Preschool Learning Centers
Many early childhood preschool classrooms are set up in a very particular way. Learning centers or corners are areas in the room that represent a particular component of the curriculum. There are many different types of learning centers and to keep children interested these should be changed and even rotated periodically. Here are some ideas for learning centers. If you only have space for 2 or 3 centers then just change them around periodically. This will keep the children very interested in exploring new centers. These can even be created in the child’s home with some creativity on the parents’ part.
These special learning centers are important for so many developmental reasons as you will read below but the best part is that during free play time the children can feel independent and will have something fun to do. They will gravitate to an area of interest for them. Some kids love science while others may love the pretend play area and yet others may feel musically inclined on a given day. Another child may just want to curl up with a pillow and a favorite book. As teachers of preschoolers it is reassuring to know that the children are busy and safe while you tend to a sick child, feed a baby, prepare snack or do some necessary paperwork.
Free play time is invaluable to children. It allows them freedom of choice and independence. They can interact with their peers and verbalize and express themselves – say what they are thinking and feeling. They learn to compromise and negotiate and gain a respect for others ideas. They also take on roles of follower and leader. Socialization does not just come naturally to children – they must practice it over and over and learning centers are the best place to do just that!
Using all of these interest areas in your weekly or monthly them creates what is called a ‘whole language’ experience. On the preschool level it simply means integrating literacy into other areas of the curriculum, especially math, science, and social studies. For example if your theme is “Apples’ you can have something related to apples in several of the centers. In Science Corner you can have apple seeds glued to an index card and labeled or a basket with 4 different varieties of apples to compare; in math corner there can be more apple seeds to count or a basket of fresh apples that will be used for snack or a baking project after counting and making groups with first; in the Art Center you can have red paint and apples cut in half to make star-print paintings or make apple prints with an apple shaped cookie cutter; in Reading Corner you can read the story of Johnny Appleseed, Snow White or How Apple Trees Grow, etc…
This area is ever changing with the seasons. You can fill this learning center with an unending variety of things related to science and nature. Books related to weather, insects, seasons, flowers and plants, seeds, animals, rocks, age-appropriate experiments, etc… are important in this center. Small containers and jars to hold collections of items that the children may find outside should be available for things like rocks, leaves, pinecones, seeds, flowers and plants, some stuffed animals, ladybugs and other insects (real or rubber toys). Tools such as magnifying glasses, binoculars, eye-droppers, microscopes and kaleidoscopes, mirrors and magnets, as well as paper and pencils help children explore.
If you have space some real plants or live pets might be included such as a butterfly garden in springtime or a real lizard or hamster. As you change themes you can change items each month or week. Surprising the children is most fun in this area – for instance they can suddenly discover a new pet goldfish or a bowl filled with dirt and real worms or a Ziploc bag filled with ice cubes! This is the real curiosity corner !
This corner could be combined with the Science Corner or remain separate. Some things to include would be calculators, large numbers to finger trace, rulers, tape measures, coins, beads or plastic chips (like poker chips) to count (be careful of toddlers trying to put them in their mouths), small scales, plastic measuring cups and spoons, and things to weigh. Counting books and paper and pencils and child-safe scissors again are important for children to use as they wish.
Housekeeping or Dress-Up Corner:
Children will spend much of their free time playing in this center. This is where they practice and pretend to be whatever they want to be. Play-acting and role-playing are a very important part of child’s play. Here children practice their social skills and “try on” a variety of different roles that help them make sense of their world. This will be your largest center and will need lots of props. Some of the larger items may be a child-sized table and chair set, a pretend kitchen with dishes, pots and pans, a shopping cart and toy cash register with play money, a baby stroller, dolls, a tool workshop, mirrors, telephones, and such. Dress-up clothing can include anything from commercially purchased costumes of community helpers to homemade items such as aprons, all types of hats, shoes and props. Children love to play with real life size props just as much as children’s pretend ones so mixing it up will work great. Thrift stores and second hand clothing shops are filled with all kinds of wonderful items to add to your housekeeping corner. Ask for donations from parents as well as check out the local yard sales for bargains.
Art for Preschoolers allows for expression of artistic creativity. This center can be very colorful and bright, filled with art work, color posters and art supplies. Some items to include and rotate out are a variety of paper (construction, tracing, newsprint, scraps, etc.), markers, children’s scissors crayons, water paint sets, glue, popsicle sticks, glitter, an Easel, art smocks (or old adult sized T-shirts) to protect clothing, water cups and paint brushes. A fun thing to have in the art center is a basket or shoe box filled with a variety of collage materials that the children can use anytime to create or add on to their creations. Some items to include are feathers, pom-poms, old buttons and beads, rick-rack, streamers, foil, wax paper, pieces of fabric, toilet paper tubes, pipe cleaners, tissue paper, coffee filters, strings and ribbons, color samples from the paint store, etc. Not all supplies should be accessible to the children as some require supervision but the basics should be there for free-art activities.
Manipulative Center (or Block Corner):
This area is important for building small or fine motor skills and should includes blocks, games, puzzles and things that children need to use their fingers with. Learn-to-dress boards that have zippers, shoelaces, buttons and snaps are great as well as items of clothing with this type of closure. Include lacing cards and all sizes of beads or pasta noodles like ziti to string.
Music Corner or Center:
This is a fun corner too! You can fill it with all kinds of toy band instruments such as drums, horns, maracas, keyboards, flutes, whistles, xylophones, band leader hats and batons and more. Children love to explore rhythm and sounds and although it may just sound like noise it does teach and serve a purpose. Rhythm is a difficult skill to master and helps build coordination. In this corner you can also have a CD player with a microphone and a library of music the children can sing and dance to or just listen to during an art activity.
(This one is my favorite!) This is the area where your treasured books are. Children that are exposed to books at an early age become readers for life. You can build a very nice preschool library over time. Scholastic Book Clubs has a club just for preschoolers so you could sign up for that online and get free books from each order you place. How it works: You give each family a monthly flyer and they order books through your club. You can place the group order online or mail it in. Each month Scholastic will give you free books that you earn from your groups order. They also offer very inexpensive books as low as $1. Scholastic has books for every theme in your preschool curriculum. You can find books at yard sales, eBay, thrift shops and library sales. Always check the clearance center at your local bookstore too. Some other props to place in this area might be a rocking chair and some floor pillows and be sure that it is well lit. A recording device and a flannel board are great tools for storytelling and re-telling. Asking children to re-tell a story is a great way to build literacy skills such as sequencing, memory and detail observation. You can bring props in from other corners to highlight a story you are reading. For example: use a mirror, a witch hat and an apple when reading ‘Snow White.
So, as you see this is a great way to create a fun learning environment for preschoolers. It can be ever-changing to reflect your themes, the seasons or holidays as well as everyday play. Have fun creating your own curiosity corners!