How I Start Centers At The Beginning of Kindergarten


If you teach Kindergarten, centers are probably a part of your day. When I taught Kindergarten, I incorporated centers into literacy, math, and free play, as well as occasionally during science and social studies.

Centers are a great way to get students actively involved in their learning. I’ve heard that Kinders’ attention span is about 5-6 minutes, which is incredibly short! That means that we need to try to minimize whole group sitting and listening time. In turn, we need to maximize hands-on, independent learning time. Having students work in centers gives them important independent practice time, and it also allows us to give children more individualized attention as they meet with us in small groups.

Although centers are a great addition to your Kindergarten daily schedule, getting them to work (and work well) is challenging. Something that has always been difficult for me is getting the kids who are working independently to…well…do their work!

I think that lots of routine-teaching and patience at the beginning of the year are essential for getting Kindergarten centers to work. My students have typically not attended preschool, so I always ease them into centers very slowly at the beginning of the school year. In this post, I’ll share with you a 6-step process that I use to introduce centers at the beginning of the year. At the end of the post, please comment with any additional ideas or suggestions that you have!

How I start centers at the beginning of Kindergarten

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Rido

Stage 1: Sitting and completing “pencil-and-paper” work.

Depending upon the population of students that you work with, it may or may not be a big deal for your kids to have to sit in chairs, stay put, and work on their own. For my kids, it was somewhat of a big deal.

At the very beginning of the year, as I introduced each alphabet letter, I had my kids complete handwriting sheets to practice forming the day’s letter. Having all students sit and complete the same worksheet like this is not something that I did often. However, at the beginning of the year, it was a simple activity that served a purpose: teaching students to stay in one place and complete work.

And honestly, I wasn’t really that concerned about their letter formation at that point in time. I viewed the handwriting sheets as a means to an end (having students work successfully in centers). We spent time discussing how to remain in one spot, use a quiet voice, independently use the restroom if necessary, etc. Although it was a good chance for them to practice letter formation, the main goal was to teach students basic procedures for completing seat work.

Stage 2: Sitting and completing “hands-on” work.

During Stage 2, we focused on the same skills (staying in one spot, working independently, solving problems with peers), but with hands-on activities rather than worksheets. The majority of my centers involved manipulatives of some kind, so I needed students to learn how to use materials appropriately.

Again, the activities in this stage were very simple. Every child in the class was doing the same thing, more or less. Some of the activities I used included: playing with pattern blocks or using them with pattern block mats, making letters/numbers/shapes from playdough, sorting magnetic letters, etc.

I was very intentional about what materials and activities I used during Stage 2. The activities I chose would ultimately become centers that students visited during the next few stages. That way, when it was time for the kids to begin physically rotating through centers, students were already familiar with the center activities so that they could focus on learning the routines.

Pattern Block Sorting Mat

Stage 3: Working without any interference from me.

During Stage 3, students were still completing either “paper-and-pencil” or “hands-on” work at their seats. However, I challenged them to work just like “big kids,” without any help or support from me. I stood at the back of the room and watched them work, but I expected them to solve minor problems on their own. If you have spent time during Stages 1 and 2 teaching independent work skills, transitioning into Stage 3 should not be difficult at all.

Stage 4: Rotating through non-academic centers.

Finally, in Stage 4, I set up different centers around the room and had students rotate through them. When you start Stage 4, it’s best if you have already decided how you’ll group your students, so that these groups can remain the same for a little while. Your groups will change, of course, as the year goes on – but it’s helpful if you can provide a bit of consistency at the beginning.

I’ve used a few different strategies to show students what group they are in and/or what center they should be working in. For a couple of years, I used kids’ photos on a pocket chart. I’ve also used photos on an interactive white board, including photos of the actual center locations and activities.

An important part of Stage 4 is teaching kids how to rotate between centers. Many teachers use two timers: one to indicate that students should clean up, and another to indicate that students should move to the next center. To maintain order, I only allow my students to switch centers when the entire classroom is quiet. Students must be sitting, pointing with one finger to the center where they will go next, and keeping another finger on their lips to show that they are quiet. When the entire classroom is ready, then they can switch centers. This procedure takes a while to teach, but it’s time well spent because it will save you instructional time later on!

During Stage 4, I placed one center activity at my small group table, so students would get used to working at my table as a center. However, I did not sit and work with a small group yet – I was rotating between groups and observing (though trying not to interfere unless it was absolutely necessary).

I also think it’s important to keep the centers relatively simple at this point (non-academic tasks like in Stage 2), so that students can focus on learning the routines.

Stage 5: Rotating through simple academic centers.

Stage 5 is pretty simple – continue practicing switching centers, but introduce academic activities into the mix. I prefer teaching students how to use one new center every couple of days, so as not to overwhelm them.

Stage 6: Rotating through academic centers, including a teacher center.

Getting to Stage 6 is the ultimate goal – having students rotate through academic centers, including a teacher center! However, something I had to remind myself was that just because our class got to this stage once did not mean that they would always be ready to remain in this stage.

In other words, during different times throughout the year, I had to back things up and re-teach. If students needed to go back to practicing center rotation with non-academic tasks, then that’s what we did. Sometimes I got a little peeved that we had to backtrack, but it saved instructional time and frustration later on.


I wish I could tell you that using these stages works like magic and you’ll never have any problems with behavior or work completion in centers. 🙂 However, that was certainly not the case in my classroom (kudos if it is in yours!).

If I noticed that my kids were having problems during centers, I tried to find the root cause. Here are some possible reasons why students are not following routines or completing their work:

  • The work is too difficult
  • The work is too easy
  • More practice with routines is needed
  • Students are having difficulty working together
  • Students don’t feel that they are being held accountable for their work
  • Students are only 5 years old 🙂

Although I don’t think that we should lower our expectations because our students are young, we do have to keep in mind that immaturity can play a role in behavior during centers. I definitely don’t mean that we should give up on our kids or let inappropriate behavior slide! But I do think that we need to give them time and lots of explicit teaching so that they can be successful.

What are your thoughts about introducing centers? I’d love to hear from you! And if you’re looking for a complete literacy centers system for Kindergarten, click here or on the image below:


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Julie Gonzalez
8 years ago

I will be trying this out this week. I have a good feeling it will work wonders with my kiddos! Thanks for the awesome info!

8 years ago

HI Alison,

This is the first year we are mandated to have centers, while also being given the time to do so! I’m excited, but nervous about it. You’ve helped so much! I love the idea of doing non-academic centers first. What are some tasks you’ve done in this step?
How many centers do your students typically go to each day?

Megan Lamb
8 years ago

Thanks so much for the insight on how to begin centers.:) So much good info! I just moved down to K and was struggling with the idea of how to actually start centers. Today, I dove in. The kids have been sitting at color tables and have done some Stage 1 Activities-it’s been going really well. Today, I kept them with their same group members and had them in different areas of the room with no real academic goal. Group 1 explored with math manipulatives. Group 2 went to the writing center to “write a story”. Group 3 scanned QR… Read more »

8 years ago

Thank you so much for the detailed information. I’m a grade 1 teacher of 21 super energetic and chatty kiddos! I have been struggling with this lot to get them to finish their work on time so we don’t end up with half done centers. Ii can’t wait to try some of your strategies.How long do you give your kids on each center?

8 years ago

Thank you for thoughtfully explaining how you ‘teach’ centers to your class. You have offered many great ideas that I will be trying out in my first grade classroom. I have been working with literacy centres for a while now but I’m still challenged by a few problems. Perhaps you can help me solve them. 🙂 1. creating centres that take about the same amount of time to complete (e.g. one group is still at a listening station while another group has finished a word work activity) 2. what to do with fast finishers and 3. finding the time during… Read more »

8 years ago

What types of non academic centers do you have e?

8 years ago

hi, just wondering did you have the kids always choose where they were going, or was it organised like a tumble for each group?? really enjoyed your post, to the point, step by step….wish i could see it in action!

7 years ago

I love centers. Thanks for a clear way of rolling them out. I specially love your idea of pouring with their finger over their mouth where to go next. I found that taking time to celebrate great work enfourages students to to their best. During centers, after the first rotation I take note of star work and I even have a special spot for it on the wall and I put it up and tell my love bugs that this is college work! And they get really excited about having it on display. We continue through the rest of centers… Read more »

J Troupe
7 years ago

I love it! Your six steps sound a lot like the way that I introduce center time. However, once I start reading groups, I usually have to review the steps to reiterate working independently. This past year, I put on a toy princess crown during the times when I was with a reading group or testing. The students knew that unless it was an emergency, then they had to try to solve a problem themselves, or seek peer assistance. This took practice as well.

Sharon Ricci
7 years ago

Hi Alison,

Great idea for progression of setting up centers. How long do you typically stay in one stage?

7 years ago

This is aaaaaaamazing. I just have once question. When you say you teach one new center every couple of days, does that mean that for the first center, you still have the same amount of groups and everyone’s doing the same center activity? Or do you teach the center whole group? Or both?

7 years ago

How long(days, minutes) did you spend on each different stage?

7 years ago


This post is fantastic and so helpful! This is my second year in kindergarten. I think my centers would have gone more smoothly if I rolled them out like this last year! Quick question for you…when do you start stage 1? The first week of school? The majority of my students have had preschool experience.

7 years ago

Hi Alison,
I’m a new kindergarten teacher and am on my second week. My students have been working on completing worksheets independently, but are still working towards it. When you say you introduce a letter worksheet is that one letter a day, and therefore, it takes 26 days for stage one to be complete? Or do you just do a couple of letters for about a week and then introduce centers? Asking because I am definitely looking to get my students to be more independent, so that I can being assessments.

Traci Mertens
7 years ago


I loved this! I am going to be a brand new kinder teacher starting next fall. I am pretty much starting from scratch. I’m looking for lists of what types of materials etc. I should be gathering. I would love some ideas for literacy and math centers as well as just to have on hand.


Joan Pereira
7 years ago

You mentioned that you allow them to change centers once they are quiet, pointing 1 finger to the center that wish to go to and the other on their lips. You also said that you divide them into groups and try to maintain the same group for sometime. Then when the children want to move to another center, the entire group might not wish or point out to the same center. Children of 1 group may wish to go to 4 different centers.
How do you manage that?

Danielle Kelley
6 years ago

This is great. This is my first year teaching kinder and first year in teaching in a public school. Over what amount of time was this done? The first week or over 2 weeks. I am just trying to get an idea of what I should prepare for. Thanks so much!

Elaine Stefancic
6 years ago

I will be teaching Kindergarten this year and will give your routine a try. I’m very excited to see it working with my kids! Thank you for sharing!

5 years ago

Love this… How long do you typically spend in each stage? I and my teammates are looking for ways to make centers run smoothly… This sounds like it may work!! Lol

5 years ago

Thank you for breaking this down. Last year was my first year in K & I struggle with center time. I love you’re progression. I did use my timer for cleanup & chimes did transition which worked well. My question is- I’m thinking of doing 2 sets of centers. Have you ever done this? Do you mix ELA & math or do a set of ELA centers then math centers? I’m really wanting to do morning centers & afternoon. Should I call one stations? So many questions! TIA

Laurie Jensen
4 years ago

I actually teach center procedures through play tubs. We talk about how to use the materials, how to clean up and when to clean up with the use of music. We meet back at the carpet after each center rotation. my students are rewarded if they are able to make it back to the carpet before the music ends with a piece for Mr. Potato Head. I typically group my students at this time into pairs. When we meet back at the carpet, we discuss what we did, if there are questions or concerns, and prepare to move to the… Read more »

Caroline Mitchell
2 years ago

Do you play at all in this classroom? I feel that there is a lot of pencil and paper tasks and not the opportunity for some rich learning through play.


Hi Caroline! I absolutely fit play in! Here are a couple of blogs I’ve written regarding that topic: Play in Kindergarten and Dramatic Play


I’m Alison, a literacy specialist. I love getting kids excited about reading and writing – and sharing teaching ideas with other teachers!

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