Learning centers can be a great way for early childhood educators to help organize their child care space and help expose children to different educational experiences. Learning centers can help ease transitions between activities for children and can allow children to decide which activities they would like to participate in, giving them more control over their environment and the learning process. Below are some tips to consider if you would like to set up learning centers in your child care setting.
- Keep it simple. Start by choosing a location for each center. Look at all of the space used by children. Note the overall size, locations of doors and windows, sinks or water sources, electric outlets, necessary traffic patterns, and any permanent fixtures or equipment. Note all considerations that need to be included for planning, such as shared spaces (as in family child care homes), ages and number of children, and any requirements for children with special needs.
Choose which learning centers will be included. Consider starting with areas that are most familiar to children such as:
- Creative art
- Dramatic play/housekeeping
- Constructive play/blocks
- Language arts
Think through a plan for each center. For each center that is chosen, determine:
- How much space is needed?
- How many children can the area and activity accommodate at one time?
- What appropriate materials are currently available?
- What needs to be added to furnish and equip the area?
- Make it manageable. Arrange only the number of centers that can fit comfortably into the available space. Decide which one will be the first to be set up and introduced to children. Remember that children will need direction and time to become familiar with the changes.
- Set rules for centers as needed. Establish how many children each area can accommodate at one time, how the number of children in each area will be controlled, how or if time limits will be imposed, and how areas will be cleaned up. Some programs have used a magnetic board or spring clothespins so that as a child enters s/he moves the magnet or clothespin to the occupied slot and as s/he leaves moves the magnet or clothespin to the vacant slot. The number is designated by writing it on the board and by the number of available magnets or clothespins.
- Plan how to introduce learning centers to children. Explain what materials and activities will be available, how children can choose, and what rules (simple and understandable) will apply. The rules may be simple, but it will take a minimum of two weeks for the use of learning centers to become routine. Patience at first will pay off later.
- Observe and evaluate. Set up notebooks or other ways to keep written track of how the children respond to the environment. Use this to evaluate the current setup, the need for new materials, or ideas for future changes.
- Have fun! Setting up learning centers does not have to be stressful. Start by keeping everything simple – and enjoy this new experience with the children in your child care setting.
Planning Specific Centers in Child Care
For specific tips and guidelines to help you set up different types of learning centers, check out the following articles:
- Planning a Successful Art Center
- Planning a Successful Block Center
- Planning a Successful Book Center
- Planning a Successful Dramatic Play Center
- Planning a Successful Manipulatives/Table Toys Center
- Planning a Successful Music Center
- Planning a Successful Sand and Water Center
- Planning a Successful Science and Nature Center
If you are looking for specific activity ideas to use in your learning centers or in other areas of the child care program, take a look at the eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care database of Hands-on Activities for Child Care.