Classroom Centers

 Children learn best when they are actively engaged. Implementing centers in the classroom:

Promotes independence

Helps students become more responsible

Allows students to learn through self-discovery

Provides teachers with time to pull students one-on-one or in small groups to target specific academic skills, modify and enrich curriculum, and better meet the needs of individual students

   I have taught both first grade and kindergarten and could not imagine teaching without centers. Every year I tweak and adjust my system to meet the needs of my students.  Over the years, I have worked hard to move away from the more "cutesy" centers that must be changed out weekly and focused on creating more permanent centers with open ended tasks. Changing out centers weekly is just too much work!  I select activities that involve students in practicing reading, writing, and spelling daily.  I also choose open ended tasks that can be repeated with different poems, books, or writing topics.  Remember if it takes you longer to create the center than it takes your students to complete it, ask yourself if the activity is really worthwhile.  All of us have spent hours coloring, cutting, gluing, and laminating file folder games and activities that are completed in minutes.  So, try to keep this in mind if you are new to implementing centers in your classroom. 

Think about what your goals for implementing centers are:

  • Students actively engaged in meaningful learning.

  • Students working independently.

  • A peaceful working environment that is conducive to small group instruction.

 On this page you will find suggestions for:

Centers to Include in Your Classroom

How to record where students work

Center Resources

How to Manage and Organize Centers in Your Classroom
Sensational Centers in Small Spaces

Literacy Centers


Here are some centers that I have used over the years.  I have also tried to include any materials or resources that have worked well!  Some of these centers are kindergarten focused while others are more appropriate for first grade. 

   Read the Room: Students select a pointer to use to read words, poems, graphs, and any other text displayed in the classroom.  I have a tub located in the Library Center filled with all sorts of pointers.  Some of our favorites include magic wands, fly swatters, sunglasses, word munching animals, and bubble wands. Sometimes I will attach a list of words to a key ring and the students must find these words around the room.  Looking for some downloadable worksheets to coordinate with this activity?  Visit my literacy boxes page!


  Write the Room: This center is the same as Read the Room except this time students write down words they find displayed in the classroom.  Mini-clipboards, writing tablets, and fun pens make this center very enticing to students!  Looking for some downloadable worksheets to coordinate with this activity?  Visit my literacy boxes page!


  Letter Center:  In this center, students work with a variety of alphabet activities.  Sometimes students get to play several different games.  Other times, there is a required assignment for the child to complete. For a first grade classroom, you may wish to change this center into a word building center.  Students can spell sight words, weekly spelling words, word wall words, etc.


Materials: magnetic letters, magnetic boards or cookie sheets, foam letters, letter stamps, ink pads, alphabet beads, magnetic bingo markers and wands, word family mats, lima beans labeled with alphabet letters, letter cards (like the Open Court Alphabet Cards), Wikki-Stix, die-cut letters, letter stencils


Literacy Center Resources from Creative Teaching Press

Language in Motion

Reading manipulatives is a great resource for adding hands-on activities to reading instruction and center time.  It has lots of cheap ideas!  Here are some games and manipulatives you may wish to add to your centers.


  Writing Center:  Here students may create cards, letters for friends and family, short stories, mini-books, posters, and signs.  I alternate between free writing choices and assignments.  You might want to add special "thinking" crowns or hats.  I know some teachers have special hats for different sections of the writing process.  For example, a visor for editing.  I post examples of work samples in the writing center to provide writing choices.  This is my writing center from the 2006-2007 school year. My word wall is on a magnetic white board.

  Writing Center

Materials: Consider asking parents to donate old birthday, Christmas, and Valentine cards.  Parents may also be willing to donate old note pads and stationary.  Paper of all colors, shapes, and sizes, adding-machine tape, stickers, stamps, ink pads, markers, pens, crayons, pencils, scissors, glue, children's dictionaries, Word Wall, Mini-word walls in file folders, letter stencils, staplers, tape, clipboards


  Big Book Center: Students are allowed to read a variety of big books.  I write words from the story on sentence strips, cut them up, and store them in a Ziploc baggie.  I put Wikki-Stix on the outside of the Ziploc bag. I use a clothespin to attach the packets to the front of the books.


 Materials: Wikki-Stix, highlighting tape, sentence strips, a variety of pointers, sight word cards


  Letter Books: This center is a basket filled with alphabet books.  I sometimes include alphabet activities to play or materials for creating individual letter books.


  Pocket Chart: No classroom is complete without a pocket chart!  I put math games, language games, poems, and songs in our chart.  It is also a great place for working with punctuation.  The student below is adding pom pom ball periods and pipe cleaner and pom pom ball question marks.   She can also sing and sequence the poem on the left.  I created this activity from a punctuation worksheet.  The worksheet serves as a quick assessment of the activity.


  Puppet Center:  This center can also be called the "Story Re-telling" center.  Here students re-tell stories, poems, or nursery rhymes using puppets.  Students may design their own puppet or use one from the center. Sometimes, I have a specific puppet for the children to make.


Materials: socks, wiggly eyes, yarn, paper lunch sacks, paper plates, popsicle sticks, markers, crayons, scissors, tape, glue


  Math Center: Here students play math games, work with manipulatives, and learn through hands-on discovery. I no longer incorporate a math center during my language arts block. I need that time for independent practice with reading, writing, and spelling. Instead I prefer to use a math center time during my math block.  Students work with hands-on manipulatives and play math games which allows me to pull small groups of students during math time. 



To promote problem solving, students enjoy working with the Math Treasure Box.  Students draw numbers, names, and objects and fill in the math story frame to create addition and subtraction problems.



These books are must-haves for designing hands-on activities for your math center!



Science Center: This is the place for science experiments to take place!  Don't forget to include a variety of books, magnifying glasses, discovery bottles, lab coats, and science goggles.  In 2004, I took a three drawer file cabinet and turned them into investigation drawers.  Students selected an investigation drawer and filled out a lab report on the activities. 

Investigation Drawer #1: Magnets

Materials: magnetic wands, water bottles filled with items to test and graph magnetic vs. not magnetic, magnetic cars, ice cube tray and magnetic balls

Investigation Drawer #2: Insects

Materials: books on insects, magnifying glasses, bugs in jars (The kids love to help add to the collection!)Build a bug set from Costco: includes a book a bugs that can be put together as real or imaginary bugs (I also have one on reptiles that I put in the drawers from time to time.)

Investigation Drawer #3: Human Body

Materials: human body books, human body apron from Lakeshore, x-rays, rubber glove filled with popsicle sticks and one with flour

On top of the file cabinet, I have plants and a bird nest that the kids can observe and examine with magnifying glasses.  The great thing about the drawers is that I can change them out, but I don't have to change my labels! 

Science center   Science report form

Science tub topics is a great resource for your science center.  Consider adding magazines and books to your science center.  Ranger Rick and Zoobooks are wonderful kid friendly publications!

Click on the links below to order!

  Social Studies: This center is a great place for children to discover and learn about cultures around the world.  Maps, globes, atlases, travel brochures, and historical artifacts make this center high interest!  I used to have a geosafari globe that the kids can use, but I wished it had a headphone jack! 


  Art Center: Each week I place a new activity for the students to complete independently.  This center could also be set up for free expression by making art materials available to the students.  Provide written instructions for students to read and follow independently!  This is a great way to integrate reading and writing with art. 

Here are some great resources:


  Easel Painting: Provide students with smocks, various size brushes, and paint.  I also keep watercolors and chalk available.  Sometimes, I limit the number of paint colors and often ask students to paint a specific thing.  However, the easel is generally open for free paint!  In the wintertime, I put out a cup of epsom salt.  The children love to sprinkle their wet winter scenes with the salt because it makes the picture sparkle like snow!


  Fine Motor:  In this center, I put out a variety of activities aimed at increasing fine motor strength.  The "Lite Brite" is very popular and almost always available. You can also put out a variety of clothespins or tongs and small items for children to pick up and place in ice cube trays.


  Sewing:  Each week I place a seasonal shape in the sewing tub.  As the year progresses, the students hole-punch the shapes and sew them with multi-colored yarn.  Paper clips make ideal and inexpensive needles. I also put out some of the plastic needles. However, most of my kids choose to stitch without one!


  Dramatic Play:  Most kindergarten classrooms have housekeeping areas.  I prefer to call mine "Dramatic Play" because I change out the items according to the various themes we study.  For example, when we studied Texas and Cowboys, I created a night sky, a campfire, and covered the kitchen unit with butcher paper to make it look like a horse.


  Sand and Water Table: One year my classroom had a wonderful water table from Lakeshore.  I  enjoyed putting in colored water, soap and whisks, rice, beans, packing peanuts, and ice!  The possibilities are endless.  I recommend getting together with your kindergarten team to purchase items for your sensory tables.  Then, you could rotate the materials.  I find the storage of these items to be a little burdensome.  Email me if you have any great ideas.  So far, I like those big popcorn cans.


  Play-doh:  Clay and play-doh is always available to the students on the supply shelf.  I keep trays and a variety of cookie cutters available as well.  Sometimes, I will put out seasonal plastic placemats instead of trays.  Play-doh is also great for story re-telling!


   Keeping track of where students work during center time can be burdensome.  Over the years, I have tried many different things.  Here are some systems that I have used and found successful:


Center cards: With this system, students must wear a center necklace to go to centers.  The necklace is a large plastic clothespin threaded with lanyard lace.  The student attaches his or her card to the clothes pin and then goes to centers. The center cards have the same icons that are on the center.  Students color in the pictures of the centers they complete. This works really well with kindergarten students as the necklace helps the students keep track of their center card.


Click on a link below to download some of my center cards!




I use the copier at school to shrink the cards. The kids really enjoy wearing them as necklaces.  I also have a date stamp near the center card tubs.  The students stamp them on Monday.  The students have required centers which they must complete throughout the course of the week.  Once all of the required centers are complete they may choose any center on their card.  Fridays they may re-visit a favorite center.


Center Folders: I have a crate with hanging files labeled with each students name or number. Each child has a two pocket folder with brads in the center to keep their center work.  At the beginning of each week, children would put their center sheet in the brads of their folder.  The center sheet is a page containing pictures of the centers.  As the student completes the center, he or she colors in the picture of the center he or she worked in.  Folders are carried to each center and any work that is completed in a center is placed in the center folder. At the end of the week, students empty their folders, paper clip their papers together, and turn them in to be graded. 


Click on the links below to download my first grade center and literacy station recording sheets!



Visit my page on Literacy Boxes for more independent learning ideas.  Click on the honey pot to go!

Here are two great center recording sheets that I found on the web.  I can't remember where I found them, so I am unable to give credit to the teacher who shared them.  Please email me if they are yours, so I can give credit where credit is due!




    Here are some of my favorite teacher books for center activities!  Click on the books for purchasing information!


These books are helpful for setting up specific center activities.  The Big Book of Everything is a great year round book and a super asset to a first year teacher.  It has all kinds of seasonal activities and good activities for language arts, math, science, and social studies.

Primary Literacy Centers is filled with great ideas for centers.  It includes great teacher tips for setting up centers successfully and even has a checklist of materials!  It is very helpful for assessing what you already have and what you might want to add to your classroom.  The book also has tons of reproducible activities and recording sheets for your centers.  The center ideas are ones that can be set up year round and require little to no "changing" from week to week.  I think this book is often over-looked by teachers.  It also includes mini-lessons that help introduce new center activities!  I am so excited to see that there is a brand new book out! I will be ordering More Primary Literacy Centers myself!  Can't wait to read it!  Simple Centers for first grade is a cute book that has simple centers that are organized around specific themes such as back to school, pets, fairytales, etc. The activities generally cover math, science, reading, and writing.  It has excellent Christopher Columbus center activities.

The mailbox has amazing teacher friendly activities and ideas!  If you have a subscription to "The Mailbox" or "The Teacher's Helper,"  you know how great their resources are.  I love their grade level superbooks!  If you are a new teacher or new to a grade level, you will find these books very helpful!  They also have great resources for centers.  Here are a few great books to choose from!   Click on the book to order it now!


We could all use some more classroom management tips and new ideas for transitions!

The mailbox book is filled with tried and tested ideas from  primary teachers and

Dr. Jean always has great ideas too!

Debbie Diller has written two wonderful books on how to set up, run, and organize centers.  Literacy Workstations: Making Learning Centers Work is designed for K-2 classrooms.  Practice With Purpose is designed for 3-6 classrooms.  Isn't it nice to see upper grades included in books about centers?   Be sure and order Debbie Diller's newest book, Making the Most of Small Groups!  It's about time someone started writing about what we should be doing during small group instruction!

Take It To Your Seat is a wonderful series of books that makes centers quick and simple!  The book is complete with full color activities that are ready to be torn out and turned into a center in minutes!



So, what do you do during small group time?  Traditional reading groups have children reading in the round robin format.  Research shows that this is an ineffective practice.  Better teaching practices implement flexible grouping that targets specific skill areas that students need in order to succeed.  Not sure what else to do?  Check out Goodbye Round Robin.  It's a small easy to read book that provides new strategies that you can use instead of round robin.  Looking for new ways to teach comprehension skills and stratgeies?  Check out Reading with Meaning by Debbie Miller.  I love this book!!!  I learned so much from it about how I use comprehension strategies ,and it really helped me better understand how to teach them.  She provides great ideas for charting and creating anchor charts.  The book includes great photos of her classroom and student work. Currently, it is my favorite teacher resource book! 

Beverly Tyner has written two books on small-group reading instruction.  She uses a differentiated model and discusses the pros and cons of basal reading programs and guided reading.  Her approach differs from both models, but strategies could be used in conjunction with either kind of reading program.  She has written a book for K-2 and one for grades 3-8.








There are many different ways to organize and implement centers in your classroom.  I consider independent work to be just as important as anything else I do during the day.  Therefore, I avoid using centers as activities to be done after "real" work is completed.  Center time enables the teacher to work with small groups of students or individuals. 

Here is how I structure center time in my classroom:


Time Frame: 45-60 minutes a day
Activities: Students participate in three rotations during this time frame. I use a timer to help me stay on track. It is important to let students know that they should be working the entire time.  Set up your system so that it includes things that students "must do" and things that students "can do."  A student should always have an activity to be working on.   This will help eliminate "I'm finished!  What do I do now?"

Small Group with the Teacher


Students are grouped based on reading abilities or specific teaching needs for various reading skills.  The groups are flexible so that they can be adjusted according to individual student needs on a regular basis.  Group time is focused on:

  • Small group reading instruction

  • Reviewing phonetic sounds and spellings

  • Reviewing sight words

  • Pre-teaching and re-teaching concepts to struggling students

  • Challenging high achievers by extending reading and writing activities

Center Work


Students work independently or with a partner to complete centers. Centers such as reading, writing, and math are set up in specific areas of the room.  Other centers are kept in clear plastic tubs on a shelf.  The tubs are great for small or cramped classrooms because you can create a wide variety of activities and store them in a small amount of space.


Only two students are allowed at a center at a time.  Also, because there are three different activities occurring at the same time, only one third of the class is working in centers at one time.


Students may complete more than one center if time permits.  If you notice that a student has completed a center close to rotation time, send the student on to tablework to get started.  If they finish tablework early, it's not a problem because they have options to choose from when they finish their assigned tablework activity.



Independent Seatwork


Students work at their seat on a variety of independent tasks, such as

  • Workbook pages or worksheets

  • Journal Writing

  • Reviewing sight words or spelling words alone or with a partner

  • Poetry Journal

  • Assigned Reading

  • Seasonal or Research projects

Early finishers can choose one of the following activities if they finish before it is time to rotate:

  • Unfinished Work: I keep an expandable file on my desk.  Students file unfinished work there to complete when they have extra time.  At the end of the week, I send home any unfinished work home for homework.

  • Writers' Workshop Folder

  • Journal Writing

  • Poetry Journal

  • Read a book

  • Practice spelling words alone or with a partner

  • File folder games

  • Puzzle

Students are encouraged to be independent problem solvers.  I use the "3 Before Me" rule.  If a student has a question, he asks three friends for assistance.  If he still has a question, he can come and get a question card and set it on his desk.  The question cards are tent shaped cards with big question marks on them.  The child may set this on his desk and continue working.  When I have a free moment, I will assist the child with the question.  This helps the children understand that group time is very important and should not be interrupted.  I also remind my students that small group gets to be the loudest.  Friends in centers may use whisper tones and generally tablework is independent so there is no talking unless seeking assistance.




Want to see what my classroom looks like?

Click on the picture below for a tour.



Looking for more ideas about implementing hands-on activities into your classroom?

Check out my literacy boxes page!  Click on the bear to go there.



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Originally created in June 2003

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