A couple of years ago, I attended an inservice on learning centers in the classroom. Since then, learning centers have become a huge part of my teaching. Now, my students participate in self-directed, self-motivating review, practice, and enrichment on a regular basis. The kids love the math centers and even ask for more work!! This blog is dedicated to helping teachers make math centers a meaningful part of their instruction, thereby increasing students' achievement and the enjoyment of teaching!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Organizing Your Learning Center (Getting Started)

In order that your learning centers can be as effective as possible, they should be organized in a way that is inviting and accessible. Most teachers I've observed seem to use the storage crate as a primary organizer for centers, but I'd highly recommend a more inviting and more highly visible display. I would encourage you to consider either a tri-fold project board or a bulletin board display. 

I use the tri-fold project board on a trapezoid table to display and organize my math centers (special thanks to my friend and colleague Jenny Neville for helping me come up with the project board math center idea). It not only helps to "advertise" new center activities, but it is excellent for helping them find a center activity that focuses on a particular skill, or an activity that offers the level of challenge that they need. In each of the classrooms where I teach, I stapled nine colored file folders onto the project board in three rows of the three. Any cards, manipulatives, or other materials that accompany the activities are placed on the table in front of the board. 

Math Center
Each column focuses on a different topic. Since I teach math, I use the middle column for math facts, because I want students to work on them throughout the year. If you teach reading, you might consider using the middle column for something ongoing and fundamental, such as sight words or phonemic awareness. I use the two outer columns for activities that align with the two most recent units being taught.  So, students can choose between the current topic or continue working on the previous topic. Then when I start a new unit, I replace the oldest column. If I have a few extra activities that won't fit, I just place them on the table in front of the board. In addition, I placed a crate with hanging files under the table to house older activities that students may want to revisit, or activities they wanted to try but never got around to working on. 

Each row is a different challenge level. For my math centers, I used traffic light colors:
                      Red row (top) --  Challenge / Enrichment activities
                      Yellow row (middle) -- Practice activities
                      Green row (bottom) -- Review activities
This allows for student-driven differentiation if your students are ready to handle the responsibility of choosing activities for themselves. You could always assign certain students to particular color levels if you felt they need more direction. Sometimes I will personally select an activity for a student, either because I feel that he or she is choosing something too easy or too hard, or because I know that a student needs practice on a certain skill. However, my students are typically very good at selecting work for themselves.

Another good organizational tool is a bulletin board display. It can be set up the same way as the project board, but with the potential for more available topics and difficulty levels if desired. Like the project board, it is also highly visible and inviting, and it helps to advertise new activities for you. It's also one less bulletin board to have to decorate over and over again. :) The drawback is that you don't have the table for manipulatives and other materials that don't fit into the pockets, although placing a slim table or row of extra desks in front of it or beside it might solve that problem.

The storage crate is another option for organizing your math centers if you have an extreme lack of space. Any centers, provided they are filled with worthwhile activities, are better than nothing. You can still color code your folders to help organize by topic and/or ability level. However, the storage crate is not highly visible, and does not help students to see their options of activities very well. It is also difficult for more than one student to dig through the files at once.

Hopefully these ideas will be helpful in setting up and organizing a learning center in your classroom.


  1. I like your blog. Suzie would be proud of you. You should send her an invite to view it. Your products look very good as well.

  2. Thanks a lot! I've got a lot more posting to do, though. :)

  3. These are great ideas! I also teach math but I also teach Science and SS. I do what I call sponge activities for early finishers. We don't actually have a "center time." However, my sponge activities are similar to center activites. I use baskets, and switch out activties based on what we are learning or what they need to work on. I don't have much space so I am looking for a better way to store and organize! Thanks!


  4. Thanks for the detailed description of the way you recommend organizing centers on the trapezoid table, the columns and rows on the trifold board, the levels of work, and why you think it works better than other options. This was very helpful to me (coming from upper elementary grades that didn't use centers much at all).