How to Set Up Classroom Learning Centers

Understanding the Basics of Learning Centers

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Learning or rotation centers are places where students can self-direct their learning —usually in pairs or small groups—within the classroom. These designated spaces allow children to work collaboratively by accomplishing activities given an allotted amount of time and rotating to the next center after they have each completed a task. Learning centers also provide children with opportunities to practice hands-on skills and social interaction.

Some classes have assigned spaces for learning centers all year while teachers in tighter classrooms set up and take them down as needed. Permanent learning spaces are typically placed around the perimeter of the classroom or in nooks and alcoves where they don't interfere with the movement and flow of the classroom. No matter where a learning center is located or whether it is always standing, the only firm requirement is that it is a space in which children can work together to solve problems. 

If you're ready to apply this popular tool to your teaching, read about how to effectively prepare the materials, arrange your classroom, and introduce your students to learning centers.

Preparing the Centers

The first step in creating a great learning center is to figure out what skills you want your students to learn or practice. Centers can be used for any subject but experiential learning and discovery should be the focus. Students need to be engaged even if they are practicing old skills.

Once you have your focus, you can determine how many centers you will need and get to work designing and organizing them. Gather the materials, write out directions, and set behavioral expectations.

Gather Student Materials

You can pull materials from your curriculum or do a little digging if you don't think those will be engaging or meaningful enough. Scaffold the work that students will be doing and don't forget the graphic organizers. Put everything neatly in one place so you don't have to worry about materials management.

Write out Clear Directions With Visuals

Students should not need to raise their hand and ask you how to complete a task because the answers should already be there for them. Spend time designing task cards and anchor charts that provide step-by-step instructions so that you don't have to repeat yourself.

Set Behavioral Goals and Expectations

This one is especially important if your students have not had practice with learning centers. Teach them that they will need to cooperate with each other in order to learn and explain that most of their learning will be independent from you as they work together to solve problems. Be explicit about how exactly they should work together and behave. Stress to them that the ability to work collaboratively fosters incredible experiences but that centers are a privilege that they must earn with responsible behavior. Write these goals somewhere for easy reference.

Setting up the Classroom

With your learning center materials prepared, you can arrange your room to accommodate new spaces. The way you choose to set up your centers ultimately depends on the size of your class and number of students but the following tips can be applied to any classroom.

  • Groups should not exceed five students. This makes it possible for students to complete tasks and move easily through the centers.
  • Get creative with the setup. Don't be afraid to use rugs, libraries, and even hallways for your centers. Students are flexible and enjoy experiencing learning in new ways and from new angles, so don't hesitate to have some working on the floor and some standing up if the activities allow for this.
  • Keep materials organized. It's not enough to just keep them in one place, you also need a system for making materials easy for students to find and keeping the supplies together after they have been used. Utilize baskets, folders, and totes for easy organization and efficiency.
  • Make a schedule. Assign each student a group to rotate with and center where they will begin and end. Give each group and center a color/shape and number to help children know where to go next.
  • Provide cleanup time. After each center is completed, give students time to return materials to their places for the next group and a place to turn in their completed center work. This makes it easier to collect all finished work at once.

Introducing Centers to Students

Take time to very explicitly introduce the new centers and discuss rules with your class. Students must understand the expectations of center work before beginning—this ensures that your time can be spent supporting learning.

Before you begin, clearly explain (and post somewhere in the classroom) expected behavior during centers and the consequences of not meeting these expectations. Then, introduce centers to your students by modeling the following steps. Use a timer that students can see and hear to keep track of time.

  1. Teach the students how you will get their attention during center time. Try some of these call-and-responses.
  2. Point out or physically bring the students to each center to explain them one at a time.
  3. Show students where the directions and all other materials are located at every center (Note: Materials should be in about the same place for each of them).
  4. Explain in detail the purpose of each activity they will be working on—"This is what you should learn at this center."
  5. Model completing the work that students will be doing. Show only enough that students understand and feel free to skip very straightforward activities to spend more time on the more challenging ones.
  6. Demonstrate how to clean up the center and rotate to the next one when the timer goes off.

Be sure to intersperse your directions with student practice. Pause after each point to make sure they understand, then allow a volunteer or group of volunteers to demonstrate the steps after you've modeled them—finding the materials, beginning the activity, responding when the teacher calls for their attention, cleaning up the center, and rotating to the next one—while the class observes. Then, allow the whole class to practice this once or twice and they will be ready to start on their own.