Play Center Management

Preschool, pre-k, and kindergarten play center management tips.

How to Manage Centers in Preschool

Play Center Management

Center management is an area that I receive many requests for help with.  The following is a method of center management that has worked for me in my classroom.  Please note that different methods work for different teachers, it all depends on your level of noise tolerance and program expectations.  There is no one “right way” to manage centers, you must choose what is best for you, your students, and your program.

When deciding which developmental center management method to use, first you must take into consideration your situation:

  • Do you have a full-time assistant in the classroom?
  • How many students do you have?
  • How many centers do you have?
  • What ages are the children you teach?
  • What are your expectations during centers?
  • What do you consider an acceptable noise level? Is this expectation appropriate for the age of the children you teach?
  • Do you teach in a full or half-day program?

We have 3 center times in our full-day Pre-K program (4 year olds), literacy centers, math centers, and developmental centers. The information on this page pertains to developmental centers (aka free or play centers).If you would like information on literacy or math centers click on the following links:

I have the following “developmental centers in my classroom, some of them can also be used for literacy or math centers:
(Click on any of the centers listed below to see pictures and info about what is included in each center)

My center management technique involves dividing the centers into groups of 4 or 5 and then grouping the children into groups of 4 or 5 as well. This method works best for me since I have 22 children and limited assistance. When grouping centers you need to take into consideration their physical location in your classroom.  Try to group the centers that are near each other so the children assigned to those centers are not moving from one end of the classroom to the other to reach their centers.  The starred centers are “must do’s” – children must go there first before any other centers. Here is how I currently have my centers grouped:

Group A

  • Blocks
  • Dollhouse
  • Pocket Charts
  • Writing*

Group B

  • Dramatic Play
  • Math*
  • Blocks
  • Puppets

Group C

  • Puzzles
  • Library*
  • Listening
  • Storytelling

Group D

  • Playdough
  • Sensory
  • Science
  • ABC’s

Next I divide the children into color groups since many don’t recognize any letters in the beginning of the year.  When grouping the children it’s important to take two things into consideration; boy/girl ratio and behavior. Try to have at least one responsible, mature child in each group to put in charge and monitor group behavior. Since I have four groups of centers I group the children into four groups as well.  The color coded name lists can be double sided if you are half-day.  When I was half-day one side of paper had AM names and the other had PM names, we just flipped them over between classes. I have included a picture below of what the finished product looks like for you:

The student groups are yellow, red, blue, and green and are placed on a magnetic board, but you could use 3M hooks too. Each day the student groups are moved to the right to the next group centers. The groups may move freely amongst their assigned centers for that day. This way they have some mobility and still get the experience of making their own choices. This center system allows the teacher more time to work with small groups or do assessments by keeping certain students in specific areas of the room, thus eliminating potential problems.

Center Questions

Where did you find the pictures for the center chart?
Some of the pictures were found at the Microsoft Clip Gallery, free if you use Microsoft Word. Others are actual photographs of the center that were taken with a digital camera.

I teach full-day, would this method work for me?
Yes, absolutely! You can divide your centers into different groups for different times of the day. This same system will work for literacy centers in the mornings and also for more traditional developmental (play) centers like blocks and home living at another time if you made two different charts- just change your pictures to match your centers and activities.

Are students able to use this system independently?
Yes, absolutely! It usually takes only 2 full weeks for most children to really grasp the concept. When first introducing the system to the class it is best if you spend extra time explaining and demonstrating each day before center time. It also depends on the level of your class. I have had very young classes that took 3-4 weeks to learn the rotations and more mature classes have only needed one full week.

What does the teacher do while the children are at centers?
In the beginning of the year I spend most of my time circulating around the room at center time to make sure that everything is running smoothly and reinforcing good behaviors. As soon as everything settles down (usually around week three or four) I may pull small groups or individual students during center time to work at a table with me on a variety of skills. We also do individual assessments during this time.

How long should center time last?

The answer to this question depends on the length of your day and the age of your students. If you are full day Pre-K or Kindergarten you are probably going to have two or three center times during your day and the amounts of time spent at centers may be dictated by your school. A general rule of thumb is 45 minutes to one full hour for centers in a half-day program. A full day schedule in both Pre-K and Kindergarten may allow for literacy centers, math centers, and developmental centers. Typically the morning center times are more academic and the afternoon center time allows for more free choice. We have 45 minutes in our schedule for “developmental centers” at the end of the day.

More Classroom Management Tips from Pre-K Pages

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