of Learning Centers
of the "hottest" trends
in the 1970s was the development and utilization of learning centers.
While their use never disappeared or became extinct, the emphasis
placed upon them for improving a teacher's ability to individualize
classroom instruction became greatly diminished. The educational
pendulum has swung back to individualizing many aspects of educational
programs for children, especially with mandated inclusive education.
Evidence of this resurgence is easily visible in conceptual schema
and philosophies embedded in whole language, invented spelling, individualized
spelling, and early childhood programs.
read underlying learning principles, or theory, about centers
is quite different from designing, constructing, and using centers
on the 'firing line." Hence, this brief expose
is meant to help teachers who lack information, experiences,
and/or models to cross the chasm between theory and practice
(a good journal exists by the name of Theory Into Practice).
Remember, learning centers have infiltrated the educational
landscape for the last 28 years. Research has demonstrated
that they are a very effective learning strategy. To date,
this writer has not found negative research regarding learning
centers, although they do have some downsides or misuses.
What Learning Centers Are
learning center is a place where children can work on one or more
instructional activities independently, thereby providing a teacher
with a mechanism for individualizing his/her program. The activities
are designed to develop and/or reinforce concepts, skills, and interests.
group of activities in a learning center is associated with
a specific theme, and each activity in a center constitutes
a learning station. Therefore, a learning station is a component
of the learning center. Some teachers use these terms interchangeably.
However, it is possible,
and sometimes desirable, to have one learning station constitute
an entire learning center. It really becomes a organizational
philosophy as to how one arranges his/her classroom. Also,
centers have specific purposes as to whether they are more
academic or more interest-oriented. For instance, the younger
child is developmentally not able to spend longer periods of
time working at one center. Therefore, the classroom for younger
elementary children would contain more learning centers with
fewer stations whereas the classroom in the intermediate grades
would comprise of fewer centers and more stations (activities)
within the center.
the initial investment of time to prepare learning centers,
a teacher can view them quite favorably as a means of providing
small group instruction. This not only promotes social interaction;
it is an efficient use of planning time.
Positive Aspects of Learning Centers
- Learning centers are organized to accommodate
a range of abilities within a classroom. You can prepare a) easier
centers for the less capable, b) challenging centers for the
more capable, c) hierarchical centers that have a series of stations
(activities) ranging from the easier to more difficult, with
each child progressing according to his/her individual ability.
- Elementary age children need an action-oriented
phase in their curriculum. Centers that involve the use
of manipulative, sensory-oriented materials increase interest
in the activity, add variety to your program, and eliminate
the stuffiness that permeates a classroom environment
in which children sit quietly for long periods of time.
- A more fluid classroom climate enhances interaction.
Children are encouraged to work with one another. Teachers are
freer to move among children helping, observing, checking for
understanding, and diagnosing.
- Learning centers encourage children to develop
a greater sense of responsibility. Children are expected to manage
center areas. When trained properly, they are responsible for
taking care of center areas.
What Learning Centers Are Not
Learning centers are not:
educational panacea. The concept itself simply represents another
strategy for diversifying an instructional program.
- a total
program. Inexperienced teachers could be flirting with disaster
if they should decide to totally embrace the learning center
mode of instruction as the only means by which to accomplish
their instructional outcomes.
- a substitute for the textbook, workbook, computer. or
instructional kit. Rather,
learning centers should work in harmony with, complement, and
supplement these instructional devices.
- a substitute
for the teacher. Centers are meant to provide the teacher with
more time to observe, diagnose, prescribe and interact with
for children to work on when they have finished their regular
work. If centers are use this way, the teacher will observe:
will rush through their regular work to get to a center. This
behavior can result in lessening the quality of their regular
- Some center
activities could be viewed as "busy work" or a "filler." Centers
could become meaningless and irrelevant that nobody would take
- Quite often,
less capable learners do not finish their regular work. By
allowing the more capable learner to work at centers, a teacher
is punishing and discriminating against the group of children
who can derive more benefit from these activities.
- If one accepts
the assumption that learning centers should be designed to
accommodate individual and/or small group needs, it would be
more prudent to provide a "center time" that
would allow all learners to become involved.
Types of Learning Centers
there are more than twenty or more identifiable types of centers,
most of them can be classified under two major categories - Academic/Curricular
and Interest. The types of learning centers a teacher designs for
his/her classroom depends upon one's philosophical orientation toward
- Academic/curricular centers deal with the concepts and/or
skills of one's instructional program. These centers
are designed to develop content and/or to reinforce content
that has already been taught. The stations in academic
centers are based upon right and wrong answers. In some
way, an answer key should be provided to youngsters. This
makes them self-correcting.
For example - on
any academic subject, such as volcanoes, or animal homes
centers involve activities that are based upon a) interests
of the learner, b) value judgments of the child, and c)
open-ended activities. These centers are not concerned
with whether an answer is right or wrong. They are not
self-correcting, but that does not mean that meaningful
learning is not taking place.
For example - on
any area of interest such as writing about how one feels
about a book, or constructing a Lego design
What Should Learning Centers Look Like
need not look like the Taj Mahal, but neither should they take on
the appearance of Saturday night's "Trash
Masher Special." The design of a center is like "clay in your hands" to
be shaped in relation to your purposes, materials, and classroom
materials. Each one should be aesthetically pleasing and enhance
the learning environment.
you have limited space and display area, you will need to develop
centers with two dimensional, flat designs similar to those in
my Adaptable Designs book. Using materials such as file folders,
poster board, bulletin boards, pegboards, etc. save space. If
there is greater space available, you can include more bulky, three
dimensional centers such as instructional kits, display tables,
boxes, actual objects, water table, etc.
Here are some suggestions that can help you plan and make learning
the process of making centers by determining your objectives/outcomes
for the center. Will it be designed to develop, reinforce,
or stimulate interest relative to concepts and skills?
how you can use the overall space available. This will help
you decide the most appropriate packaging format and response
system for each center.
available materials. In fact, have a picture/activity file
of old calendar picture, workbooks, advertising pictures,
maps, posters, etc.
a tentative sketch of the center. Many problems can be avoided
by doing this. On the sketch, determine where to place directions,
- Select materials and equipment from your collection and construct
the center. Field test your center activities
with several children and correct any trouble spots.
Time and Idea Solutions
It is recognized that a teacher's time is at a premium. The following
suggestions can help alleviate time and idea problems.
a file of learning center ideas. They can be sketches you
made, or material from commercial sources and magazines,
such as The Mailbox.
with other teachers who embrace learning center philosophy.
you school purchase idea and activity books.
in teacher workshops and conferences. Take a camera, tape
recorder, video recorder, or note pad to record center ideas.
- Activities that are used heavily by youngsters should be
made as durable as possible. Using sturdily constructed materials,
clear contact paper, and/or lamination will increase the "life
span" of your center activities.
you have permanent center areas in the classroom, construct
your centers so that they are efficiently packaged, dismantled,
mileage by constructing centers that have adaptable design
formats. With adaptable designs, the basic structural design
can be used repeatedly by simply changing the activities
to correspond with the unit theme currently being studied.
Some approaches to design adaptability are:
with hooks or golf tees
- posterboard with magnet tape, adhesive clips, velcro,
paper clips, etc.
- adaptable gameboards
- making a flume in a box
- beverage boxes
- Some activities are easier to make than others.
Use these basic designs to make many center activities. A pizza
or pie plate design with clothespins works well. A picture Flip-Over
design with a self correcting format is easy to make
- Constructing learning centers is a learning experience for
youngsters. Involve them in planning and making simple
centers for their class or other classes.
- Designate center areas in your classroom. They will remain
constant but the material used in conjunction with them can change. Note:
Most of these center areas are interest-oriented. Writing
Center, Art Center, Construction/Workbench Center, Puppet Center,
Block Center, Kitchen Center, Life Science/Science Center, Listening
Center, Reading Center, Water/Sand Table Center, Music Center,
Manipulative Center, Creative Drama Center, Storytelling Center,
Grocery Store Center, etc.
Problems of Learning Centers
learning centers have been demonstrated by many teachers to be effective
teaching and learning devices, they can unquestionably cause "migraine" headaches.
Although they are based upon solid learning principles, they do not
always work well. If this is the case, there usually is a reason
for it. Here are common problem areas.
new teachers assume children know how to work independently.
This is not usually standard operating procedure
for them. If your children have not received much exposure
to this approach, you will need to teach them how to work
independently in and with centers. Remember, one major thrust
of learning centers is to increase a child's sense of responsibility.
frequent reason why centers receive a "bad rap" is
that the activities housed within the center are too difficult
for the children. If children are expected to work on their own,
centers need to be easy enough for the child's independent level
of functioning - not the more elevated instructional level that
requires the teacher's presence, nor the frustration level that
is tantamount to failure. If you find children
having difficulty with reinforcement centers, it
can indicate that the concepts/skills were not adequately
learned. If this is true, you
can use the center diagnostically to determine whether
they are ready for the center and whether you need to
reteach some concepts/skills.
can contain too many concepts, thereby befuddling some children
with cognitive overload. For instance, a map reading center
that incorporates information on cardinal/intermediate directions,
legend, scale, latitude and longitude would be too comprehensive.
It would be more advisable and effective to develop centers
based upon each concept cluster. Less
mature children will need to be guided through simple
centers. When they are ready to handle more complex centers,
they can be directed to them.
all topics are conducive to the learning center mode of instruction. Employing
other strategies such as simulation, KWL, DLTA, etc. may
be more effective. Centers are not the only teaching strategy
on the market.
- Sometimes an ineffective design format and/or inappropriate
location can lead to the center's problems. For instance,
a puppet center may not be in a private enough location.
you are a novice at incorporating learning centers into your
classroom, but have a fervent desire to do so, proceed with
moderation. Some new teachers embrace the philosophy too
vigorously and discover they are in "over their heads." The
ensuing chaos is not necessarily the fault of your
students or of the center approach.
- Lastly, and probably most importantly, centers can fail because
some teachers simply lack commitment. If teachers do not wish
to use centers, they would be far happier and effective using
Isbell, R. (1995). The complete learning center book.
Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House, Inc.
Pellow, R. (2000). Adaptable Designs. (Third Edition)
College of Human Services and Education. Shippensburg,
PA: Shippensburg University.