I can still remember my first year of teaching, getting so excited to do “centers” in my classroom. I was really into reading blogs and it seemed like centers were all the rage. So I turned my cubby cabinet into my centers shelf and started copying. I had 8 centers that would last us 2 weeks, so in each bin I made enough copies of the “activities” for my entire class, and I did this every other week for the entire school year.
I think I killed so many trees with all the copies I made that I had an effect on oxygen levels. I’d find cute worksheets, called them activities, copied them, and shoved them into bins. None of the activities were differentiated (I barely even knew what that word meant early in my teaching career), hardly any of them had a hands-on component (unless they were cutting and gluing!), and almost all the activities were chosen just because they fit with the current theme in Treasures or Envision Math.
You know how hindsight is 20/20? So turns out, I didn’t know what “centers” really meant or how to do them. I’ve learned so much since then, even forgoing centers for a while until I really started to understand how to implement them in a more meaningful, intentional way. Now, I’d love to share what I’ve learned and what I think are best practices for doing centers or stations in your classroom in both math and literacy/ELA.
My first tip is to find your purpose for doing centers or stations in your classroom. Unlike me, who did them because the bloggers at the time were doing it (let’s be honest, my first year of teaching was basically me doing what other people did or told me to do!), I suggest defining why you want to have centers. Don’t feel like you have to just because other kindergarten teachers do it! How will the stations benefit your students? Why should they be going to centers? What purpose will they serve? Seems basic but trust me, you’ll want to do this purpose-making to help yourself in choosing activities later on!
Here’s my purpose: Centers will serve as a way for my students to work together and collaborate on hands-on, fun games and activities that review old skills, build up current skills, and extend any skills to deeper levels if needed. The games and activities will be differentiated for students based on their needs and skills, and students will work at similar skill levels in order to support one another.
My next tip is to decide what you’ll be putting into the centers or stations. For old me, this just meant printing and copying cute activities from Teachers Pay Teachers or my old favorite free worksheet website. Hey, it has pumpkin clip art on it, so it totally goes with the unit! Print and go! No.
Remember when I said classroom environment is one “hill I’d die on”? A passionate belief that I will always argue for? Well, death by worksheet is another. Stop overwhelming young students with papers. You know they won’t finish them all (hello, unfinished work folders that during my first year of teaching would get so pack-crammed that I’d just throw the papers away every other week when I’d change out the centers….). You know those behavior issues that prevent you from pulling small groups? Chances are they’re coming from worksheet boredom or activities that are way too easy or not engaging. You know your mad dash to the copy machine on Monday mornings which makes your morning feel rushed and hectic? It can all go away if you stop copying worksheets!
Now, you’ll see paper in my centers. BUT for every paper activity (there’s usually only one) there are at least 3 hands-on activities. In my literacy/word study centers, I have matching games, CVC building, magnet letters, whiteboard practice, and dice games. Click on the pictures below for some of my all-time favorites.
|from Lakeshore Learning|
|from Lakeshore Learning|
|from Lakeshore Learning|
When there is a paper activity in my centers, I make sure the students do at least one other activity, post about it on Seesaw (read more here), then may do the paper. Here’s a list of my favorite paper-based activities because they are both engaging and meaningful:
You can read more about my math centers (or rotations in general) in this blog post.
Another tip is figuring out how you’ll store and manage your centers. Now that you (hopefully) have lots of fun games or activities, I recommend keeping them in baskets (see the picture at the top of this post). I use ones from Dollar Tree and have one basket per group. My students are grouped by skills/ability levels, and I have four groups, so there are four baskets for our literacy centers. This is when it comes in handy to have multiple activities in each basket at a time: you’ll have about 5-7 kids working on activities from the same basket at a time (hello, collaboration!), so make sure you have enough activities in there!
|This is one of the kids’ favorite center activities. It’s an old Lakeshore hand-me-down from a friend who recently retired. Look through those old games from your colleagues, you’ll find some gems!|
I keep activities in baskets for 2-3 weeks at a time. You’ll start to get a feel for how long the activities hold their interest. If the noise level or off-task behaviors increase during center time, you’ll know it’s time to change. Remember, your students are a reflection of the learning space. If they’re loud or off-task, you should take it as a sign to change or modify the task! My students go to centers every other day. You can see how I manage my centers and rotations in this blog post.
Finally, make sure student groups make sense for your students. I highly encourage collaboration during center time, so much so that my students know they aren’t allowed to play a game alone! If they are alone, they have to seek out someone in their group to work or play with them. When I’m creating groups, I start with any initial data I have. Our beginning of year screener helps with that, and I usually start by grouping kids based on their letter ID and letter sounds scores. This helps with how I can start pulling activities and games. As the year progresses, I start using formative assessments from my PA mini lessons set 1 and set 2, observational data, other screeners, and general clues for if students should move groups.
Make sure your groups are flexible! Using centers should make teachers much more reflective and formative in their assessing of students. I am constantly watching my students to decide if they need to move in and out of groups. I don’t have a fancy system for this. If I’m working with kids on a particular skill in small group and they’re practicing that skill in their center, but I’m seeing a student struggle with it, I’ll move her down to another group. No biggie. I just go to her nametag, erase her group letter or number, then write the new one. My students are used to moving groups that it doesn’t surprise them when Susie joins their group or when Tim leaves their group. And they DON’T know what each group means. My math groups are 1, 2, 3, and 4 while my word study groups are W, X, Y, and Z and my reading groups are colors. They have no clue what those numbers, letters, or colors mean, only my aides and I do!
I hope those tips help you become more intentional with your use of centers in your classroom. It honestly will change every year as you will need to adjust to fit your current group of students, but as long as your have your purpose, you’ll find ways to make it work!