Centers. The word is so loaded. It’s a word you either love or let’s just say, have a funky relationship with. Whether it be with differentiation, management of materials, organization, upkeep, or the many other components that come with centers, there are plenty of things that can make a teacher feel a tad bit overwhelmed when it comes to running centers.
Let me be your saving grace. This post will help you feel less stress with center organization, strategies that you can implement TOMORROW and sustainable systems to keep them running smoothly the entire year! Not only will I help you organize your centers, but we’ll talk about best practices for introductions centers, how to change them up, all while managing them in a way where it *almost* runs itself. Who wouldn’t want that?!
The Set Up
The set up is crucial to the success of each part of your centers. Thinking about how you will explicitly teach every activity when introducing them is key. How you keep materials and units together will support the ease when changing centers, as well as keeping them running seamlessly. If you do all of these things, your centers will eventually *almost* run itself.
At the beginning of the year, or whenever you’re introducing new centers throughout new units, it is so important to spend ample time explaining how to use materials for centers, how the activity is completed using very specific and detailed directions, and where the activity is turned in. There are many different ways to share directions with students. Bring your personality in and get creative! You can introduce new centers as a whole group while students listen and watch on the carpet, use previously recorded video directions students can watch on a device, or you can give visual and/or written out directions for students to read through while they work. Introducing one center to students at a time helps ALL students learn the expectations for each specific center activity.
Think about a center you’ve been wanting to introduce or one that students have been struggling with. Get creative with your explicit instructions on how it runs. Make a Tik Tok video to show them exactly what it looks like. Create an anchor chart they can all follow to ensure they’re supported. Let them practice. Be consistent in your expectations and give them time to get it down. Do this with every center and I promise you will see a transformation in your students.
Remember we want sustainable systems for organization and I’m here to give you that. The best thing about a simple, yet effective organization system, is that it’s totally set up for your success. Everything has a home here so there’s no guessing games when it comes to cleaning up. This keeps everything where it needs to be and very rarely will you have piles up of things you still aren’t sure where they fit. It’s an easy way to keep your materials in place, keep your centers running smoothly, and YOU less stressed!
To help me with this piece, I do have a few favorite tools. First up are these Michaels Scrapbook Cases. They are my absolute favorite to organize math and literacy center activities. I love these because they are big enough to store an entire unit of center activities, which may include manipulatives, papers, and games. The best part is they can often be found on sale throughout the year. Of course inexpensive containers will suffice, but the key part is making sure they are uniform. It will help the system run better and help with storing them later, as everything will be the same size. Choose bins or containers large enough to fit several activities and their materials. This helps keep your units in order as you need them for various subjects.
The second layer of organization is how your units are sorted out. This is where my second favorite tool comes in. These bags from Amazon are super durable, large enough for games and materials, and they are clear so you can find just what you’re looking for in no time! (affiliate link included)
For specific center activities in the container, I love to organize the game or activity in a bag of its own so that it can be taken out when it is time. While these bags work great, Ziploc bags are an easy to find alternative that work wonders- they just don’t hold up as well. Check out how some of our different math and literacy centers are organized.
The third, and final piece of this system, is to label everything. I label my containers for each unit, as well as every bag inside with exactly what needs to go in. All of my math and literacy center activities are stored in the cases in a cabinet or on a shelf and pulled out when needed. Labeling is a powerful part for two reasons. One is to ensure everyone knows where the home is for all the things, whether it’s the playdoh, letter tiles, or the recording sheet for a specific center. The other reason is that it also creates a print rich environment and it sets your students up for independence, which ultimate is key to your centers *almost* running themselves. Want to learn more about how to set up a student centered classroom that practically runs itself? Check out how you can achieve this magic HERE!
Meet Every Need
Now that we’ve tackled ways to organize and store centers, let’s discuss how to make them flow throughout units and differentiate instruction for students. In addition to my scrapbook cases that house each unit, I keep a few empty ones that are color coded such as the ones below. You can “code” them however you’d like, whether that be with colors, animals, or numbers.
As centers are introduced, I’ll pull activities from the unit bins that are targeted for their group specifically. For example, I take my place value unit case out to search for activities for one group to have a bin full of center games only using teen numbers, whereas another group has activities with them working with higher numbers. Both are working on crucial place value skills, but they are differentiated for them to master the levels they are at. I typically try to include as many hands-on games and activities for students to practice skills while keeping them engaged. These activities can stay in their bin throughout the unit and build upon each other. I always allow students to work on any activity of their choice from their bin because it is already designed to meet their needs. This provides them with choice on how they learn best and ensure they are getting MEANINGFUL practice during center time.
Literacy centers work alongside my guided groups. Whatever phonics skill students are working on during their guided group, that will be the same skill they practice at their center. The same as during math centers, students have their coded bin to access their materials from. All activities will slowly build up and stay in their bin for as long as needed, to allow for ample practice until that specific phonics skill is mastered.
One thing I love about a lot of the centers I use is that many of the games and activities are so simple and fun that they can be used with all kinds of skills! Check out some of them below! They are already set up for differentiation and allows you to have LESS to keep up with.
Set Your Classroom Up For Success
Do you see how simple and sustainable this system can be? Using well labeled, uniformed bins for centers helps you stay organized, differentiate for all groups of students, and they’ll easily house specific, targeted activities for each unit for years to come. I hope you enjoyed learning some great ways to get and STAY organized in storing and running your centers. Want to learn more in depth about implementing successful centers in a classroom that *almost* runs itself? I encourage you to check out the Building a Student Centered Classroom course to receive my support every step of the way!
I really hope you enjoyed learning some super helpful ways to get and stay organized with centers in your classroom! Don’t forget to subscribe to my email list! Not only will you get the most up to date tips, tricks, and classroom projects… and of course more fun FREEBIES including the Back to School Teaching Timeline FREEBIE! You will also have exclusive access to tons of digital how-to videos! If you would like to learn about this and other things happening in my classroom follow me @sweetnsauerfirsties on Instagram.
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