Are you ready to pull your hair out over managing your early childhood center time?
Take your hands out of your hair and take a breath with me.
We’ve already touched on what centers are and why they’re important. Now, let’s take a look at different ways to organize and manage your preschool (or kindergarten!) center time.
There Isn’t Just One Way to Manage Your Center Time
Yes, I know it would be a lot easier for all of us if there was just one way to run centers correctly. Alas, there are so many different ways of handling early childhood centers.
On the one hand, this means we have the leeway to handle centers in a way that works best for us and our students. On the other hand – Too. Many. Choices.
In my time as an early childhood educator, I’ve taught in both kindergarten and preschool classrooms. Over the years, I’ve tried a few different center management techniques.
Keep in mind, these are things that I have done. My opinions and methods have changed over time, and these ideas aren’t the only ones out there.
I think you need to decide for yourself the best way to include center time in your classroom. You’ll need to take into account your students’ needs, your preferences, your administrator’s expectations, staffing in your classroom, how many students you teach, etc.
So, with that caveat, let’s continue!
Be sure to check out our Early Childhood Education Centers Resource for an in-depth teachers’ guide and center cards.
Methods for Managing Early Childhood Center Time
As I mentioned earlier, these are just some ideas for managing center time in your classroom. I’ve used each of them, and I think there are pros and cons to each way of doing things.
Over time, I’ve also noticed that my thoughts have changed. I used to prefer one method of center management, but found that another works so much better for my students.
So remember that you aren’t married to just one way of running your early childhood centers. In fact, it’s likely best to reevaluate each year depending on the group of children that you have (and sometimes a mid-year reevaluation is in order).
Free Choice Centers are My Preferred Choice for Preschool Classrooms
With open-ended, free choice centers your students can determine which centers they want to visit during center time.
You, as the teacher, determine which centers are available to the kids during this time. You’re also responsible for what materials are within each of these centers. Basic center rules still need to be followed, as well.
At first, I have to admit I was a little hesitant to embrace free choice centers. Having started out as a kindergarten teacher, I was used to a bit more teacher-directed center time management. I’ve since gotten over that hesitation and fully embrace them. I also came to realize that these centers don’t lack structure – they’re just organized a bit differently than I was used to.
When I first started out in pre-kindergarten, I kept the free choice center time towards the beginning of the school year. So from September through December or January, we had free choice centers. After that, I instituted structured, grouped centers.
Where I stand now, I think free choice centers are my personal favorite for preschool classrooms. I’ve outlined the benefits of them, along with management suggestions, here in a separate post.
Structured, Grouped Centers for Kindergarten Center Time
Another way you can manage your centers is a bit more teacher-directed. I think this worked very well during kindergarten center time, and they’re likely my favorite for that age group.
I’ve used it in the preschool classroom too, but I wouldn’t suggest using it with young preschool children (under age 4). Most of my pre-kinder students responded well to it during the latter half of their preschool year. That being said, I now think that open-ended centers (as mentioned above) works best for preschool children.
This method of center organization and management starts with groups of students. Depending on the number of children in your classroom, this could be four or five different groups. I preferred to keep them to four groups if at all possible.
Each group of children then has certain centers to work through each day, Monday through Thursday (if you have five groups of kids, it would go Monday through Friday). As I mentioned above, I liked having four groups so we could turn Friday into “Fun Friday Centers”.
The students can still work at their own pace, and there’s flexibility built in to work independently or with peers from within their own group. They can also decide how long to remain at each center. Once the kids have completed their “must do” centers, they are allowed a few different center choices.
However, the children don’t have a choice as to which centers they need to go to. They also aren’t given the choice to go to the centers in a different order.
There will be a follow-up post explaining this more in-depth soon.
Rotating Center Management
One final center management method I’ve used is more rigid than the other ideas I’ve already mentioned. I rarely used rotating center time with my preschoolers, but I did use it with my kindergarten students from time to time.
With rotating centers, you split the children into groups. The number of groups usually depends on how many centers you have available at the time. For example, if you have six center areas open, it would make sense to split the kids into six groups.
Once the children are split up, you assign each group to a center to start out in. Each group works and plays in their assigned center for a set period of time.
When time is almost up, you deliver a five minute warning. Once those five minutes are over, every student cleans up and lines up by their centers (still in their groups). You could use a bell or a maraca to tell the kids it’s time to clean up their areas.
Then you direct each group to the next center to go to. I usually had the kids moving in a general clockwise direction, as that was just easier for me. Once every group had been through every center, it was time to move on to a different part of the day.
During my first couple of years as a kindergarten teacher, we often used this rotational method of center time management. My teaching partner and I even had a sweet chant the kids would say before moving on to the next center – “We’re not 5, we’re not 4, we’re not 3, we’re not 2, we’re number 1! We’re number !!” Nothing fancy, but the kids enjoyed it.
Related: Preschool Classroom Tour
How Do You Like to Manage Center Time?
Now that I’ve shared three different center management ideas, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Do you have a favorite way of handling center time in your early childhood classroom?
If you’re new to centers, I hope that you were able to grab an idea or two to apply to your own classroom. Feel free to leave questions or comments below.
Please note this post was originally written January 11, 2013. It’s been updated to provide more information and add a few new photos.
Amazing Resource for Your Early Childhood Centers
I’ve had many readers looking for help with centers, as well as requests for center cards – which led to the creation of this centers pack. If you’d like all the whys, hows, and to-dos in one place, along with a ton of printable center cards and signs, you need to check out this Preschool Centers Resource. Keep in mind, this would work great in other early childhood classrooms too! Below the photo you’ll see what comes in the 250+ page pack.
50 page planning guide
This teacher guide delves into what centers are, why they’re important, ideas for managing centers, how to set up centers in preschool, ideas for stocking centers, and how to introduce them to your students.
This planning guide would be great to print out and add to a teacher binder, or get them printed and bound separately to keep for reference in the classroom.
Printables for managing and labeling centers
There are a wide variety of centers included in these printables. This way, you can pick and choose what you need for your own classroom each year.
Here are the printables included along with the teacher guide:
- Large Center Signs
- Square Center Cards
- Center Choices Checklists
- Center Rules (with an editable option)
- Large Centers Signs (with room for students to add Name Cards)
- Editable Student Name Cards
- Center Sign Up Sheets
- “Work in Progress” Signs
- “Book Hospital” Labels