I love using learning centers in in my preschool classroom! Centers are an important part of early education, and managing centers can be done a variety of ways. Today, I’d like to talk about embracing open-ended free choice preschool centers.
When I taught kindergarten, I used both free choice and structured center management, depending on the class and the time of year. I’ve used both methods with many of my preschool classes, as well. I always strive to provide my students with open-ended activities and the ability to choose learning activities (within each center management “technique”). While I believe that both systems of center management work well, I want to focus on what I call free choice centers.
Free choice preschool centers, explained
To me, free choice centers mean students can choose from any available centers. While the teacher controls which centers are available, she doesn’t control where the kiddos go. Students are also allowed to determine how much time they spend within each center. For example, one child might stay at the building center the entire center time. Another child might go to the reading center for 10 minutes, the home center for 30 minutes, and the writing center for the rest of center time.
The benefits of free choice in preschool centers
First and foremost, the children are allowed to make their own decisions. It might seem pretty basic to us, as adults, but it’s incredibly important to the kiddos. It gives them more ownership over their learning experiences.
On top of that, students are able to focus on what interests them most. My center time goals are twofold – it’s a way for me to work with individual kiddos and small groups AND it’s way for children to expand on what they’re learning and explore their own interests.
The children also learn some aspects of time management. With my most recent preschool schedule, centers lasted for about an hour and a half. While that’s a lot of time, it’s not infinite. At times, kids would become upset at missing out on a center or two (because they’d spent all of their time at just one center). This led to some good discussions about priorities and allowing time for all of our interests.
I love observing my students during centers each year. It helps me to see what interests them the most, and it helps me plan the next phase of their learning. For example, my class last year adored the building center, so I tried to capitalize on that interest in a variety of ways throughout the school year. There were phases when the children were incredibly curious about bugs, so I brought more of my focus in to teaching about bugs. This helped engage the children even more in their preschool education in a fun, meaningful way.
How to manage free choice centers in the classroom
In my classroom, I usually have a limit on how many kids can be at each center. The smaller areas, like our nature center, are usually limited to 2 or 3 students. Larger spaces, like the building center, can have 4 or 5. Sometimes I make exceptions, of course – if a larger group is super engaged in a project, I try not to break it up!
Throughout center time, I try to keep all areas of the classroom accessible to the children. Every once in a while, I close a center (usually to reorganize it or make room for a larger project). I let the children know it is off limits, and that’s that.
Below are the centers I usually have available. For additional ideas, and more detailed explanations, please see my Introduction to Centers post.
- Reading and quiet time
- Writing and drawing
- Arts and crafts
- Math and fine motor
- Home and pretend play
- Nature and science
- Sensory play
Please keep in mind that free choice centers may not work in every early childhood classroom. I really enjoy using them in my preschool classroom, but I liked using more structured center management when I taught kindergarten. If a more structured center time is needed in preschool, there are always ways to adapt them to include a lot of student choice. Remember that you, as the teacher, know what works best for your students and your school!
So, what do your preschool centers look like? I’d love to hear what happens in YOUR classroom!