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How to Create Simple, Effective Learning Centers for Any Subject

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Show Notes:

I used to dread doing learning centers in my classroom because quite honestly, it always seemed like chaos in my room whenever I tried them.

On a theoretical level, I knew how good learning centers would be for my students, but that doesn’t mean that I had a CLUE what to do to set them up in a smart and efficient way or how run them effectively.

It took me a long time to figure out what would work in my classroom, and now I am so excited to be able to share this information with you so you don’t have to go through the same learning curve that I did!

Why Is this the Best Teaching Strategy?

Before we get started, I think it’s important to get super clear about why you want to teach this specific content using learning centers. It’s helpful to ask yourself what is it about this specific content that really lends itself to doing centers (instead of pair work or independent work or even something else like role play or debate?)

In my experience, I’ve found that learning centers work best when I want to reinforce content that I’ve already taught - that isn’t brand new to my students - because center work usually requires a high level of independence for my students to be successful.

You don’t want to spend a lot of time setting up learning centers, only for students to get stuck right away because the content is so unfamiliar to them. At the same time, you don’t want your centers to just be busy work. For centers to truly work, they need to provide meaningful and targeted reinforcement of specific skills.

For example, I loved to do learning centers to give my students extra practice with addition and subtraction facts when I was teaching 2nd grade. This was a skill that required a lot of practice, and I could use a lot of fun and creative techniques in centers to help my students to acquire these skills. Also, I could easily change up the activities that my students were asked to do at each center, increasing the level of difficulty as my students gained mastery. 

My students loved getting this extra practice by doing centers because it was a fun and creative way to gain reinforcement of important skills while getting to move around the classroom and enjoy some social interaction.

Also, the collaborative and hands-on nature of learning centers was a strong motivator for my students who usually didn’t think of math as their favorite subject. Instead, because they loved getting to spend more time interacting with their friends, centers in math became one of the things my students asked for on a regular basis!

And finally, of course, there is a huge benefit to you, the teacher, to doing learning centers, because once you’ve done all of the up-front work of creating the centers and once you’ve set them up the right way, you really can relax a little more and let your students take the lead in their own learning because you aren’t at the front of the room, expending a lot of energy during that subject.

So, it can be a fantastic alternative for everyone – but you really need to set your centers up with a lot of care, or it will feel like a classroom management nightmare.

By the way, I do a deep dive into walking you through everything you need to know in five steps for how to set up and manage learning centers in my new program , Your Chaos to Confidence Classroom Management System:

Best Practices for Setting Up and Organizing Learning Centers:

Oh my gosh, I wish I knew all of this information when I first started teaching! It would have saved me so many headaches. Let’s talk about some of the best lessons I’ve learned about how to set up learning centers in the most simple, effective, and organized way in your classroom so that you can minimize stress and overwhelm that I went through!

Although setting up learning centers the way I’m going to suggest you do it will likely take some time, please trust me when I say that it’s worth doing right or you will be battling classroom management issues all year - and probably come to hate using learning centers in your classroom!

Also, don’t worry if you’re in the middle of the year and are already frustrated with trying to use centers in your classroom, because once you get clear about how you are going to do centers in your classroom from this point forward, you can always hold a classroom meeting with your students and establish a re-start.

  • First of all, I recommend that you set up centers ONCE, and keep the same system for any centers you decide to do in any subject and at any time throughout the year.

  • In my classroom, this meant that I printed the numbers from 1 to 6 on large sheets of fluorescent paper, one piece of paper for each number, laminated them, and then stapled them to the wall at kid-height around my room in 6 different places.

    I chose the number six because I had 24 students and I wanted to have four students at each center maximum. I have found that having between 3-4 students at each center works the best, so this way, even if someone was missing that day, most of the time, my students still enjoyed a group dynamic when they were doing centers.

  • My students knew that no matter what subject we were going to be doing centers in, we would still have six groups of four, and that they would be with the same group members all month. I changed up my center groups every month, and the so my students would be working with the same students all month long, no matter what subject we were doing centers in.

  • However, the kids that they did centers with were NOT the same kids who they were sitting with in the classroom that month (even though I mixed up our seating every month or two as well to continually change the group dynamics in my classroom). This is because part of what my students enjoyed so much about doing centers was the variety - having some new kids to work with outside of their regular group.

  • In terms of organization at each center, I taught my students that the work for each center was always in the bin with the same number that was on the wall.

    I had a job on my student job board for who my “hander-outer” was so this was their job - to distribute the bins for each center. So each bin was clearly labeled with the same number as the number on the wall, and I taught my students that they needed to complete that center while sitting in that space in the classroom.
    I was careful to ensure that there was lots of space between where each of my center groups were working so that there wasn’t a lot of chatter between groups.

  • Also, the instructions for each center (which were laminated and copied on a bright color) were always placed inside each bin, along with all materials that my students needed in order to complete that center).

  • Now, if you want to run centers in more than one subject at a time, I would get a set of six bins in different colors. That way you can ask students to please set up the green bins for math, and then put them away when you’re finished math, and then to please set up the blue bins for science later that day.

  • Finally, each of my students had a folder for math centers where they were required to keep all of their center work.

How to Introduce Centers to Your Students:

The trick to successful (and a super fun and effective teaching strategy) is worth the time you spend introducing learning centers in a way that teaches all of your students how to be successful - while also allowing you to keep your sanity!

You might be surprised by this, but I would highly recommend that you take about 30 minutes each day over a full week to teach your students your routines for learning centers. This is because there is a lot of information that your students will need to internalize in order for your centers to run smoothly all year, and I promise you that investing this time now will save you so much time and headaches throughout the year!

So, let’s talk about what I recommend you teach your students each day on the week before you actually re-start doing learning centers with your students. 

Day One: What Are Centers, Where Are They, and How are They Organized?

If your students haven’t done centers before, you will need to start at the beginning by teaching your students that this is small-group work that they will be doing with DIFFERENT students than the students they usually sit with in their groups.

Show your students:

  1. How many centers there will be, how they are numbered, and who will be in their group for the first month of centers (and show them a display of where they can see who will be in their group for centers - I love to use a small pocket chart to display this, along with a number beside each group to show which center they will be at).

  2. How often you will change their groups and why (to give them an opportunity to work with everyone in the classroom throughout the year).

  3. What the bins look like and hat they will find inside each bin (instructions sheet and materials). You do not need to go through how students will complete each center yet. On Day One, simply orient your students to the idea of centers.

  4. Where they will keep their work (just show them their folders).

Then, review all 7 things that you just taught your students to check for understanding.

Day Two: Review Day One and Teach Expectations for Center Work

On the second day, review what you taught your students on the first day, and then teach your expectations and procedures for when they are doing their centers.

Information to Share:

  1. How to find out which center they will be starting today (check the pocket chart), how much time they will have at each center (use a timer to keep yourself on track), and what sound or signal to listen for when it’s time to clean up their center (and practice this with them).

  2. Walk, don’t run, to your center.

  3. Use your quiet, indoor voice.

  4. If you get stuck, ask everyone in your group for help before asking the teacher.

  5. Share materials.

  6. Everyone in your group must be finished before you are finished. Help each other (and be clear that this means not just doing things for each other)!

  7. Tell your students what their options are if they finish their center early. What free time options do they have?

  8. Tell your students what to do when they’re finished. 

  9. Show your students how to clean up their center and prepare it for the next group. 

  10. Finally, be sure to tell your students what to do with their work if they didn’t get finished at a center. 

So, that’s a LOT of information to give to your students, so it’s best to review all of that again, as well as the information you provided them on Day One, on Day Three.

Day Three: Review Everything from Days One and Two

You might think I'm kidding, but if you skip this step, I guarantee you that half of your class will not know which group they are in or what learning centers even are. They need this repetition before they are actually taught the content of the centers!

Day Four: Teach the Specifics of Your Learning Centers

Okay, now finally, this is the stuff that your students are really looking forward to!

On this day, you will go through each of your centers and walk your students through how to do each one. This is especially important because the way you set up this group of centers will be the same way you set up every other set of centers throughout the year.

Here’s what I mean by that:

The most successful learning centers are the ones that mix up a lot of different kinds of activities and attends to different learning styles. So, you get to decide what your centers will look and feel like, but here is an example of what I mean.

Center #1 might always be an online activity where students get to use iPads or a computer to play a specific game for this set of centers.

Center #2 might always be a problem-solving activity that the group needs to work together to solve.

Center #3 might always be an art-based activity that involves using plasticine or drawing, and so on.

The point is that once your students know the rules and expectations for each center, they know how to be successful every time. This will also take the guesswork out of creating your centers every time as well.

Day Five: Review All of the Expectations & Routines and then Let Students Start

Now finally, before you release your kiddos to their centers, you may also want to have a short discussion about what the class will earn if they choose to follow the rules and expectations, and conversely, what the consequences are if they aren’t able to follow them. 

If you’ve been following me for awhile, you will know that I am a HUGE fan of including a sprinkle of magic, mystery, and fun into my classroom by giving my kids what I call my Monthly Mystery Motivator.

Now if you don’t know what these are, I’m releasing a new one every month in my new Teachers Pay Teachers store, so you can go and check them out there if you’re interested, but my kids absolutely loved these. You can check them out by clicking here!

Now on the flip side, when students DON’T follow the routines and procedures I’ve set out for them, I usually give my students two warnings before telling a group that they will need to complete a worksheet independently to practice this skill instead of a center for the remainder of the time that the rest of the class is doing centers. That is usually enough of a consequence for them to not let that happen again, especially because completing centers is so much more fun than worksheets, of course! So, in order for this to work, you will of course need to have some extra worksheets on hand before you begin your centers.

So - we covered a lot today, and I really hope that what I’ve shared is helpful to you as you continue to think through how you want to set up and refine centers in your classroom.

I know it seems like a lot of work to set up centers, but it really is worth it because students love them so much, you will likely not have nearly as many classroom management issues if you set them up properly because students are so engaged when they are doing them.

And again, I walk you through exactly how to set up your learning centers inside my new online workshop, “Your Chaos to Confidence Classroom Management System." Click here to check it out now!

If you are a couple of months into the school year and you are feeling like you need some help clarifying some of the most important routines in your classroom, or if you feel like you have a super chatty class and you just don’t know what to do, I’d love to help you trouble-shoot to solve those problems. 

I hope you have a fabulous week, and remember: just because you are a beginning elementary teacher, there is no need for you to struggle like one!

Bye for now.

πŸ’› Lori

Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor

Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at and at

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