for teachers to share ideas and learning centers with other teachers on their grade level. It can save preparation time and promote quality learning centers. Students and parents can also contribute ideas and materials for learning centers. Collections of items found in nature, excess supplies from businesses, logos from the community, local maps etc., can all be collected at little or no cost.

Learning centers can facilitate learning by providing opportunities that challenge students to accept and share responsibility for their own learning. They can help students learn to focus and actively learn, share, and explore concepts at their own pace. Children need time and encouragement to reflect on and communicate their understanding. By writing, speaking, and drawing what they did and what they learned, students develop a deeper understanding of all content areas.

Pappas, C., Kiefer, B., & Levstick, L. (1995). An Integrated Language Perspective in the Elementary School Theory into Action. New York:

Brandt, D. (1990). Literacy As Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers, and Texts. Carbondale, Illinois; Southern Illinois University Press.

Isbell, R. (1995). The Complete Learning Center Book. Beltsville, Maryland: Gryphon House, Inc.

Materials Lists

Learning Centers can provide real life application for skills acquired through direct instruction. Learning centers are most productive when designed to correlate with key skills being taught in a content area. Teachers must be able to articulate the skills and strategies taught at each learning center. It is helpful to post charts describing essential skills enhanced at each learning center, and pertinent questions that can enhance student learning. These charts provide parent volunteers, classroom aides, and even the classroom teacher with the focus for each learning center.

Math Centers
Recognizing, Reading, and Writing Numbers Learning to Count and Compute
pocket chart and number cards
plastic number tiles
number stencils
number books
blank cards, blank books
whiteboard and markers
laminated numbers for tracing
number path or numbered
stepping stones
number concentration cards
overhead number boards
magnetic numbers, magnetic
individual number lines
number lines with slides to
cover numbers
number/set cards
class number line—large
enough to step on
number stamps, ink pads
number word cards with
numeral on back
adding machine tape
sticky notes
number templates
100’s chart
blank number clubs—write to
ten, twenty, etc.
counter tubs and bowls
buttons, beads, teddy bear
bingo spinner
counting chips
unifix cubes
beads and laces
unifix cube stair grids
Connect Four
Phase 10
Go Fish, Old Maid, Crazy 8’s
Learning About Money Investigating Measuring
magnetic coins, metal board
paper money
creative drama (ice cream
store, pizzaria)
menus, order signs
overhead coins
money stamps, ink pad
plastic money
cash register
blank receipt books
grocery ads, department
store ads
measuring tape
measuring spoons, cups
height chart
indoor and outdoor
graduated cylinders
barometer, anemometer
rulers, yardsticks
large display timer
retractable measuring tape
balance scales, junk to compare weight
weight chart
bath scales, digital scales
rain gauge
hem marker
measuring cups
trough with rice, water, etc.
stacking cups
graphs, weather charts,
attendance charts, maps,
number charts, lunch charts
Learning About Time Exploring Geometric Shapes
geometric plastic forms
shape templates (can cut shapes
out of whip cream lids)
shape sponges, paint
fraction tiles
geometric foam or wooden
pattern block stamps
fraction rubber stamps
fraction pie circles
polygon shapes
fraction squares, circles
compass, tangram puzzles
color tiles
magnetic shapes
geoboards, bands, and
geoboard patterns
pattern blocks
attribute blocks
1/2 inch and one-inch graph
analog clock
digital clock
Judy clocks
minute timers, oil timers,
egg timers
clock stamp and ink pad
free calendars from businesses
blank calendars to fill in
old clock to take apart with screw drivers
blank clock sheets
overhead clocks
yearly calendars
Children’s Games Using Numbers Block Center
playing cards
Go Fish
Old Maid
Crazy 8
Chutes and Ladders
Hi Ho Cherry O!
shape labels for blocks
paper of various sizes
masking tape
picture album of previously constructed structures with labels
graph paper to draft possible
graph paper to trace block shapes onto
multicultural people
mirrors, small, hinged, one large to build on
(at least 340 blocks)
floor equipment (e.g., barn,
dollhouse, etc.)
shelving at the child’s level
cars, trucks, ramps
Social Studies Centers
Creative Drama Center Library Center
TV Guide, magazines
daily newspapers, grocery ads
recipe books or cards
measuring spoons and cups
play money
food cans, boxes with labels
phone, phonebook
class addresses and phone
number booklet
doll bed
kitchen set, cooking utensils
paper, pencils
small table and chairs
plates, cups, silverware
non-breakable mirror
multicultural dolls and clothes
multicultural foods that fit the
prop boxes (doctor, menus,
hats, restaurant, ice cream
store, flower shop,
mechanics garage, etc.)
community helper dolls or
pictures of actual places in
logos of community shops,
community play rug, toy cars,
maps (every kind you can get)
bookshelves for storing books
with spines facing outward
organizational system for
shelving books (e.g., genre,
reading level)
an inviting area with
comfortable seating
five to eight books per child
20 new books on current
thematic unit (circulated
every two weeks)
catalogs (early childhood
equipment, clothing, toys,
furniture, etc.)
newspaper ads, coupons,
field guides
fiction, Nursery
Rhymes, Mother
science books
puppets, roll movie (story
paper and pencils
teaching pictures, magazines
letter sets, sandpaper, magnets
multicultural books
listening center with tapes and
flannel-board and story
characters (with related
materials for making felt stories
Writing Center
message board
word wall
blank books
topic dictionaries
logo language
chart tablet
paper folded to make cards
junk mail
used stamps
language games: rhyming,
opposites, spelling, bingo,
lotto, matching
magnetic trays and letters
letter puzzles
letter picture cards
alphabet stamps
alphabet books
environmental print
stencils, colored pencils
topic dictionaries
Art Center
scissors, glue
paint brushes
washable paints
water colors
shaving cream
clay, play dough
washable ink pads and stamps
several types of paper
collage materials
tissue paper
art books—Ed Emberly,
Scholastic Art Center
colored pencils
large paper for murals
frames, mat board scraps
blank books
colored water for color mixing,
eye droppers
scrap lumber, glue, paint,
Science Center
seasonal items (leaves, seeds, icicles)
exploration tubs (see exploration tub descriptions)
science books
insects, land snails
ant farm
class pets,
visiting animals from Humane
measuring tape
collections (bones, pine cones, seeds, etc.)
tree rings
animal skins
growth charts
weather charts
scales, yardsticks
science books on themes, science catalogs
field guides
life cycle charts
pictures and photographs
water exploration
old appliances to take apart
screw drivers, tools
marbles and pipe insulation
leaves, branches, potted plants, spouts
bones, books about skeletons, X-rays
plastic animals
plastic tablecloths illustrated with habitats
life-size animal tracings

Learning Centers Questions

Art Center Book Center

Students will:
Describe an event,
create symbols, and
put ideas on paper.

Develop fine motor
and visual motor

Engage in creative

Wear a paint shirt.

Write your name on
your paper.

Mix paints only in

Hang up paintings
to dry.

Wipe up spills.

What are you going
to make your picture

How did you make
that color?

What is the largest
thing in your

Tell me about your

Students will:
Develop print
awareness, left to
right flow of print.

comprehension and
interpretation of

Enhance story
telling and literature

Discover resources
for information

Take care of books.

Bring book with a
torn page to the

Return book to
correct place.

Share books.

What do you think
this book will be

Have you ever felt
like the person in
the book?

What is your
favorite part of the

What do you think
will happen next?

Block Center Writing Center

Students will:
Describe spatial,
size, and weight

Develop problem
solving and
measurement skills.

Develop balance,
sorting, and
cooperation skills

When your structure
is as tall as your
chin, please stop

Put away your own
blocks carefully
when your are

Only knock down
your own structures.

Tell me about what
you are building.

Would you like to
make a sign about
what you made?

Which is bigger?
Smaller? Lighter?

Which blocks match
on both sides of
your building?

Students will:
understanding that
print is speech
written down.

Focus on letter
formation, sequence
of sounds in words.

Engage in book
making, journal
writing, and

Relate sequence of

Snap lids tightly on

Close stamp pads.
Return things to
their places.

Use only a dot of
glue at a time.

Clean up scraps.

What is your book
going to be about?

What happens next
in your story?

You might want to
make a book about

You might want to
write a letter about

Trough Center Math Center

Students will:
Develop fine motor
skills, tactile

Develop social

Strengthen problem
solving, weighing,
measuring, and
understanding of

Keep water or sand
in trough.

Pour above the

Only use toys that
are in the trough.

Sweep up sand with
broom and dustpan.

Which container do
you think will hold
the most? How can
you find out?

How many little
cups does it take to
fill the big cup?

Have you seen
measuring cups at
home? What are
they used for?

Students will:
Practice grouping,
ordering, patterning,
measuring, and
counting one to one

Connect real life
story problems to
numeration and

Put back all game

Take turns.

Don’t dump out
everything at once,
just take out the
pieces you need one
at a time.

Put stray pieces in
the lost and found

How many do you
think you need?

Which do you think
will weigh the most?

Who has more?


How long did it take
you to make that?

Science Center Drama Center
Students will:
Develop skills in
description, making
comparisons, and
relationships, using
resources. Use
problem solving
Observe and explore
Take care of tools.
Return things when
you are finished.
Share what you have
learned (e.g., orally,
pictorially, written).
What do you wonder
What is interesting
to you?
What do you know
about _____?
About what do you
want to learn more?
Students will:
Develop social
interaction, role
Apply numbers,
words, job skills,
and real life
Take turns.
Hang up dress-ups
when finished.
Take care of
Leave props at
Don’t pretend to be
a robber, bad guy,
Have you ever seen
a real ____ (fire
What do real
______ do?
What things do they
write down? Read?
Count? Say?
What job do you
want when you are a

Learning Center Printouts

Exploration Tubs: Enhancing Essential Vocabulary through Student Investigation

I tried to teach my child from books. He only gave me puzzled looks.
I tried to teach my child from words. They passed him by, oft unheard.
Despairingly, I turned aside. “How shall I teach this child?” I cried.
Then, into my hand he placed the key “Come” he said, “play with me.”

Investigation is a key to student motivation. As teachers provide unhurried time for active student exploration, students develop a sense of curiosity and wonder. As children explore, they discuss their observations and enjoy recording what they have observed. Students love to share prior experiences with their classmates, talk about things that fascinate them and ask questions about subjects they would like to investigate. As students share insights with others, essential vocabulary emerges that facilitates both expressive language skills and reading

Exploration tubs become natural ties to content vocabulary and to writing activities. As students investigate a tub and discuss their experiences with other students, the content vocabulary and integrated concepts become part of their background knowledge. For example, a
second grade teacher might encourage students to explore a “Fall Exploration Tub” that contains pumpkins, Indian corn, colorful leaves, seeds, apples, gourds, etc. As students discuss their observations and prior knowledge with partners, the basic vocabulary for the science unit is strengthened and reinforced. Students with limited background knowledge or vocabulary are introduced to the essential vocabulary
associated with the science topic, thus familiarizing them with the words they will be asked to read or write.

Care should be taken to provide every child with the opportunity to use exploration tubs. Teachers should avoid using tubs as a filler activity upon completion of seat work. Students who need the most vocabulary development are the students least likely to finish their work. Tubs can be used for individual students groups, or during whole class discussions.

Exploration tubs provide a magical time where every student is actively involved in their own learning. Occasionally a student may drift off task or become meddlesome for another student. If a student is having a behavior problem during exploration tubs, the teacher should invite him to watch how the other students use their tubs. When the child has identified his own problem and formulates a solution he is willing to implement, he can once again use an exploration tub.

Exploration Tubs

© 2003, Elementary CORE Academy, Utah State Board of Education, Utah State University. Artwork created by Nancy Bittner