Metro Nashville Public Schools Pre-K Partnership Project

Engagement During Centers – Invited Blog Post

Posted by on Friday, January 27, 2017 in News.


Center time is an excellent context for children to explore new topics, engage with their peers in play, and have meaningful conversations with their teachers. However, sometimes it can be challenging to keep children engaged for the duration of center time, which can lead to troublesome behavior and missed learning opportunities. Guest contributor and MNPS Pre-K teacher Emily Hughes has agreed to share her best strategies for creating management systems and setting up activities to keep children engaged during Centers.

There is a great deal of planning required to ensure center time runs smoothly! Which aspects are the most relevant to your classroom? How do you plan with them in mind?

Setting up visual cues has been helpful in making sure the children remember procedures for center time. Our center areas are labeled with signs that list examples of the objectives that a student is working on in a given area. For example, the Dramatic Play sign lists sharing and taking turns, problem solving, and sustained attention. Center materials are stored in baskets. The baskets are labeled with pictures and words. This promotes independence when it is time to clean up. It also provides additional opportunity for letter recognition and matching letters and sounds. (click photo to enlarge)


Our center necklaces (Mardis Gras beads) provide a great visual for which centers are open or closed and how many friends are allowed in each center. When a center is open, the necklaces are hanging on the hooks in that area. If the necklaces are not hanging on the hooks, the center is closed. During choice time, all of the centers are usually open. During small group time, we have limited choice centers. It is easy for me or our Educational Assistant (EA) to quickly pick up the necklaces for the centers that are not open during small group. The students are able to use the visual of the necklaces to determine on their own if a center is open or closed. 

I also plan for “previewing”: using group time to talk with children about center materials and how they might use them. Introducing or suggesting things to do at a center during our whole group tends to lead to increased engagement. For example, during the Trees study we talked about signs of animal life in a tree. I wondered aloud if we could find any signs that animals had lived in any of the tree parts in our discovery center. I modeled using a magnifying glass to look for holes in a leaf and suggested this as an activity during center time. (click photo to enlarge)hughes-photo2

What challenges do you face in keeping children engaged and on task during centers, and how do you address these challenges?

Short attention spans – Pre-K students are busy little people!  One challenge that I find is that some students want to do EVERYTHING!  They are so excited about center time and playing with toys that they want to play with all of them at the same time!  Obviously, this is a problem.  Last year, I had several students who wanted to flit from center to center, without spending much time anywhere.  I have found that swapping out center materials is one of the best ways to keep students engaged.  When there are many new things to do in one area, they tend to stay there longer. Which brings me to my next challenge…

Managing the popularity of the center–for when all children want to be in art, but there is only space for two (sometimes, my previewing strategy is a bit too effective). Again, our center necklaces come in handy here. I use different colored necklaces to show how many students are allowed at each center. If all of the necklaces are gone for that center, it is full. I model, and we review daily, the language to use when a center is full: “Can I have a turn?” “In a minute, when I’m finished.”

When a child is ready to leave the center, he or she is to clean up and hang their necklace back on the hook. This visual is a sign that there is now an open space for that center. If someone else asked for a turn, the child will go and give that student the necklace when he or she is finished playing there. 

Another challenge is managing disruptive behavior. We briefly review our center expectations every day before we begin. We discuss the need for walking feet, gentle hands, and kind words. We review the right words to use to ask for a turn at a center or with a toy. This
sounds like a lot, but it is very brief (1-2 minutes) and makes a big difference. We also look for opportunities to praise
children when they meet these expectations. I have a students who has only been at our school for a couple of weeks. He is still learning the routines and procedures. Today, I watched him at center time and noticed when he asked a friend for a turn. I pointed out to him that I was so proud of him for using words to ask for a turn.

What is your Educational Assistant’s role during center time, and how does she support children’s learning during center time?

I am blessed with a wonderful EA!  During center time, we are both very busy!  We have found it best to have one of us interacting with children, actively engaged in playing in a center, while the other adult circulates the room.   This is something that we plan for, so that we are able to alternate roles.  This allows one teacher to dig deeper with the children in a center, building vocabulary, and asking questions to expand thinking, and focusing her attention on a few students.  The other teacher is circulating the classroom.  She will be assisting students with social problems that may arise, monitoring their use of the materials, and assisting students who may be having a hard time getting started in a center.    During this time, we are both documenting.  The teacher working in a center will be able to document many objectives for a small number of students.  The teacher circulating the classroom may be able to document one objective for many children.

How have you worked with an instructional coach or fellow teacher to develop your center-time strategies?

Reflect, reflect, reflect!  My teammate and I spend time almost every day discussing what is going well and what we feel that we could improve.  We exchange ideas daily.  Do not be afraid to admit when things are not going well!  My Pre-K coach has been a great asset to me, as a classroom teacher.  It is so helpful to have an “extra set of eyes” in my classroom.  She is able to notice things that I do not, and suggest small changes that make a big difference.  For example, after observing my center time, she suggested moving a few materials from one shelf to another.  It made a big difference in the traffic flow for that area.  I would have never thought to move these toys…sometimes we just cannot see the forest for the trees! 

View additional information and professional development materials on Fostering Engagement in Learning.

What strategies have you found particularly helpful for keeping children engaged in learning activities during center time? Let us know in the comments below!

Hughes_EmilyHi! My name is Emily Hughes. This is my 14th year in Metro Nashville Public Schools.  I have taught Pre-K, Kindergarten, First Grade, and served as a Literacy Coach.  I am currently a Pre-K teacher at Hermitage Elementary. Pre-K is my favorite grade to teach, and I am blessed to have a job that I love! I have a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education.  I grew up in Nashville and live in Mt. Juliet with my husband, two children, and our crazy dog! 

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