Teaching in Centers

The majority of early childhood educators can agree that children learn through play. Learning through play can look very different from one center to another depending on their chosen curriculum. If you walk into almost any Pre-K classroom you will find an area for students to play with Math materials, Science materials, sensory materials, creative art materials, dramatic play materials, writing materials, blocks, and an area for reading books. How the students interact with these materials is an indicator of the center’s philosophy.

We used to believe that if we supply the appropriate materials and arrange them in an attractive way for students, they would naturally learn on their own through play. We also believed that the bulk of “teaching” this age group happened at circle (or large group) time, or when transitioning students from one activity to another (also taking place as a large group). The average circle time looks something like this:

  • Every child sits on their designated spot on the carpet
  • A song related to welcome to school or good morning the students sing along to
  • Count the students that are present and identify those who are missing
  • calendar (day of the week, weather, etc.)
  • Music and Movement (1-3 songs)
  • Presentation of a story
  • transition to the next activity by practicing a skill (writing their name, patterning, identifying colors etc.)

During all of these activities, students are expected to be engaged, sitting in a manner acceptable to the teacher (criss-cross applesauce), non-disruptive, and excited! Why do teachers choose to jam so many “activities” into a large group setting in this way? Why are their lesson plans packed with details for circle and transition times, and include the bare minimum for free play time? Because they have been taught that this is what “teaching” looks like.

Most preschool classrooms have a period of “free choice” or “free play”, where they have the chance to play in learning centers and interact with the materials that have been meticulously selected and displayed for the students. Too many times I have seen “free play” time turn into a time that teachers are free from teaching for that time period. Free play includes assisting children in the bathroom, managing behaviors, prepping for an upcoming snack or meal time, cleaning up messes, and many other tasks that require little to no interaction with students. When I see this, I wonder if the teachers realize the missed opportunities.

I have been working with teachers in my center the last 2 years on shifting the focus from circle time to free play. It has been a hard transition for most of the teachers, especially those that have been teaching more than 5 years. Intentionally teaching in centers is a difficult skill to master and one that takes lots of practice. The benefits to students are enormous! It is much more effective to teach a child about the life cycle of a plant by providing all of the materials necessary to grow a plant and make them available to students in maybe the Science center, rather than listening to a story about it. I am not suggesting that books are unimportant, I am suggesting that we use books as a supplement to materials. Hands on experiences have so much more meaning. Imagine helping a child put soil in a cup, adding a seed, watering the seed, choosing a spot in the classroom where the see will get some sun, and then watch, measure, and chart as the seed grows. This would be an experience the child would likely never forget, and it keeps them engaged for weeks rather than minutes!

What kinds of strategies do you use to teach in centers? Please share in the comments!

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