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Learning Centers Create Exceptional Learning Environments
By Carolyn Ross Tomlin

Classrooms for young children vary in design. However most contain centers—sometimes called zones, interest centers, corners, or clusters. Whatever term you choose, children should be able to move independently throughout the area and work in each daily. Through this arrangement, children learn organizational skills—an important concept to master for the present as well as the future.

According to Lorton and Walley (1979), several factors affect the number of centers in the classroom. First, consider the needs of the children and the size of the classroom. Next, determine the amount of materials available. Last, ask "How can teachers work together to prepare a variety of interesting materials for the children?"

As children grow and become more independent, add additional centers to expand the curriculum. Keep in mind that materials in centers should change often.

And how can teachers work together to accumulate numerous ideas? At the beginning of the year, teachers may enlist the help of parents to contribute equipment and supplies for several centers annually. Each center is packaged in a plastic box, listing all equipment within. During the year each box rotates to all classrooms for approximately a two-week period. A storage room serves as a holding place until another teacher checks out the box.

Other than centers, allow space for the entire class to meet together daily. A large area rug or carpet provides a place of instruction to explain new material and games. Demonstrate new items so they can be used correctly.

Locating Materials for Learning Centers

Have you ever visited a child care center and been impressed at the educational and interesting items filling the space? Perhaps you thought, I could never afford materials such as these. Saving money, yet providing a quality child care center is important for teachers. And yes, you can offer young children an exciting class filled with well-constructed materials. And yes, you can save money. Begin with garage and yard sales. Ask friends to donate items whose children have matured past this age, and check the bargain tables at bookstores.


Most centers for young children contain basically the same materials. Materials such as these provide for the social, emotional, physical and mental stages of development. Use these suggestions as you plan centers in your classroom. Add to the materials as you plan units and themes.


Dramatic Play Center

Through dramatic play, children identify with models, roles and unique situations in their environment. Through meaningful experiences in expressive play, young children develop positive, comfortable feelings about themselves. When collecting items, provide simple materials. Vary according to classroom themes and unit focus. Such as:


·        Puppets and box for stage (an appliance box makes a great stage)

·        Clothes rack for costumes

·        Hats (fireman, policeman, construction worker and other community helpers)

·        Doctor's kit

·        Wall mirror

·        Play telephone

·        Jewelry, shoes, hats, purses, neckties and etc.


Music Center

Music is a universal language understood by all. Teachers of young children realize the need for music in the classroom. Use music to promote a calm and peaceful atmosphere, for transition from one activity to another, to educate and to encourage movement and exercise. Suggested materials for a music center include:


·        Tape or CD player

·        Rhythm instruments

·        Piano or keyboard

·        Earphones (for individual listening centers)

·        Selection of taped music

·        Music books

·        Ribbons or scarves for dancing and movement

·        Materials for making instruments (small boxes, strings, rubber bands, dried beans, sandpaper, wooden blocks)


Art Center

Art provides a way of expressing human behavior and experience. According to Day (1983), the child's visual awareness of color, coupled with form and line, become a part of his or her everyday life and experience. Placing materials within easy reach encourages young children to become involved in art projects. Supplies include:


·        Variety of paper, including construction, tissue, fingerprint, cardboard, box of scrap paper (check with a printing company for left-over paper, usually given without charge).

·        Paste

·        Paint and brushes, including tempera, watercolors

·        Scissors

·        Clay

·        Items for collages

·        Items for weaving

·        Magazines and catalogs

·        Over-sized shirts (for cover-up)


Block Center

Educators for generations agree: young children learn best through play. As the child explores the world around him, he matures through this environmental interaction. Block play offers preschoolers both basic skills and creative outlets. Accessories make a difference in imagination when children use blocks. In setting up a block center, select from the following:


·        Set of wooden blocks: unit blocks, geometric shapes (circles, squares, triangles, rectangles)

·        Riding wheel toys

·        Miniature farm and zoo animals

·        Replicas of community helpers (policeman, fireman, farmer)

·        Traffic signs (stop light, stop sign, slow, curve, hill)

·        Small transportation toys (airplane, car, dump truck, taxi, train, ship)

·        Rolling block cart for storage


Reading Center

A solid foundation in the language arts, including reading, listening, writing, speaking and thinking – a skill that ties all the others together – is the basic for all school programs and for life in general. Children who master these skills develop a relationship between oral language and written symbols. Locate the reading center in a quiet corner, away from the block or other noisy areas. The following items will make the reading center a favorite site for children.


·        Colorful area rug, large floor pillows

·        Rocking chair

·        Variety of books, both purchased and child produced

·        Children's books with accompanying tapes

·        Tape player, earphones

·        Puppets and simple stage

·        Children's magazines

·        Low shelves to accommodate small children

·        Flannel board with cardboard cutouts


Language Arts

Often considered part of the reading center, the language arts center focuses on reading, writing, listening and speaking. The following are only a few items used in this area.


·        Puzzles

·        Cardboard alphabet shapes

·        Chalkboards and individual erasers

·        Catalogs and magazines for classifying pictures

·        Word cards

·        Typewriter

·        Paper and pencils


Science Center

Discovery methods used in teaching science encourage the young child to ask questions: such as "why do things work as they do?" Locate the science center near a large window as to observe weather changes and nature. Some materials to help foster that scientific approach to learning include the following:


·        Bird feeder, placed near outside window

·        Fish aquarium

·        Magnets

·        Seeds

·        Thermometer

·        Compass

·        Shells and rocks to observe and classify

·        Magnifying glass

·        Home chemicals (salt, baking soda, vinegar, sugar)


Math Center

Independent learning activities and games encourage children to use instructional materials for learning math. Provide opportunities for measuring, such as "how far did a ladybug crawl?" Can you measure the distance? How many paper clips will it take to measure this table? Can you guess how many buttons it will take to fill this cup? Some of the following will help in teaching math:


·        Large clock

·        Materials for measuring (tape measure, ruler, yard stick)

·        Assortment of objects for counting (buttons, beads, bottle caps)

·        Geometric shapes (square, circle, triangle, rectangle)

·        Pegboard and pegs

·        Play money ·Math games (commercial and teacher-made)

·        Counting frame

·        Scales

·        Units of measure (spoons, cups, pints, quarts)


Outdoor Center

The outdoors offers endless possibilities for teaching and learning. The area may contain equipment for noisy, active play, quiet places for reading and grassy areas to observe insects. Centers that provide a paved area covered by a roof patio allow children to benefit from fresh air and sunshine during inclement weather. And "messy" outdoor projects make cleanup easy. During outdoor play, large muscle development takes place through running, climbing and jumping (Pica, 2003). Social interaction occurs as children create their own games and form friendships. An outdoor center should always be well supervised by adults. Check both the permanent and portable equipment.


Permanent Outdoor Equipment

·        Sandbox

·        Water table

·        Tire swings

·        Sections of tree trunks

·        Horizontal ladders (placed on ground for stepping through)

·        Climbing bars

·        Walking boards

·        Equipment for crawling and tunneling

·        Platforms for climbing

·        Automobile tires (placed on ground for obstacle course)


Portable Outdoor Equipment

·        Balls

·        Bean bags

·        Transportation equipment (tricycles, pull toys, wagon)

·        Sand toys (small shovel, bucket, sifters, cups and spoons)

·        Gardening tools (small hoe, shovel, rake)

·        Building blocks and scrap lumber

·        Jump ropes



Learning centers help children organize material and classify information. As children return items to the proper place, they learn responsibility and how to care for materials. As children engage in self-selected tasks, teachers may observe the habits of selection, the nature of the activity chosen and the growth of social skills. Good learning centers provide children with time to cultivate ideas, a place to preserve it, and opportunities to share with peers and other adults.

Carolyn Ross Tomlin has taught kindergarten and served as assistant professor of early childhood education at Union University, Jackson, TN. She contributes to numerous education publications.


Day, B. (1983). Early childhood education, (2nded.).New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

Lorton, J.W. & Walley, B.L. (1979). Introduction to early childhood education. New York: Litton Educational Publishing, Inc.

Pica, R. (2003). Your active child: How to boost physical, emotional, and cognitive development through age-appropriate activity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wardle, F. (2003). Introduction to early childhood education: A multidimensional approach to child-centered care and learning. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Vukelich, C., Christie, J., & Enz, B. (2002). Helping young children learn language and literacy. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.