Keep It Moving! Rotating Your Learning Centers to Keep Learning Fresh
By Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

During the past few weeks, Mrs. Marcy has noticed that the preschoolers seldom ever went near the sand play center, a learning center previously so popular that she had to add extra toys to accommodate all of the children eager to play there. It was time to evaluate what happened to this once-favorite learning spot.
Evaluating Centers
As she approaches the sand play learning center, Mrs. Marcy immediately sees the huge jumble of colored plastic toys. In her desire to provide enough materials to keep the children’s interest high, the number of items has become overwhelming. It is almost impossible for the children to find and focus on specific items like measuring cups for dumping and filling activities or the farm animal figurines for interactive, imaginative play. With all of the toys and materials heaped in the sandbox, how can preschoolers easily see and scoop up the sand? The sand ends up spilled on the floor, creating an unattractive mess and an unsafe, slippery surface.

In her quick visual overview of the sand play learning center, Mrs. Marcy realizes right away that the excess pile-up of materials, many of them unrelated, the messy appearance of the learning center, and the lack of organized storage for the materials makes it unappealing to the children. She then begins to analyze (as you may wish to do in your program), why children seem to pass by certain learning centers, only stay engaged at others for a short time, or a place where they end up “fighting” over the activities.

As you perform your visual check of the centers in your room, you may notice parts of activities are missing in the manipulative learning centers, such as the pieces of puzzles or the markers to move along a game board. If key parts of materials are missing in the learning center, this is frustrating for children and ruins their fun.

When learning centers have broken materials, this diminishes their usefulness and appeal. In the block center, for instance, children don’t enjoy playing with big cardboard blocks that have been smashed in or wooden trucks and trains with broken wheels that don’t work. Some broken materials, like splintered wooden blocks or a jagged, sharp funnel in the water play learning center need to be replaced and immediately rotated out for safety reasons.

Sometimes centers no longer reflect the children’s interests. Investigating the seashells found during summer vacation becomes boring when left out on the science learning center table until winter. Children also become disinterested with center materials when they are no longer age-appropriate and have been outgrown. After mastering six piece puzzles, children need a wider variety (large piece jigsaw puzzles, 10 piece puzzles, etc.) in the puzzle center to challenge their minds and strengthen their small motor skills. When the same colors of paint are put out each day at the easel in the art center, this does not inspire the children’s interest or creativity.

While reevaluating your learning centers to see if they are still current and exciting, you may decide that they do not truly reflect the goals of your program. For instance, the dramatic play center may be rather sexist and too unbalanced with costumes (ballerina, princess) and accessories (purses, high heels) geared towards the girls in your group. Unfortunately, these center materials not particularly inviting for the boys. Or, the lack of multicultural materials in the home learning center, such as boxes of ethnic foods (rice, taco shells) and utensils (chopsticks) might not make some children feel welcome to explore this learning center.

During this observation process, look carefully at the complexity of a center’s activities to see why it may need a fresh look. Are the games at the math center too challenging and beyond the children’s skill level? Are there too many pieces to keep track of? Are the directions for the activities clear and easy to follow? Or, do the math board games require constant teacher assistance which doesn’t encourage cooperative learning among the children while playing at the center?

In addition to observing, listen to what is happening at your centers. Do you hear loud unhappy voices of children arguing at the music center because there are not enough instruments to share? Are they fighting and pushing each other because there is not enough space to move to the music? Is it difficult to read stories quietly in the library center because of the noise coming from the block center located right next door?

After identifying numerous problems at various learning centers, such as too many or minimal materials, messiness, lack of organization, missing parts, broken materials, prolonged seasonal themes, uninteresting activities, unmet program goals, too challenging activities, and inadequate locations, it is probably time to look at ways to refresh your classroom learning centers and make them interesting again.

Freshen Up Your Learning Centers
A simple, effective way to keep learning appealing at your classroom learning centers is to rotate and change the materials, the location, or the children.

When you decide to rotate the materials at a particular learning center, begin by involving the children. First of all, you don’t want to take away materials that may be part of a special routine for a specific child. If a child uses a special material or learning center for comfort or security, it could be very unsettling to him to remove it without his involvement. For certain children, you may wish to work together to keep the rotation process very simple and remove or add just one item at a time. This may add a “spark” to a learning center for others without radically changing his comfort level.

Children enjoy the process of helping to periodically rotate materials at the traditional learning centers (library, blocks, manpulatives, art). It gives them a great feeling of empowerment to help make choices and decide what goes, what stays and what gets stored. Encourage them to help decide what they have outgrown so these materials can be recycled to another classroom or stored for next year. They love to point out “baby toys” and stuff for “little kids” as they participate in the decision making process.

To liven up a center, rotate a simple material in and then ask the children stimulating questions such as, “What might happen if we add these little people to the boats in the water play center?” Inspire children’s imaginations and transform a center by selecting intriguing materials from the storage closet and igniting their interest with a quick motivating demonstration. For example, sprinkle a little rediscovered colored sand on top of some glue to brighten up the activities at the collage learning center. Encourage the children to follow your lead and check out a variety of items in your storage closet. Be sure to designate a special child-safe area in your closet for them to explore these things to move into different centers to add some excitement to existing activities. 

Invite children to help you store away seasonal and holiday learning center materials. This provides a wonderful review of the information they learned while playing at the center as they pack away and talk about items. They also enjoy strengthening their fine motor skills while picking up small items and flexing their large muscles when they carry the storage boxes for you. However, the exciting part comes as they anticipate opening up and taking a peek inside the boxes of stored materials to place out in the learning center for the next holiday!

To keep themed learning centers (the zoo, the fire house) fresh, trade materials with teachers in other classrooms so you don’t duplicate your efforts, but can instead spend your time wisely collecting and preparing different center material.  And to limit spending and have a rotating supply of “new” materials, share infrequently used, but exciting learning center accessories (water pumps, prism, balance beam) with other rooms. Hold a periodic toy swap!

In my preschool classroom, several times a year we would have “Toy Hospital Day.” Many activities in learning centers were no longer of interest to the children because toy pieces were mixed up, missing or broken. We would gather these materials, match them up again, repair them, and even wash up dirty items so they sparkled! When these “fresh-looking” materials were rotated back into the proper learning centers, children once again played with things they might not have touched for weeks.

Another strategy for keeping your learning centers fresh is rotating their locations. If children seem to ignore a learning center, move it and place it in a prominent spot in the classroom to showcase the center’s activities. Hang a jazzy title banner overhead to draw attention to the center.

Move and pair centers to give them a new twist. For example, if the children aren’t using the writing center, rotate the materials so they are next to the library for handy writing research or adjacent to the art center to enable the children to draw pictures in their handwritten books.

Don’t always make a learning center’s location predictable. For instance, move the woodworking center outdoors for a refreshing change. This way the children might be tempted to incorporate some natural materials (twigs, bark) into the center’s activities. Consider moving a learning center from a table to the floor by providing a soft quilt to sit on.

Locate compelling center accessories at the children’s eye level in clear storage boxes whenever possible. For example, this would enable them to revamp the play dough center with the addition of self-selected fascinating new materials like rick-rack and buttons. 

Recently, I observed how some teachers involved their children in developing their own interest center located right near the door where everyone passed by. A blank table was decorated in various ways by the children (tablecloth, newspaper, crepe paper streamers) who voluntarily rotated in and out a variety of their own learning activities (dinosaur figurines, postcard collection, birds’ nests, flexible colored wire to create sculptures) to share.

And, to keep things moving, you might want to consider a system to rotate children in and out of the various learning centers. This helps to eliminate overcrowding, introduces children to centers they might never try, and helps to make children responsible for the care of a particular learning center’s materials. To assist children with the rotation process you might use sign up cards slipped into pocket charts at the center or hang signs with learning center symbols around their necks.

You may even wish to close the most popular learning center for a day for the children to give a less used center a second chance as they look at it with fresh eyes.

Obtaining Materials
To keep learning centers exciting, you will need to collect and store a wide variety of materials (egg cartons, spools, “things that float”, etc.). Ask parents for donations of multicultural materials, work related items or interesting collections. Try garage sales, public library sales and flea markets for inexpensive books and toys. Stores can provide great free high-interest posters and motivating displays. Factories give away recycled items, like fabric scraps. And, encourage the children to share their outgrown toys, games, and books.

By Susan A. Miller, Ed.D., is a Professor of Early Childhood Education and Coordinator of the England Study Abroad Program at Kutztown University of PA.