Is it just me or does the thought of organizing and setting up centers completely overwhelm you too? Well I’m here to say, no more worry and anxiety over how to efficiently set up and organize centers! By the time we’re done, you’re going to walk away with so many tricks, tips, and tools that will help you completely set up and have center organization for the whole year!
Whether you are a brand new teacher and you have no clue where to start or you’re a veteran teacher overwhelmed by center chaos, I’ve got you covered! We’ll discuss math AND literacy centers, why they deserve a place in your classroom, and how they fit in with the Science of Reading. Centers provide independent work time, give time to practice a variety of social skills, and are a great place for differentiation. You can learn more about the value of centers HERE. For now, let’s dive into how to get them all organized!
Ways to Organize Centers
There are SO many different ways to organize centers. You’ll find that different teachers organize in various ways. Here are a few!
You can also organize by a combination of a number of these. I’ll be honest that I have tried a number of different ways before landing on a way which worked best for me and my students. For me, I love organizing math centers by skill and standard. It helps me easily pull out activities for specific units. As far as literacy centers go, I prefer to organize by skill since students are often working at a variety of skills at one time. You can grab some monthly labels below FREE by subscribing!
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Choosing and Setting up Storage
Just like choosing your organization method, you’ll find teachers that use a variety of different bins and organization tools to help get everything setup and assembled for easy access.
Below you’ll see how a typical math and literacy center bin looks like, as well as how bins are organized for student access. In our classroom, all center bins are stored until needed. Then each activity is organized and added to specific student bins while they work at their center.
Before you begin prepping your centers, these are a few things you’ll need. THESE bins from Michaels, THESE zippered pouches, THESE labels, and your center activities. Check out some low prep ones HERE! You can often find the bins and other materials on sale during back to school season so be on the lookout!
When it comes to manipulative organization and storage for those games and activities, I set myself up for success. Whether you opt for low prep centers or game-like activities, my goal is to always get them prepped and ready for the entire year. It can be a lot of upfront work but then the whole year is ready so you can pull out what you need when students are working on it.
Types of Center Activities to Include
Once your centers are all assembled, labeled, set up and ready to go, you will feel so amazing. But do you need some ideas for what kind of center activities should be included? Well I’m glad you asked! Take a look below at these engaging activities that align perfectly with different skills students are working on with the Science of Reading. If you still need to do a deep dive into SoR, check out this post HERE.
There are so many feasible options to include during your literacy and math center time. You can choose to use some or all of them. For literacy centers, I use buddy reading (with decodables), word work – typically a buddy system that includes targeted high frequency words and games to practice skills we are learning during our small group time together, technology, and independent practice – related to the comprehension skill we are working on during whole group time together. Each center includes layered pieces, meaning that once they finish their “must do” activity for that day, they can work on any “may do” activities. These include working on phonics fluency poems or reading books in the library. There are ALWAYS multiple activities for each center so they are never “done” until their time is up.
Math centers look very similar to reading centers. I use buddy math – typically a buddy system that includes targeted games and activities with skills we use during our small group time together, as well as from our current unit, technology, and independent practice – related to the math skill we are working on during our whole group time together. Again, these centers are layered and include multiple activities within each center. Take a look below at a list of more options!
Literacy Center Options
Word Work – high frequency words, vocabulary words, targeted phonics patterns
Decodable Readers – with a buddy, searching for high frequency words, re-reading for fluency
Technology – Amplify, Lexia, Seesaw, Boom Cards
Independent Practice – related to whole group focus (reading comprehension from listening)
Listening Center – Work on Writing or Fluency
Math Center Options
Buddy Math – Math with a Partner
Independent Practice – related to whole group focus
Technology – Prodigy, Seesaw, Boom Cards
While this may seem like a lot of activities, understand that less is more. We have many options BUT they mostly follow a similar format. This means while we switch up games and activities, expectations and rules are pretty much the same. For example, if I include a Write the Room center, the content may change for specific skills or seasons, but students will already know the expectations to follow so it will be easy to complete. When it comes to centers, and the upkeep of them, less is more. You don’t want to overwhelm students and you really want them to know what to expect at each center.
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Having all the centers is great, but where do you place everyone so it’s not super overwhelming or crowded in the room? Here are a few tips to follow:
- Place quiet centers or centers that have the potential to become a problem near your small group table or centers so you’re in close proximity.
- Place writing centers near your sound wall can also be helpful for students so they can utilize it while working.
- Buddy centers are typically completed where there is a lot of space for them to spread out the activities and games. Mine is always at the front of my room on the floor. This way I can include those differentiated group bins for them to work from, as well as their materials they may use to complete them.
- For reading and technology centers, students are often given free choice of where to move about the room. We utilize flexible seating in our classroom so students can choose where they want to work based on their seating choice.
Check out the classroom map below I’ve created of where my centers are so you can begin to think through where you might want to place yours.
Centers are all about independence and practicing their skills. It may seem impossible to leave them to their own devices and expect them to do their work, with little to no help, but it is possible! Especially when you provide them with choice.
So what will this time look like for students working? Teachers can use choice boards, free flowing models, timed rotations, and more! There are many benefits to each. For me, I love a combination of must do/may do activities and timed centers. Do you need to have timed centers? Absolutely not! There are again SO many different ways to make this work in your classroom. You can use a rotation board like the one below, or have your centers be more free flowing. Whatever works for you and your students.
Not only do we allow students to choose where they want to sit and work with flexible seating, they can also choose the activity they wish to work on. With layered centers, I can ensure students are completing the activity I need them to, while also providing them with choice with other activities in that center.
Fostering choice leads to higher engagement. In addition, providing centers that are differentiated to meet their needs, they are working on exactly what they need to be to help them grow. Let go of control and LET STUDENTS CHOOSE. You’ll be amazed at the growth students have by creating choice centers that are targeted, hands on, fun, and engaging!
Changing Center Materials
Since you’ve taken the time to set up and organize centers in a way that works, changing out centers in the bins is easy peasy! But you may still have some questions. How does it look when changing out activities? How often should I change them? What is the process for doing so? These are questions I’m asked very frequently.
Here’s what that process typically looks like for me. I assess student progress every few weeks in reading and math and change activities according to my data. According to the results, some students may need to review a prerequisite skill because they are struggling and need additional practice, or maybe we’re learning a new skill they will need exposure to. I’ll check each of the bins and “freshen them up” after assessing. This keeps students engaged and from getting bored with certain activities, while also ensuring they are practicing skills they truly need.
Setup for Success
I also love building center bins with spiraled activities. As centers are introduced, I’ll pull activities from the unit bins that are targeted for their group. For example, my place value unit case will have center games only using teen numbers, whereas another group has activities 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 keep 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 small groups. Whatever phonics skill students are working on during their group time, that will be the same skill they practice at their center. 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 or language skill is mastered.
Any new activity or game that will be introduced is taught each Monday so they have what they need for the week. The rules and introduction lesson can be done at the end of small group time, during the whole group time, you can even record yourself completing the activity and have students watch it before playing! All activities are similar in nature and only the skill or content changes so it makes it easy for students to learn new activities, but also super simple for YOU to change things up!
These first weeks of practice are CRUCIAL to how the whole year will run. Just remember, I WANT to be there to support you! Centers are a beautiful thing when done right and you will LOVE this time in your day. Let me help you through every step of the way. Learn all about these important steps in the Mastering Classroom Centers For Good: Turning Chaos into Calm Guide.
Prep Made Easy
How do you feel about prepping for centers? It can be A LOT of printing, cutting, and laminating that maybe you don’t have time for. For this reason, I like to try and utilize center activities that are fun with minimal prep. That may mean just sticking a game board in a dry erase pouch or gathering manipulatives for a shake and spill activity. They don’t have to be a lot and they can be FUN and meaningful! Check out the No Prep Bundle full of my favorite easy and engaging center activities!
I know this post is all about organizing centers and getting them ready. But you wouldn’t think I would leave you hanging for next steps, would you?! When you are ready to get your centers setup, learn more HERE! Also, don’t forget to learn my favorite management tips and tricks HERE!
I’ll leave you with my biggest tip for centers overall. Spend the time. Spend the time organizing them, prepping them, planning for them, and most importantly, TEACHING THEM. I don’t care what grade level your students are, don’t expect them to walk into your classroom knowing how to EFFECTIVELY complete centers. Take the time and do it right. Teach them how to use materials and how to complete centers. If you spend the first six weeks, that’s right… SIX WEEKS, I promise your centers will be GOLDEN and run themselves.
But don’t worry, I’ve done all the hard work and planning for you! Have you heard about Building a Student Centered Classroom? You learn exactly how to get your centers up and running SUCCESSFULLY from day one! I’ll walk you through step by step tidbits for effective classroom setup, community, management, of course centers! Check it out HERE! If you’d like a course specifically catered to centers, I’d highly recommend you to enroll in Mastering Centers for Good so YOU can say goodbye to the hassles of classroom chaos and hello to confident, effective centers!
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