Dr. Randall Pellow, EdD




Resurgence of Learning Centers

One 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.

To 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

A 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.

Each 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.

    In acknowledging 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:
  • an 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 children.
  • activities for children to work on when they have finished their regular work. If centers are use this way, the teacher will observe:
    1. Children will rush through their regular work to get to a center. This behavior can result in lessening the quality of their regular work.
    2. Some center activities could be viewed as "busy work" or a "filler." Centers could become meaningless and irrelevant that nobody would take seriously.
    3. 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

Although 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 their purpose.
  1. 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

  1. Interest 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

Centers 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.

If 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 centers.

  • Begin 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?
  • Plan how you can use the overall space available. This will help you decide the most appropriate packaging format and response system for each center.
  • Collect available materials. In fact, have a picture/activity file of old calendar picture, workbooks, advertising pictures, maps, posters, etc.
  • Make a tentative sketch of the center. Many problems can be avoided by doing this. On the sketch, determine where to place directions, answers, etc.
  • 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.
  • Keep a file of learning center ideas. They can be sketches you made, or material from commercial sources and magazines, such as The Mailbox.
  • Work with other teachers who embrace learning center philosophy.
  • Have you school purchase idea and activity books.
  • Participate 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.
  • Unless you have permanent center areas in the classroom, construct your centers so that they are efficiently packaged, dismantled, and stored.
  • Gain 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:
    1. pegboard with hooks or golf tees
    2. electric boards
    3. posterboard with magnet tape, adhesive clips, velcro, paper clips, etc.
    4. adaptable gameboards
    5. making a flume in a box
    6. 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 (in Adaptable Designs).
  • 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

Although 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.
  • Many 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.
  • Another 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.
  • Centers 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.
  • Not 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.
  • If 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 other methods.


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.