What Is Center-Based Learning?

Child painting on easel in classroom.
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Appealing to the young child's senses while turning a blank classroom into an educational space is a challenge for teachers. Instead of constantly toting out materials or making the room look like a haven for hoarders, "centers" provide a way to create clear-cut areas for learning. Each center has a different educational focus that inspires hands-on learning in an organized way.

1 Types Together

Center-based learning means that teachers group materials for one type of subject together, according to the Picard Center for Child Development and Lifelong Learning. Centers are organized based on content or activity areas. One classroom may have separate centers for pretend play, reading, art, science and blocks. For example, the art center could have storage bins for crayons, markers, paint, paper, clay and glue while the pretend play area would include dress-up clothes and props.

2 Independent Learning

Including centers in the classroom encourages young children to explore materials on their own. Instead of a teacher standing in front of the students and instructing them, centers let children play and discover without the teacher telling them what to do and how to do it. For example, instead of telling students to paint a picture of a face, children can use the art center to choose from paints, crayons, markers, clay or collage materials. Centers also give children the chance to choose what they want to try out. One child may choose to use a microscope in the science center, while another independently explores with a magnifying class and pretend plastic bugs.

3 Hands-On and Minds-On

The materials in each learning center should encourage hands-on exploration. Even though centers encourage play, they also help children learn. Just because a child is playing with blocks or finger painting doesn't mean that she isn't learning as well. Playing in the block area can help children learn basic math ideas such as shapes and patterns.

4 Child Accessible

The well-structured learning center is completely accessible to children in the classroom. The materials, storage units, tables and chairs are all on the child's level. While center-based learning doesn't mean everything is kept out all of the time, it does mean that children have easy access to it. The teacher decides what she wants to be in the center. Instead of setting materials on a table, she can place them in bins on low shelves labeled with the contents. This allows students to decide what they want to experiment with, and to take it out on their own.

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.