Obviously I'm in the other camp. To me, the most important part of kindergarten is playing. It's for this reason that I work in an hour of free choice center time each day. I try very hard not to take that away - even when we have assemblies etc. I see a lot of teachers in my district using center time as a reward - kind of like dessert:
"Eat your broccoli and you can have cake later." = "Learn your fact families and you can play with some blocks."
The only problem with that is that it's backwards - the "play" time is the broccoli! I don't think I could ever teach a lesson so well that it would outdo the natural learning that takes place in an unstructured play setting.
I think maybe I should clarify what I mean by "center time" really quick. For my class, we have 16 centers:
math, reading, writing, play dough, blocks, art, listening/music, puppets, puzzles, computers, living, science, social studies, sensory, and pocket chart
Each day, the majority of these centers are open - technology and space permitting. During our hour of center time each day, students choose their center. I have their center time clothespins in a bucket and pull them out randomly. When I call their name they go to whichever center they want to, even if they've chosen the same center all year. If the center is full they do have to choose a different center, but most children will happily pick an alternate center.
I guess you can tell that choice is very important here. Often what I find is that children instinctively know what they need and what truly interests them. Sure some children might go to our living center every day, but each time it's a different experience. Sometimes they're "playing" house, trying out new roles, discovering that being a family with Sally and June is very different than when Mary and Gertrude played with them. Sometimes the living area is a doctor's or dentist's office, others a grocery store. The play changes depending on the mood of the children in it. Even reading center is different each day, new books, a different stuffed friend to snuggle up with, and another child to read with.
During this time, I do not sit at my desk. Play time is not time for me to catch up on grading, read emails or plan lessons. Instead, I monitor the room, taking notes in a center time notebook. I just jot down the date, make a quick note of who chose which center and then record the learning I see and hear. I also have my camera in hand to take pictures.
To my mind it is extremely important that I document our center time this way, in case anyone ever comes to say "You're just letting them play for an hour, why aren't you teaching them?"
Usually, what I see going on in centers is the children acting out and incorporating what I have taught. I had one little girl who, each time we moved to a new math concept, would spend a day or two choosing math center, going over the concept independently (or guiding friends) until she had a solid handle on it. I had a little boy who spent a solid hour with the magnetic wands from science center, experimenting with everything in the class - finally coming to his own conclusion about the definition of "magnetic". Often I jot down conversations - noting expanding vocabularies, evidence of cooperation and character building, and moments of empathy.
Of course, center time is only as good as the materials available. but it doesn't have to cost a fortune to have quality centers that enable learning moments. In the next few weeks, as I plan my classroom and centers, I'll be sharing what goes into each of my centers - and what comes out in terms of learning!
One of the things that I find really helpful is my center time signs. I've created a full page sign for each center, with a fun graphic that let's my pre-readers easily identify what the center is about. The best part though, is the "I am" statements for each center. These are "talking points" to use when parents or administrators ask you about the purpose of a center and what the child is learning. Often times you may know that playing with blocks is beneficial, but it may be hard to put it into words on the spur of the moment. The bulleted list helps with that! If my principal were to question why I'm letting kiddos "play" with play dough, I can instantly point out several of the benefits (my principal is a doll and understands early childhood, so she wouldn't do this, but I've heard of others who have!)
The signs are also one of my center time management tools. At the beginning of the year I decide, based on space and available materials, how many children each center can safely and effectively accommodate. I then put that number of stickers on the bottom of my center sign. Signs are hung close to the individual center. Once a student receives their clothespin, they simply go to the sign for their center of choice and clip the pin over a sticker. Once all of the stickers are covered, the children can see that the center is full and they must choose an alternate center.
I've made several themed sets of my center signs that you can grab in my TPT store:
I have other themes as well, including animal print, ladybugs, pastel dots, frog pond, bees, and monsters!
I've decided to do a flash giveaway! Three winners will receive their center sign pack of choice for free! Just Rustle Up a Response below and tell me which pack you would choose (don't forget to leave your email address so I can contact you!) If I don't have your theme yet, let me know that too and I'll see what I can do! This little giveaway will run until Friday, July 5th at midnight Oklahoma time!
I hope that with this mini series on centers, I can encourage all of you to join me in the "play" camp, because as Mr. Rogers said,
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”