Organizing Centers in the Early Childhood Classroom

Organizing Centers in the Early Childhood Classroom

Earlier this year, I touched upon early childhood centers in Centers — A Basic Introduction.  I thought now would be a good time to delve a little deeper into organizing centers in the early childhood classroom.  Keep in mind, this is just what I have been doing in my class this past few years.  I have integrated centers into both kindergarten and preschool classrooms in different ways throughout my years of teaching.  The organization of centers in both of these “grades” will be discussed below.

I think every teacher needs to decide for herself the best way to include centers in her classroom (based upon administrators’ expectations, teacher’s preference, students’ needs, etc.).  So, with that caveat, let’s continue!

Free Choice Centers

From September to December, I use “free choice” centers in my preschool classroom.  If you’d like more detailed information about why to use free choice centers, please visit here.

Structured, Grouped Centers

Organizing Centers in the Early Childhood Classroom

From January to May, I incorporate more structured centers to the preschool day.  Again, this is done for a variety of reasons.  As a pre-k teacher, my job is to prepare the children for elementary school.  The kiddos will deal with more structure during the kindergarten day, and these centers help ready them for that.  These centers also put more responsibility on the children.  They need to take charge of what they’re supposed to do during center time and keep track of what they’re doing.  On top of that, the structured centers take the kids outside of their comfort zones a bit.  Every child has to go to every center, even those centers they may not like as much.  They’re also placed in groups decided on by me, which exposes them to different personalities and sets them up with children they may not play with as often.

Organizing Centers in the Early Childhood Classroom

With the structured centers, I break the children up into 4 groups.  I usually color-code the groups (red, orange, green, and blue).  Honestly, the color-coding is more for me — so I can keep track of where all the kids are easily.  This year, I have 3 groups of 3 kids and 1 group of 4 kids.  Each group gets a line on the center pocket chart.  Listed to the right of the groups are 4 to 5 centers that the group uses.  They go through the centers in order, from left to right.  They are to take their time at each center — doing their best and completing the center as I’ve described.  Once a center is done, they are to clean up that area, check the center chart, and move on to the next center.

There is no set time limit on completing the centers each day.  As long as they do their best and do what I’ve told them to do, I try not to interfere with how long they are taking.  If students complete all of the centers listed next to their names, they are permitted to go back to the one they liked best.  They can always get a book to look at, as well.  If students haven’t completed all 5 centers by the time centers are over, that’s not a big deal.  I tell them not to worry, that they’ll have time to play at those centers another day.  It’s usually the first 2 centers next to the kids’ names that I really want completed anyway.

Organizing Centers in the Early Childhood Classroom

The structured centers are used for 4 days, which allows each group to go through each center grouping.  For example, on Monday, the red group completes the centers listed on the top line of the center pocket chart.  On Tuesday, the red group moves down to the second line of centers on the chart.  On Wednesday, the red group moves down to the third line of the pocket chart.  On Thursday, the red group moves down to the final line of the center chart.  We finish the structured centers on Thursday, leaving us with “Fun Friday Centers” on Friday.

The way I usually organize the structured centers on the pocket chart is as follows . . .

~ First line

  • Writing
  • Math
  • Arts/Crafts
  • Reading
  • Building

~ Second line

  • Art (with a teacher)
  • Book boxes
  • Home
  • Puzzles
  • Free writing/drawing

~ Third line

  • Building
  • ABC
  • Reading
  • Discovery
  • Read the Room

~ Fourth line

  • Write the Room
  • Discovery
  • Book boxes
  • Games
  • Coloring

Well, that was even more long-winded than I usually am!  I hope you were able to grab some ideas that can be applied to your classroom.  If you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear them.  I will likely touch on centers a few more times in the future, since they’re such a big part of the pre-k day.


  1. Maya says

    Hi, I love your post on centers. I have recently taken over a 10 student pre K classroom. I would like our center time to have a little more structure and have the kids get more out of them. As of now not a one uses the writing center, so I feel like your chart would be very helpful. Can you tell me how you incorporate your small group activity (daily art project)?
    Thank you

    • says

      Hi Maya,
      Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment on my centers post. I incorporate the small group activities in a couple of different ways. Usually, the small group activities with a teacher or an assistant are focused on an art project or a math/literacy activity.

      Sometimes I just call individual (or small groups of) children away from their centers to work with me. In this case, there is no specific center card on the chart for what I’m doing. This allows me to call however many children I have time for without being concerned about how long my activity takes. Also, this allows me to call a mixed group of children. For instance, maybe I’m working on literacy one week. I can call those children who need extra one-on-one attention and just be focused on them. I can also call a small group of children who are at the same level for a writing lesson or guided reading.

      Other times, I am sitting at their first center activity. In this case, there is a center card on the center chart for my activity. For instance, maybe I’m leading the “Art Center” activity one week. That means that each day, I would only do the art project with the group listed next to the “Art Center” on the center chart. This works best for art activities that are labor-intensive for the kiddos. It also frees up time at the end of the centers for me to walk around, observe how the children are doing, and just talk to the students.

      I hope some of this helps. Thanks, again, for stopping by!

  2. barb delhagen says

    can you tell me what you do in “write a room and read a room and what you mean by book boxes.

  3. Kara says

    Thank you so much for your wonderful ideas. I am a first year teacher, and teach in an inclusive pre-k classroom with up to 20 kids – so finding the perfect way to run centers has been a challenge of mine this year! When you move to more structured groups in January, do you require they stay together as a group before moving on, or do you let them move to the next center independently? Thanks again!

    • says

      Kara, you totally made my day! :) Thanks for the kind words. Personally, I let the children move at their own pace within the more structured centers. Some teachers prefer the children move in a group, but that doesn’t work well for me. Some kids end up rushing to keep up, while others have to sit and wait. I do expect them all to do their best, so there are times when I tell a child to go back and take his time on a center activity (sometimes they rush to get to the centers they love). I hope this answers your question. Let me know if you have any more! :)

  4. lisa ortner says

    Hi. I am so excited to see these postings. I am really struggling. I have 23 Prek, and it is getting wild. Do you have a copy of your schedule? Of my students 13 come 5 days, 17 4 days and 23 3 days. How would you set up centers? I have an aide but this is her first year too. Funny, cause on my days I feel like my training has gone out the window. Love it but it is hard. Chemistry of the room is so different this year.

    • says

      Isn’t it amazing how the chemistry of the room can change from year to year?? I’m going to write a post about my schedule soon, I think — I’ve had conversations about it with other readers. With children coming on different days, I know organizing centers can be a bit more difficult. For me, I would have as many interest areas/centers that appealed to the children (obviously, you’d have to take into account your day and the space you have in your room). Depending on the time of year, and the children, I would try the more organized approach that’s mentioned in this post. But I would keep the activities in the centers as broad as possible so the children enjoy their learning time no matter what day they come to school. I hope this helps a little bit! :)

      • says

        Hi, this post is really informative! Right now, I do 3 centers with a teacher at each center and use a timer to rotate. So your students move independently through each center- they start as a group, but they can move individually? So at a given center two groups may be represented? I’m curious as what kind of tasks may be in the block area for the children to complete. Thanks!

  5. Teresa says

    Hi, I love your ideas of organizing centers. How would you do centers in a classroom of 8 kids. We are a half day program. How long in your center time?

    • says

      Thanks, Teresa! Right now, my center time is about an hour and a half. With 8 children, I’d likely pick one activity a day that I’d prefer they do. After that, I’d encourage them to make some free choices from available centers. Another idea is to let the children work in pairs for a few activities before moving onto free choices. I hope this helps you out a little bit. I would love to hear your thoughts about it!

  6. Kay says

    Thank you so much for the detail involved. I am wondering when they are in the structured time of the year, are they supposed to complete a specific task in each center or may they choose any activity in that center and then move on? Thanks!

  7. emily says

    Hi Mary Catherine!
    So glad I found your website! You have great ideas to share! I’m interested in what the centers “Read the Room,” “Write the Room,” and “Book Boxes” consist of. I’m always looking for more creative centers!

    • says

      Thanks so much, Emily! Read the room consists of walking around and finding words and names they recognize. A lot of the time, the kids also choose to do our calendar. Write the room is walking around and writing (or attempting to write) down words and letters they see in the classroom. Book boxes contain the books we make together throughout the year. I have more information about book boxes here — I hope that helps!

  8. Sharon Moreno says

    Please I would really like to buy these center cards. Can you send me the link to the owners of this brand. I really really really want these for my classroom.

    • says

      Oh, Sharon, thanks so much for your kind words! I actually made most of the cards myself. I’ll look through my files to see if I have a secure way to share them with you.

  9. Haydee says

    Love your centers ideas. I’m new doing the vpk class. I have 10 students that I will be having. My class is only half day, and my school is private and they have a schedule that gives me short center time. How can I get an idea of a schedule for half day class? And do you do arts and craft daily?

  10. Beatrice says

    Hello there!! I am teaching 3’s for the first time this year and I am having to learn that less structure is more appropriate :) In your opinion would you just let them have free centers, or would you rotate them at three years old? There will be Myself and an Aid and up to 16 children for a full day!

    • says

      Hi Beatrice! I’d likely focus on more free choice centers with three year old kiddos. I’m not a huge fan of rotating through centers, even with the older children. Even with the more structured management system, the kids can work through centers at their own pace and interest levels. I hope your year goes well! :)

  11. Ruthann says

    Love the center ideas. Do you start these st the beginning of the year and how do you introduce them at the beginning at f the year? We have a team limit on our crntetd but I may be able to reduce the number of activities.

    • says

      Thanks so much, Ruthann! Yes, I start center time from the beginning of the year. I introduce, explain, and model the centers a lot those first few weeks of school. I explain my expectations each day and supervise/interact with the kids daily to make sure they understand what to do during centers. I hope that helps!

  12. Deborah says

    I’m curious about the group that goes to the “building” center first. Do you have a task for them to complete there? And I can see several of my kiddos getting there and never making it to the second center, much less the other 3! How do you work through that? Thank you!

  13. chasity says

    Hello. I teach pre k at a private school that drop off starts at 8:30 and pick up 11:30. All children arrive by 9:00. Right now we do Mon and Wed writing in the morning until 9. 9 circle Time and 9:30 small groups. 10:15 snack. 10:30 recess. 11:00-11:30 review or activity. 11:30 home. I was wondering if you had any suggestions on how we could incorporate our centers better.

  14. valerie says

    I love your centers ideas. I work in a classroom of up to 24 and the teacher is trying to incorporate centers. The challenge seems to be finding the flow of the groups moving to each center. Classroom management becomes challenging for this age group in a structured environment. Any of the substitute jobs I’ve been on in the pre k setting seem to successfully incorporate centers as their structure. How can this type of structure be less chaotic for the teacher?

  15. Carol Belanger says

    So glad to see this on pinterest. As I was reflecting on my current class (12 boys/3 girls who are “tom-boys”) I had decided to rethink centers for the new year. Nothing “girlie” is going on in my room! I noticed the children go to blocks during your 4 day rotation, but not to the dramatic play area. Is this reserved for fun Friday’s?

  16. Samantha says

    I found your site through Pinterest. I have to say that I am excited to read a perspective I’ve forgotten. Thank you so much for reminding me of how easy it is to set them up. And I really liked your signs. Did you make your center signs? (write room, read room, etc…) I really liked how you worded each one.


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