There are eight basic learning centers in an early childhood/elementary classroom, according to the Stephen F. Austin State University Charter School program, each structured to expand the students’ experiences in a variety of meaningful and effective ways. Each center is constructed to encompass numerous objectives, including state and federal standards, school standards, and community standards. The learning centers approach focuses on student autonomy and learning style by giving each student an opportunity to explore his learning environment hands-on in a developmentally appropriate classroom (see Wikepedia: Constructivism. Teachers act as facilitators, providing materials and guidance, as well as planning discussions, activities, demonstrations, and reviews.
One important learning center that is invaluable to an independent learning environment that fosters creativity and expression is the art center. According to Dodge, Colker, and Heroman (2002, p. 317), the art center allows children to visually express themselves. Children also learn how to critically evaluate their artwork (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman, p. 345), as well as the artwork as others, helping them to practice and develop their cognitive skills, language skills, and aesthetics (Bickart, Jablon, and Dodge, p. 431). Art also offers many opportunities for core subject integration, especially in regard to science, social studies, or language arts (Bickart, Jablon, and Dodge, p. 433-434). For instance, when studying the anatomy of a flower, the teacher could ask students to draw and color their own flowers based on an accurate representation of a flower or diagram.
Next, the blocks center is essential in a pre-kindergarten classroom (10 Signs of a Great Preschool), and greatly valued in older grades (Bickart, Jablon, Dodge, p. 119). The blocks center gives children an opportunity to recreate experiences (Bickart, Jablon, and Dodge, p. 118), and explore the elements and complexities of structures (Bickart, Jablon, and Dodge, p. 119). Children learn about their community and its functions while building representations (Bickart, Jablon, and Dodge, p. 119) of common buildings like fire stations, houses, libraries, and zoos. A plethora of other subjects can be integrated in the blocks center, including literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, art, and technology (Bickart, Jablon, and Dodge, p. 253-254). The blocks center is an especially good place for children to explore the rules of society, relationships, and teamwork (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman, p. 244).
Another center is Discovery, a place where children can explore the answers to questions driven by their natural curiosity (Dodge, Colker, Heroman, p. 381) Science is a special subject in discovery, as gives children the chance to explore life, earth, and the laws of nature (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman, p. 386). The discovery center sets the stage for students to use the scientific method to predict and find solutions starting during the second half of first grade (ECH 331 Curriculum Author, Slide 24 - [firstname.lastname@example.org Contact Stephen F. Austin State University Charter School's principal Lori Harkness]). Tyler, Texas' Discovery Science Place features numerous types of discovery centers.
Dramatic play centers promote social interaction, role exploration, and abstract thinking (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman, p. 282). Children are given the opportunity to deeply explore roles of people in their family and community (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman, p. 271). Pretending is an important part developing abstract thought, such as connecting symbols with real objects and events (Bickart, Jablon, Dodge, p. 154). Dramatic play greatly enhances a child’s social and emotional development when children cooperate, feel empathy, and control their emotions (Dodge, Colker and Heroman, p. 271).
In the United States, literacy is a number one priority for both public and private education. In fact, the United States’ literacy rate is one of the highest in the world, reaching 99% of the population (Sort the Nations of the World). For this reason, library centers are a major contribution to not only learning center curriculum, but all other classroom strategies. In the library center, children learn the importance of reading and writing by engaging in motivational literacy activities through meaningful contexts (Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children). The library center also gives the child opportunities to practice reading, have immediate access to print materials for independent reading (Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children). participate in read-alouds and retellings (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman, p. 371-373), and share experiences they have had with books. The library center can enhance the theme of any classroom curriculum (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman, p. 363-364). For instance, when doing a science unit on mammals, studying human impact on animal life in social studies, and creating pictures of animals in art, the teacher could also facilitate books and activities in the library center about animals, creating connections between subjects. Furthermore, many children are not exposed to literature in their homes, severely limiting their print knowledge (Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children). The library center provides these children with regular and active interactions with print (Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children).
A pertinent center to the American health and obesity epidemic is the muscle center. In the muscle center, students engage in activities that exercise their bodies, and subsequently “wake up” their minds (Bickart, Jablon, Dodge, p. 123-124). Movement also allows children to outlet their high energy and creativity (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman, p. 423). During muscle activities, students learn to control their bodies and apply gross motor skills to new types of movement (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman, p. 423).
Next, the music center creates opportunities for children to cooperate in activities that stimulate creativity, listening, and language. By engaging in songs, children learn the natural intonations and rhythms of language. When singing together, children feel harmony with their classmates (Bickart, Jablon, and Dodge, p. 440). Music instruction has also been proven to increase intelligence quotient (Bower). Music also offers an easy way for those children on a lower developmental level to participate successfully in a fun group activity.
Lastly, the table games center offers a unique way for children to explore established rules, create their own rules, and enforce those rules (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman, p. 307). Table games also promote healthy competition, giving students a chance to cope with negative feelings in a safe and supportive environment (Bickart, Jablon, and Dodge, p. 154). Children explore mathematical concepts while playing games like cards, dice, and Connect Four (Bickart, Jablon, and Dodge, p. 154). Children must plan strategies in order to problem solve and win the game (Bickart, Jablon, and Dodge, p. 154).
It is worth noting the controversy over the learning center approach. Despite its success in many schools across the country, the effectiveness of learning centers is called in to question. Because children are expected to primarily learn through autonomous exploration and discovery, some people feel that teachers' jobs are minimized.
Furthermore, the learning center approach is much more informal than the traditional lecture-and-worksheet format of most American classrooms. Walking into a learning center classroom, many would interpret the hustle and bustle of independent learning as chaotic and uncontrollable. Many teachers are overwhelmed by the size of their classroom and feel that they could not accurately assess or monitor their students’ independent work in centers. Also, many people do not believe that children learn best when at play, and instead subscribe to the view that children should be disciplined, quiet, and attentive at all times.
Some teachers simply cannot find the time or materials needed for a learning center environment. Constructing learning centers is much more time consuming than traditional approaches because the teacher must create the materials for the many activities in each center. Centers must be changed out at least every two weeks, as well. Centers also require a lot of space, which is not always available to public school teachers.
10 Signs of a Great Preschool. The National Association for the Education of Young Children. Retrieved May 1, 2007, from http://www.naeyc.org/ece/1996/01.asp
Bickart, T., Jablon, J., Dodge, D. (1999). Building the Primary Classroom: A Complete Guide to Teaching and Learning. Teaching Strategies, Inc.
Bower, Bruce. (June 19, 2004) Tuning Up Young Minds: Music lessons give kids a small IQ advantage. Science News, Vol. 165, No. 25, p. 389. Retrieved May 1, 2007, from http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20040619/fob6.asp
Dodge, D., Colker, L., and Heroman, C. (2002). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool. (4th Ed.). Teaching Strategies, Inc.
ECH 331 Curriculum Author. Science Powerpoint. Powerpoint presentation presented in online unit in ECH 331 Online at Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, TX.
Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children. (May 1998). A joint position statement of the International Reading Association and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Retrieved May 1, 2007, from http://www.naeyc.org/about/positions/pdf/PSREAD98.PDF
Sort the Nations of the World. World Nations 2006. Retrieved May 1, 2007, from http://www.mrdowling.com/800literacy.html