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: