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ECE Activity Centers that Inspire Learning and Skill-building

Mar 30, 2023    |   Early Learning Spaces & Routines

From reading corners to dramatic play areas, the learning centers we create in our programs can have a significant impact on children’s learning and skill development. Young children learn best in inviting environments that inspire creativity, playful exploration, and collaboration with peers. Below are examples of learning activity centers, with tips for turning them into spaces that encourage young learners to try new things and engage in activities that help them practice new skills. 

Construction Center

A construction center is a space where children can spend time building with wooden blocks, legos, magna-tiles and other open-ended materials, often referred to as “loose parts”. An article from Penn State’s online resource for early learning professionals explains, “Loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. Loose parts can be used alone or combined with other materials. There is no set of specific directions for materials that are considered loose parts. The child is the direction.”

When children play in construction centers, they get to use their imagination to create new environments and build whatever they choose to include in that environment. Construction centers also engage children’s scientific reasoning skills, as they develop and test hypotheses, and use engineering concepts, like measurement, symmetry, and balance.

Cozy Reading Center

A reading center offers children a peaceful space for relaxing and enjoying children’s books. In a reading center, children have an opportunity to build important skills in early literacy, such as understanding the way that books tell stories with words and pictures, and recognizing letters and words that appear in the story. 

An NAEYC website post adds that reading with children can support vocabulary development: “Storybooks often use words in ways that are different from how we use those same words in everyday conversation. Books also use words that are generally absent from day-to-day speech. The Napping House, for example, contains many descriptive words related to napping, such as slumbering, snoozing, and dozing, which adults may rarely use in a conversation with a child.” 

Reading centers are often set up with pillows, stuffed animals, and other soft items so that children feel safe and cozy, and free to explore the books and stories. 

Art & Writing Center

An art and writing center, equipped with paper, pencils, crayons, markers, and other similar items, gives children an opportunity to be creative while using fine motor skills as they practice holding pens and pencils. The act of writing also reinforces children’s early literacy skills.

If you’re looking for additional fun items to add to your writing center, you might consider mini whiteboards that allow children to write and easily erase any mistakes. Having magnetic letters and letter stencils on hand offers children reminders about what each letter looks like and the opportunity to trace letters as they practice emerging writing skills.

Dramatic Play Center

A space for little ones to engage in dress up and pretend play is a special part of early learning classrooms, and a favorite for many young children. These spaces can be set up in a variety of different ways – some might have a specific theme, such as a pretend house, doctor’s office, or restaurant, while others might be more simple, with a few props such as baby dolls, pretend phones, and accessories (hats, bags, scarves) for dress up. 

Dramatic play centers help children to be creative while developing important cognitive and social-emotional skills. An article in the Journal of Childhood Studies by ECE professor and former kindergarten teacher, Janine Hostettler Scharer PhD, explains the connection between dramatic play and developmental learning goals: “…a child needs to follow the rules of the play and children constantly monitor each other. Play also helps decentering as children learn to take other people’s perspective and look at objects through the eyes of their play partner…Play also impacts the child’s motivation in that a child learns to set short-term and long-term goals in play. In order to play airplane, tickets and passports need to be created, and play might not start until everything is ready.”

Open Area for Circle Time & Meetings

One of the most important spaces in every early learning classroom is the gathering place for circle time and group meetings. These spaces invite the children to sit together as a community to share in a group activity, such as singing songs, listening to stories, and more. Through these interactions, children learn important communication and social skills. They also get to practice executive function skills involved in listening, focusing attention, sitting patiently, and waiting for their turn to speak. 

If you’re setting up a meeting space in your own classroom, you might use a large comfortable rug so that the children have room to sit together comfortably. It can be helpful to find a space that is large enough for children to move around while they enjoy music and movement. Educators of older children, in preschool and pre-k, often keep a white board or an easel pad as a writing space that helps children practice early reading and literacy skills during group activities. Finally, it is helpful to keep an adult-sized chair near the area where you can sit and read stories to the children. 

A Note about Cross-Area Play

When children are actively engaged in play, they might move items around. The term “cross-area play,” simply refers to children taking items from one center to use in another area. Examples of this include bringing books to the construction area to create something that the child read about in a story, or bringing items from the writing center into the dramatic play area so that children can make signs to enhance their play. 

Cross-area play is described in an NAEYC Teaching Young Children article: “Cross-area play is rooted in the idea that when children are given the freedom to experiment with materials in open-ended ways, their play can transform into elaborate, complex plots and offer rich developmental opportunities. Specifically, cross-area play helps children make unusual and unexpected connections, which can promote creativity, encouraging development across multiple domains as children think, create, communicate, persist, problem solve, and collaborate.”

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