We are aware that how you set up your environment will differ based on whether you decide to design based on a specific teaching philosophy (e.g. Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, etc.). We have provided some suggestions below as well as overall guidelines.
Young children learn best by experimenting with their environment through hands-on activities and play, which is why setting up different learning centers is an important part of setting up a preschool classroom. Using learning centers to give children the hands-on experiences and play opportunities they need is important, but there are a variety of factors that influence which learning centers would work best for your space, how you should set them up, and the materials you should include in each.
Additionally, play comes directly out of what the child is interested in doing. Many ECE experts refer to this as “child-led” or “child-directed” play and learning. The materials and supplies being offered need to be 100% accessed by the children, not by the teacher taking them down from a shelf and handing them to the children. This promotes self-help skill development and also allows for much more child directed learning and development, and development of independence and autonomy.
We suggest that you set up the following centers in your environment:
- Art area: An art area provides a creative outlet for kids to help express their emotions and ideas. Children can experience different textures and use different materials as they create art. Fine motor skill development and improved hand-eye coordination are other ways an art area will benefit the children in your care.
- Block area: Children can improve their motor skills, practice problem solving, and learn to work with their classmates while playing in a block area.
- Literacy/reading area: Having a quiet area to practice their reading, writing, and comprehension skills will help children express ideas, explore their interests, and learn about the world around them.
- Dramatic/symbolic/imaginative play area: Including a dramatic/symbolic/imaginative play area gives children opportunities to role play. Dramatic play encourages creativity, self-expression, and knowledge of the community. You can also use a dramatic play area to help teach children about other countries, cultures, and customs.
- Sensory area: Sensory play is an important part of childhood development and allows children to explore and learn through play with different materials. Children learn best when they can touch, see, smell, taste, hear, and manipulate the materials in their world. As children scoop up seeds or rice or other small items and fill up a container, they are discovering how much that container can hold before it overflows.. Sensory play promotes spatial awareness, mathematical thinking, and scientific exploration and discovery. Sometimes sensory play is simply a great way for children to relieve their stress. Sensory play can be very soothing and relaxing to a young child.
- Nature and discovery area: A nature and science or discovery area brings the outdoors indoors and gives children opportunities to explore nature and science concepts.
- Math and manipulatives: A math and manipulatives area can help children develop their fine motor skills and learn beginning math concepts. Children can practice their problem-solving skills and improve their hand-eye coordination by sorting counters and participating in other activities.
- [Optional] Music and movement: Including a music and movement center in your preschool classroom encourages children to be physically active and gives them opportunities to experiment with sound and music.
- However, many teachers do choose to have music and movement as more of a directed activity rather than a free for all as allowing open access to musical instruments at all times of the day can lead to uncomfortable or disruptive noise in the classroom. As such, many teachers keep musical instruments in a closed storage area and pull these out at a particular time of day (such as circle time) when they lead the children in a directed musical or dance activity.
Please note that these centers do not have to be all in different places. It is ok for some activities to occur in the same place. For example, you may have one table that is the “activities” table where children may bring their different materials to interact with to one place (e.g. one child is playing with “science” materials, one child is using playdough (a sensory material), etc.
The more important distinction is to ensure there is a separation of loud versus quiet activities by space or clean versus messy activities by space.
Considerations and suggested materials for each area:
- Easels and/or tables and chairs are needed to help kids work comfortably
- Tables should have easy-to-clean work surfaces
- Ensure you leave space for storage cabinets to safely store paints and other materials kids should not be able to easily access
- Facilitate Easy Clean Up with Splash Mats and Aprons
- There are a variety of art supplies available, so it's important that the materials you choose for your art center are organized and placed in appropriate storage containers. Art caddies, scissor racks, and art tubs are great storage solutions for materials that children need to easily access.
- Suggested materials for art area
- Collage and craft materials
- Glue, tape, and adhesives
- Paint and paint materials
- Colored and plain paper
- Stamps and stamp pads
- Considerations for block area:
- Keep your block area organized with storage tubs and containers
- Your block are should feature several complete sets of blocks and a variety of props.
- Suggested materials for block area:
- Wooden blocks: Hardwood blocks are durable and can help children learn a variety of topics and themes.
- Block People & Animals: Giving children block people and animals they can include in their block structures encourages role play and helps children learn about animals and people they may see in the community.
- Vehicle Play: Vehicles and traffic signs that can be used in block play encourage role play and help children learn about the world around them.
- Magnetic Building Sets: Magnetic building sets are a great alternative (or addition!) to traditional block play and can help children learn about magnetic science and spatial relationships.
Literacy / library area:
- Considerations for library area:
- This is a “quiet” area
- Having plush and cozy cushions, pillows, and a carpet is good for this area
- Suggested materials for library area:
- Comfortable chairs and cushions
- Book case
- With older children, sometimes having books on tape to listen to is also nice and can be a calming activity
Dramatic/symbolic/imaginative play area:
- Considerations for dramatic play area
- The dramatic play area is an area where children most often have to work together and play together to create a story or experience together.
- This is an important area to teach children patience and sharing.
- Oftentimes the block area combines into the dramatic play area, with children using blocks while also donning costumes or engaging in pretend play
- Some of the same equipment, such as cars, animals, etc. are often brought into the dramatic play
- Suggested materials for dramatic play area:
- Play kitchen
- It is great to have one inside and one outside
- Children love the mud kitchen at Little Lemon Tree!
- Dress up outfits (non branded and nonviolent)
- Animals, cars, etc.
- Masks (potentially)
- Masks can sometimes be scary for some children, especially if they are still learning to distinguish what is “real” versus what is “fantasy”. Seeing a mask on a person they have learned to trust can often lead to being scared.
- Considerations for sensory area
- Sensory play is an important part of childhood development and allows children to explore and learn through play with different materials.
- Children learn best when they can touch, see, smell, taste, hear, and manipulate the materials in their world.
- As children scoop up seeds or rice or other small items and fill up a container, they are discovering how much that container can hold before it overflows.. Sensory play promotes spatial awareness, mathematical thinking, and scientific exploration and discovery.
- Sometimes sensory play is simply a great way for children to relieve their stress. Sensory play can be very soothing and relaxing to a young child.
- Sensory play often occurs as a table activity and does not always need to be a certain distinct area
- Should be on easy to clean floor
- Suggested materials for sensory area:
- Sensory play can involve just about any kind of material you can think of from sticks and leaves to water, playdough, goop, beans, rice, pasta, paper, straws, etc.
- If a material can be put in a tub along with a few tools for play and the freedom to explore and manipulate, then it can be used for sensory play.
- Clay, Dough,'Modeling Materials’
- Check out this website for great ideas: http://www.ooeygooey.com/handouts/og.pdf
Nature and discovery area:
- Considerations for nature and discovery area
- A way for children to look at natural materials and animals, bugs, etc.
- Suggested materials for nature and discovery area
- Pine cones, leaves, sea shells, feathers, moss, magnifying glass, rocks or fossils
- You can also lead some directed activities with bugs, animals, and other found nature objects (such as bones, shed skin of a snake, etc.)
Math and manipulatives area:
- Considerations for math and manipulatives area
- Spatial relationships
- Suggested materials for math and manipulatives area
- Matching numbers to dots
- Ordering objects by size, color, or another feature
Music and movement area:
- Considerations for music and movement area
- Great to have as part of structured activities or “music time”.
- Music is helpful as part of transition time or part of routines
- Suggested materials for music and movement area
- Small drum
- Egg shakers
- Make sure each child has space to sit at the table with some room
- Easy to clean surface
- Meal time is a rich learning time and relationship-building time
- Doing meal preparation and planning before the school day is helpful to provide high quality food without making it too time-consuming or expensive
- When doing a full day program, it is common to offer a morning snack, lunch, and an afternoon snack
- Each teacher will learn about general guidelines for children’s nutrition during their EMSA Health & Safety training
- Some teachers use paper plates for snacks or lunch
- Cutlery (as needed)
- Please ensure no sharp edges
- Can be wood, plastic, bamboo, or metal
Rugs are a great way to create different spaces in rooms. Be careful not to make the space busy and overwhelming. Natural colors are generally most recommended.