Setting up Learning CentersOrganizing, developing, and carrying out centers is an extremely complex task and one made of up many layers. When the work is put in up front and centers are well thought out and planned for, they can run smoothly and offer great academic, social-emotional, and developmental value to an early childhood classroom.
These are a few of the resources I have used over the years to assist me in implementing learning centers with young children.
General Guidelines for Learning Centers
Organize Using Appropriate and Engaging Materials
Every learning center should contain materials that are displayed in a neat organized and attractive manner. Materials should be on display on low, open shelves that are within reach of the child. Materials, activities, and equipment should be stored in their own containers. Label each storage container with both a picture and words written in the correct mix of capital and lowercase letters. Designate a special place on the shelf for each individual container with a corresponding label.
Supervising All Centers
When setting up your room for learning centers, consider whether you will be able to visually manage activities in all of the centers from wherever you are in the room. Look at the way centers are arranged in relationship to one another. Your students need to be able to moved freely from one center to another without disrupting the work of other children.
Define Clear Center Boundaries
Clearly define the space in each center using small area rugs, colored tape lines on the floor, or by arranging shelves and other pieces of furniture to create and define center boundaries.
Label each center clearly with center signs that include words and pictures that define that particular learning center.
When young children build with blocks, they learn about mathematical concepts such as quantity, size, shape, and number. They become mindful of scientific principles such as the force of gravity and the operation of simple machines such as levers and inclined planes. They learn to think, plan, and problem solve as they work with others and their structures take shape. This center is especially important for those children who intelligences are in the areas of visual/spatial, logical/mathematical, and bodily/kinesthetic.
Oftentimes, the block center is one of the first ones early childhood teachers get rid of or don't use, when, in fact, it may be the most important center of all. Block play gives children opportunities to create, cooperate, and communicate with others. It supports social learning through children working together to share materials, space, and ideas. It supports literacy development when children "write" signs and "read" task cards. Hand-eye coordination and visual discrimination are strengthened when students group blocks that are the same size and shape at clean-up time. Almost anything skill you might want to teach a young child can be taught through block play.
Creating the Block Center
Space and Location
You will need a sizable area for your block center. Ideally, the blocks center should be in an out-of-the-way corner of the room where there is little foot traffic. This will prevent problems that occur when children passing by bump into structures that have been built with time and care.
-rug (a rug can define the space as well as provide a comfortable surface of sitting, kneeling, and crawling while students construct)
-shelves, rather than bins (the problem with keeping blocks in bins is that children have to "dig" through them to find the shapes and sizes they are looking for, this can be frustrating as well as it creates an unnecessary amount of noise and disarray)
Block building is encouraged when children can quickly see the shapes and sizes of blocks that are available for building. When blocks are in a bin it sends children the message that the space lacks a sense of order and that things can just be dumped out without order or purpose.
-unit blocks (wooden unit blocks)
-additional props (wooden people figures, cars, trucks, traffic signs, props that fit themes of study, measuring tools such as tape measures, rulers, yarn or ribbon, roles of adding machine tape, cutouts of hands and feet, post-its, etc.)
**TIP** like the different blocks, additional props need a specific space and place to be house in, reserve a space on the shelves for these additional items, be sure to mark them with a label that includes a picture and words (signs and labels in the block center help to make it a print-rich environment)
**TIP** Introduce one or two additional props at a time and change them out or add others as the year progresses
I love these prop tub labels from Irresistible Ideas
-writing materials (index cards and pencils)
This is a great example of labeling and sign making from Learning and Teaching Preschoolers
-visual aids (photographs of different types of buildings and structures to provide inspiration for creating and designing)
Check out this great post about block play by You Clever Monkey. Click here.
-task cards (task cards made up of drawings and/or photographs and words that show children how to use the materials, task cards may show how to choose blocks, build with blocks, and put the blocks away or when teaching about zoo animals a task card might show how to put animals in a cage made of blocks)
Click here for a task card freebie from Kindergarten Lifestyle
Use construction paper to create a pattern of each block by tracing around all of the different block shapes and sizes. You can also use a copy machine to scan and make a copy of each block shape and size. Use clear packing tape to attach the outlines to the shelves.
Guidelines for the Block Center
-build only as high as your shoulders
-whoever builds it, takes it down
-put blocks away before leaving the center (this guideline is questionable, in some cases you may allow students' structures to remain standing over night or for several days)
-take blocks down with your hands, not your feet
-when cleaning up, match the blocks to the shapes on the shelves (place them gently on the shelf, do not throw them to put them away)
Block Center Teaching Tips
Respect Developmental Stages
Very young children, who are in the initial stages of block play, tend to explore the nature of the blocks by experiencing their weight, texture, and shape.
After awhile, children will begin to build structures. They might first lay the blocks out so that they are end to end and flat on the carpet.
Later on, they are likely to begin building upward by stacking blocks on top of each other.
Eventually, they will build more elaborate structures such as enclosures, bridges, tunnels, etc.
Talk with Children about their Structures and Play
Take a minute to stop and talk with children about what they have created or what they are working on. Ask questions and make statements such as:
"I see that you used a lot of rectangular prisms in your building."
"Your building is made up of high places and low places."
"You used some long rectangles and some short rectangles to make your building."
"Tell me how you made this building."
"How many blocks did you use to make the tower?"
"How many blocks do you think you will need to make the bridge?"
Encourage Literacy Through Block Play
You will have to model how to create signs to go with block structures and creations. Children in the earliest stages of writing can dictate their ideas to you. When students are going to leave their structures standing overnight, encourage them to create signs that have their name on them or say "Do not knock down."
More Resources for Block Play
My Construction Center/Bock Play Board on Pinterest