Learning centers for everyone
At a recent in-service training workshop Peggy Kelly complained about her group of 3-year-olds. “They just won’t settle down. I feel like I spend all my time negotiating arguments, grabbing materials out of the closet, and managing transitions. Something has to change.”
Genny Rudy, the workshop leader, prodded gently, “Tell me about how you arrange your learning centers.”
Peggy answered, “Aren’t learning centers just the places I put out toys?”
Genny replied, “Not exactly….”
• • •
Learning centers are the environmental skeleton of early childhood programs. They are designed to actively engage children in their own cognitive, language, physical, social, and emotional development.
In a learning center—art, music, or dramatic play, for example—all children are invited to pursue their interests, learn to make meaningful choices, and build their skills. Equipment and materials are purposeful. They are designed and included to engage children in deliberate investigation and discovery.
Whether the children are following a typical path of development or have special developmental needs, learning centers assert that every child can learn, every child can develop skills, and every child can engage socially. Teachers play an important role in early childhood classrooms. Through careful planning for individual children and for the group, teachers help children gain independence, learn how to help themselves, and accept that they are capable.
Ages and stages
Learning centers make the most sense, and are most successful, when teachers understand the sequence of children’s play and learning.
Infants and younger toddlers learn through their senses. They gain understanding and control of their environments by touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing things and people. With experience, they gain the muscle control, balance, and mobility that lead to new explorations and investigations.
Older toddlers and preschoolers continue to rely on their senses for information but also begin to understand symbols—that one thing can stand for or represent another. Beginning symbolic play—holding a unit block like a telephone, for example—and role playing—“You be the daddy, I’m the baby”—are the gateways to later skills such as literacy, math, and artistic creativity.
Because every child develops at a unique pace, it’s difficult to determine a child’s developmental level with precision. What teachers regard as typical development actually covers a wide range of behaviors and skills.
Both genetic background and the environment impact development. Temperament, personality, and interest influence developmental domains as well. When teachers carefully observe children, developmental strengths and weaknesses become apparent. When a child lags behind others of roughly the same age, teachers are alert to potential developmental delays and the need for intervention.
But every child—including those with disabilities, delays, and special needs—deserves the educational and socialization benefits that learning centers offer. And while some adaptation or modification of a center may be necessary, all children gain from practicing skills, interacting with other people, manipulating objects, solving problems, and investigating and making discoveries about people and things in the environment.
Managing the space
Arranging space in a child care center is always easier than in a home setting. While the basic needs and functions of learning centers are the same, in-home programs must carve out special spaces for children’s use. Some programs opt for space that’s used exclusively for child care; others create double-duty spaces that work for both family and child care functions.
However the space is arranged, children need routine, order, and a choice of activities. Teachers need ample storage options and a system for dividing large spaces into individual learning centers. As you plan the space, remember to provide quiet and active areas, hard and soft surfaces, and space for children to work in groups or alone.
Safety is a primary concern in all early care and education programs. To help ensure safety, follow these guidelines.
Make sure equipment and materials are in good repair. Remove and repair or replace broken toys, equipment, and furniture.
Arrange furniture and equipment to allow visual and auditory supervision.
Store materials and equipment so children can choose, use, and return to storage independently.
Cover unused electrical outlets and keep traffic areas clear of electrical cords.
Choose materials and equipment with children’s safety in mind. Offer objects and equipment that are washable, nontoxic (including plants), and free of choking hazards. The Consumer Products Safety Commission Web site at www.cpsc.gov provides information on product recalls and general material safety. Dick Blick Art Materials provides an Online Material Safety Data Sheet for all art materials and equipment at www.dickblick.com/MSDS/.
Store cleaning products and any hazardous materials in cabinets inaccessible to children.
Some teachers choose to limit the number of children who can play in a center at one time. Typically, children will sort themselves according to interests and avoid crowded areas. If it’s necessary to limit the number of children because of safety concerns or limited physical space, develop a plan for center selection and stick to it. Frequent changes in access rules will frustrate children and force you to spend too much time arbitrating disputes rather than supporting play.
Be careful to rotate materials and present them in attractive, inviting ways.
Managing the learning
The following list contains information on the most basic learning centers, centers that should be available to every child, every day.
Consider adding more specialized learning centers like woodworking, cooking, and technology as space, equipment, and children’s interests dictate. Each addition enriches and inspires children to grasp another important part of their complex world.
Art. Art experiences—painting, drawing, and creating sculpture—build skills in all developmental domains. Children’s experiments with line, color, space, shape, form, and symbol support cognitive skills. Experiences with tools like brushes, sponges, scissors, and clay refine fine and gross motor skills. Interactions with other children promote social, emotional, and language development. Art experiences also promote independent decision making and self-evaluation.
Children tend to move through stages of art exploration, refining techniques as skills build. Give children access to art materials and observe the progression from random marks (as when children are first learning to hold a crayon) to scribbles, circles, lines, and ultimately representations of people and things.
Remember: Art and craft are not the same thing. Art encourages children to experiment and create, using their own skills and imaginations. Craft typically involves copying a model that someone with more skill and experience has built, a process almost guaranteed to make a child feel inadequate and inept.
Locate the art center near a water source. Messy art is good art! Consider protecting flat surfaces with an old shower curtain taped to the underside of a table.
Art center equipment includes table, chairs, easels, and storage shelves. Many teachers remove chairs from the art table to encourage children to move freely as they create. Make sure you have areas for drying artwork and prominent areas for display.
Sand and water. Sensory explorations are comforting to young children—and often to adults as well. Exploring textures, weight, solidity and liquidity, cause and effect, and consistency open the door to scientific inquiry and mathematical function.
Often a sand and water table serves as the sensory center. The best tables are big enough to allow four children to play together comfortably. Commercially available tables also have a drain for easy emptying of water and a cover to keep sand in place.
But programs don’t need to buy a sand and water table to make sensory play available to children. Dishpans, plastic storage tubs, and deep trays serve the same end. They are a bit harder to fill and clean, however.
Plain sand or water will engage children for long periods. But each can be embellished as children’s interest wanes. Water, for example, can be soapy or colored. Consider making these materials available for exploration:
colored aquarium gravel
Invite children to use cookie cutters, scoops, cups and bowls, sieves, funnels, whisks, and basters in their explorations.
Use plastic sheeting or an old shower curtain to protect floor and furniture surfaces, especially in water play. Ensure that children (and adults) wash their hands before and after water play. Provide smocks to protect children’s clothing and have extra sets of clothing on hand for accidents.
Encourage children to help with cleanup, moping up liquid spills with a sponge or an absorbent towels and dry spills with a child-sized broom and dustpan. Remember to empty and sanitize water play containers at the end the day.