How to Make Easy, Engaging, and Effective Centers for Elementary Classrooms

effective center ideas for kindergarten

7-minute read
Includes FREE Downloadable Resources

center ideas for kindergarten and 1st grade

Gretchen Doll
Educational Consultant / Early Ed Teacher

As educators, we know targeted small groups that provide explicit instructioneffective centers for kindergarten are a crucial component for young learners. To determine placement and keep groupings fluid according to skill for systematic and explicit instruction that moves students forward, you also need time to assess. There are several good online assessment tools available to teachers such as ESGI, Lexia, and iStation.

However, time to observe students and have conversations to fine tune your understanding of what students know is paramount. But, what do you do with the other twenty-something students that are not with you? Here are a few tips for creating and maintaining accountable, engaging stations that manage behavior and promote time on task.

Make Stations Easy on YOU

effective center ideas for kindergartenTake time in the beginning to make multiple stations. I organized my stations using 5 colors. For every color, I had 4 boxes containing 4 different ways to practice the skills for the week. I divided students into groups and each group was assigned a color each day.

For example, if Lola is assigned the color red on Monday, she can choose from one of the four activities that are in the red tubs or labeled with red.

Keep the color tubs the same for the month, just change the skills for the week. Some tubs are applicable all year and do not need to be changed. (i.e. letter/number stamps, Wiki Stix, Play-doh with letters/shapes cookie cutters, Lego or snap cubes, sand trays, magnetic letters) This cuts down on prep time and teaching students new activities. Below are 5 great resources for stations:

1. Teach, Play, Learn!: How to Create a Purposeful Play-Driven Classroom by Adam Peterson
2. Make, Take, Teach Blog
3. 40 Literacy Center Ideas
4. Kaboom Sticks
5. Alive Studios Zoo Letters alive Journals and Math alive Journals

***Include a science or social studies station to help with meeting the required minutes. I often found it hard to get the minutes met in those areas. This can be done with leveled informational picture books. One example of a station would be sorting and counting animals according to color, habitat, diet, etc. Or let the kids choose their own way to sort and explain their sort. This can be easily organized using the journals from Alive Studios Zoo.

Make Behavior Manageable From the Beginning

Introduce two stations on Monday of each week by modeling how to complete the station and expectations for getting it out, playing and cleaning up. This is the time to introduce and reinforce the social emotional growth skills (SEL) needed to function as little learners in a community.

Time Management: Getting started quickly, focusing on the task at hand,effective center ideas for kindergarten and cleaning up so that the next group is able to have the same experience.

Social Awareness/Relationship Skills: Learning to take turns and use manners when communicating. Learning how to listen to and help others.

Self Awareness: Accepting that making mistakes can lead to success. I always ask kids if I can share their mistakes by saying something like, “Wow! Can I share your mistake because that is one I think others are making but aren’t brave enough to share it. Want to help me teach everyone? I can tell you are pushing your learning.” Sometimes kids say no, and that is fine, too. But eventually everyone would share mistakes in my class.

Self Management: Learning to self control and commit to excellence. Guiding students in finding their gifts and their areas for growth.

Lay down the law and practice, practice, practice! Just like making multiple stations to save your sanity, take the time to practice transitions, cleanup, and expectations. If things are going awry, stop immediately, assess why, and regroup.

Do not introduce new stations until previous ones are running like well oiled machines. I realize that there will be years and groups that will test everyone’s limits, but be consistent and don’t let little things slide those first weeks. Be overly regimented in the beginning, so that you can relax the rules and be flexible while managing the controlled chaos throughout the year.

I am a huge fan of Love and Logic resources for learning to set firm limits and boundaries in a logical, loving way. Centervention offers a subscription to online interactive stories, but they also have 95 Free SEL Activities available. One resource for free SEL short learning videos for kids is Cosmic Kids Zen Den. I used these in the morning right before we started our day, or before certain activities that I knew could become potential roadblocks. Alive Studios Zoo offers 26 Rhyming SEL Stories as a free resource. The stories connect lovable animals to everyday lessons in life.

Make Stations Accountable and Save Yourself Time

I learned several tips along the way to help students be accountable.effective center ideas for kindergarten If you have taught more than one year, you know that what works one year often has to be tweaked or completely reworked the next. Here are a few ways I rotated accountability throughout the years.

Any task that needed to be checked was completed in the station directly before that group came to work with me. Students would bring it with them to our small group, we’d do a quick check, and then they could put it in their mailbox to go home. I could reteach at that moment if multiple students didn’t understand, or save it for one-on-one/small group later.

If students had station journals or folders, I rotated the ones I checked. For example, check group 1 on Mondays, group 2 on Tuesdays, etc. I am sure you also know that a couple of students require daily checks. If you are consistent and go wild with celebration when they complete any task, the need for that can become less. Some years, the struggle to be consistent was very real for me!

Use an iPad to take pictures of creations that are not paper pencil. If your students use a device in the classroom during a station time, they can upload their game, number understanding, etc. by uploading a picture to SeeSaw and talking about it using the language of the discipline. If you do not use SeeSaw or another platform, have the students write their name on a sticky note and include it in the picture they take. Then, check the camera roll on the devices.

If you are using a tub choice system similar to the one mentioned above, make some of the tubs which give you the best picture of student understandings the “must do” tubs.

Do the Work, Be Consistent, Keep It Simple

effective center ideas for kindergartenStations are an indispensable part of the classroom. They develop not only academic skills, but more importantly, life skills. Tackling them can sometimes give educators combat fatigue. Here are the takeaways I have learned.

Keep stations simple and versatile by repurposing the same tubs and manipulatives, but change the skill. Take extra time to set up your classroom management and redirect students until you have the desired outcome before introducing other stations. Realize that certain stations just may not work for some learners or groups of learners. Save your sanity and put it in the closet for a while. Consistently holding students accountable gives you information and provides students the gift of responsibility!


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Family Engagement and Learning Through the Summer!

summer learning for kids

2-minute read
Includes FREE Downloadable Resources

activity calendars for summer learning

Gretchen Doll
Educational Consultant / Early Ed Teacher

Counting the Days!summer learning for kids
The end of the school year is in sight and you can count the number of days left on one hand. You have worked so hard to make sure your students met their goals and benchmarks set by others.

Summer Learning Loss! Make it STOP!
summer learning for kidsHow do you keep your Pre-K and Kindergarten students from losing the proverbial months of learning over the summer break and get them ready for the next school year? During the pandemic, teachers, parents and districts saw monumental loss when students were receiving instruction virtually. Early learners do not have any room for learning loss over this and subsequent summers and you, as their teacher, don’t have time to create something that will keep their recent learning in the forefront. It is easy to tell parents to read to their children, talk to them about math at the grocery store, in the kitchen, in the car, counting socks to put in pairs, and the list goes on. Parents have really good intentions, but as a parent I know life takes over and often good intentions slide.

No-Prep, No-Print – Simply Download and Send!summer learning for kids
Using my experience in early education, special education, and instructional technology, I compiled calendar ideas in an easy, no-prep summer calendar with activities that are simple to facilitate by parents and are engaging for kids.

A parent letter, instructions, and links are provided for easy activities parents can do with their children over the summer. Just download the one that fits your needs, and send it out to your parents. There is no printing, gathering supplies, or explanation. It is all done for you and ready to send!

Take a breath! You are almost there!

FREE Downloadable (pdf) Resources
Get Ready for Kindergarten!
Get Ready for First!
Parent Letter


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It’s the End of the Year and You Know It!!

“… keeping your routines in place helps to ease the chaos! … you can keep the peace and still have fun!”

5-minute read
Includes FREE EOY Downloadable Resource

end of school for pre-k and kindergarten

Stephanie Dowlearn
Educational Consultant / Kindergarten Teacher

It’s finally here! (yay! boo!)
Throughout schools nationwide, teachers pass each other in the hall, proclaiming the number of days left this school year. It’s a yearly ritual, especially in elementary schools, where kindergarten teachers are sure to know that magic number! It’s the end of the year, and we all know it, but do you feel fine?

The end of the school year is a difficult time, but keeping your routines in place helps to ease the chaos! Even with Field Day, field trips, performances, ceremonies, and parties, you can keep the peace and still have fun!

Anyone who has ever taught kindergarten knows most of the year is one rough day after another, buried in the trenches until the end of February when like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, our little kindergartners suddenly become independent little beings and the routines that were established months ago keep the classroom running like a well-oiled machine!

It’s not over yet!
This was always my favorite time of the year! Learning and laughter were a daily occurrence until the end of April when suddenly, my sweet little kindergarten family turned into a bunch of bickering pseudo-siblings! It was like they’d forgotten everything we’d learned from our numerous SEL activities! Experienced teachers can attest to this yearly end-of-year transformation, and for those who are new to this, all hope is not lost!

Ideas for a fabulous finish!
A great way to motivate learners and encourage wanted behaviors is a fun incentive! Each year, near the end of April, I introduced our Kindergarten ABC Countdown to Summer, which is similar to the Backwards Bootcamp from The Kindergarten Smorgasboard.

There are tons of End of Year Countdowns on TPT to choose from, but it was the tradition at my school to count the days until summer with a review of the alphabet that many of my students began the year not knowing!

This 26-day countdown celebrated the alphabet with fun activities as we continued to follow our daily schedule and routines. The kids loved coming to school to see what fun was in store, behaviors improved, and joy returned to finish the year!!

When in doubt, bring out the animals!
In my last year in the classroom, I had the great idea to include animals in the ABC Countdown! Along with the countdown theme for the day, we brainstormed all the animals that start with the day’s focus letter. Since I had Classrooms alive, it was easy to refer to animals from our Alive Studios Zoo to learn more about their characteristics and habitats.

Each child created an animal letter craft for the day and wrote about the animal. The pages were then combined to create an adorable animal alphabet book that went home with them on the last day of school. I really wanted the kids to record themselves reading their book, but I’ve learned you just have to let some great ideas go! I also sent each child home with a Letters alive Student Journal to continue learning throughout the summer!

Whew! We can do this!
There are so many great ideas to end the school year, but we all know the trek to the end can be overwhelming, so slow down, take a breath, and as you near the finish line, be sure to have fun and make memories with your little learners!

For some fun theme-day ideas, click here!


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Volume Bonus for School Districts

school district pilot program

Below is a recent Press Release announcing our Proficient by 3rd Grade District Level Volume Bonus Program:

Alive Studios Helps School Districts Win the Reading Challenges for At Risk Students

Alive Studios is introducing a Proficient by 3rd Grade Volume Bonus program for school districts to test and prove the Letters alive early learning reading program.

Alive Studios has structured a program that allows school districts to test and prove the effectiveness of teaching with Letters alive within eight classrooms. “We encourage districts to test and compare student outcomes between classes using Letters alive and those not using Letters alive.” stated Cynthia B. Kaye, CEO and Chief Zoo Keeper of Alive Studios. The volume program comes with a full-year of free online digital assessments for measuring, tracking, and reporting the progression of students. The generated reports can be shared with teachers, principals, and even parents in English or Spanish. The Alive Studios’ team will also come on-site and trains the participating teachers how to most effectively use Letters alive with their students and how to track their outcomes. Says Kaye, “We’re convinced that once districts try the bonus program and see the results for themselves they’ll want to make this available to all their at risk students.”

“We’ve been busy spreading awareness of our game-changing supplemental reading program, Letters alive, by introducing it to teachers around the country.” added Kaye. “What we’re finding at trade shows and during demos is that teachers love our solutions, but 74% of them don’t have the purchasing authority to obtain it. We realized we needed to take our solutions to the district level.”

at risk studentsAmerica has a literacy crisis among our early learners and serious solutions are in demand. “An alarming number of children—about 67 percent nationwide and more than 80 percent of those from low-income families—are not proficient readers by the end of third grade. This has significant and long-term consequences not only for each of those children but for their communities, and for our nation as a whole,” cited Ralph Smith, Managing Director of The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

With almost 7 out of 10 students not proficient in reading by 3rd grade, early intervention with a proven solution is crucial for establishing the foundations for high school graduation and career success. Alive Studios’ difference maker is a mind-boggling technology called Augmented Reality. It creates a 3D experience without glasses and provides off-the-charts engagement that increase student outcomes. Now, over 1,500 classrooms are learning letters, letter sounds, sight words and sentence building in a revolutionary way.

The program is especially effective with At Risk students including ELL, ESL and Special Needs. Independent Research has proven a 48% increase in letter naming fluencies and 112% increase in letter sound fluencies by implementing Letters alive in the classroom. “My students love seeing a new animal each day and their reactions to the animals coming to life is priceless! Letters alive brings a whole new engagement level to our ABC BOOTCAMP!” stated Greg Smedley-Warren, Kindergarten Teacher at JE Moss Elementary, a Title I school in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Proficient by 3rd Grade Volume Bonus Program is available to any school district. Interested teachers and principals are encouraged to inform their district leaders about the program. Details about Letters alive and the bonus program can be found here.

Content is King for Classroom Technology

Content is King for Classroom Technology

So, after a long wait and a lot of pleading you finally got that new computer, or that new smartboard. Now what? Do you have the really cool content you need to engage students?

As we make the trade show tour, we have the pleasure of seeing all the latest educational technology; fast, streamlined computers and big, crystal-clear displays. Like kids in a candy store glaring at the shiniest and most colorful lollypop, we all fall into the “I have to have this” category. But when we get it into our classrooms, we realize it doesn’t solve any of the major problems we face with early learners. Are they now learning letter sounds and letter naming more effectively? Does the new tech reach both ends of the learning spectrum? Are At Risk students now achieving better results? Can ELL students grasp the English language any quicker?

One common void we discover amongst the hardware tech crowd is the lack of content. content is king for classroom technologySure they offer the ability to do “it” quicker, bigger, and with more wow.. but do what? It’s the content ON the device that makes the difference. It’s the software application that brings the device to life and solves problems in classrooms.

It reminds me of a story about a little boy who had a $5 bill and wanted to buy a wallet. After shopping several stores, he found the perfect one. It fit his pocket, it felt good in his hand, and it only costed $5. You can guess the rest of the story. Having spent his $5, the little boy had nothing to put into his new wallet. Just like the wallet with no money, a new computer or smartboard just isn’t that impressive without content.

So, if you’re given the green light for new technology, remember to save some funds for engaging content that will help make a positive difference in your classroom.