Unlock the power of Soc-Emotional Learning- FREE GUIDE

The ‘Unpopular’ Centers

Some centers are hard to keep exciting. I call these centers the unpopular centers, you know, the ones that children rarely go to. And if they do go to them, they don’t stay long. So which centers are the unpopular ones? I think it’s different for each classroom, but I also think there’s probably some similarities as well.

For me, my unpopular centers are the writing center, the math center, the science center, and the literacy center.

I don’t have any problems getting children to go to the drama center, or to go to the block center, or to go to the art center, or the sensory table. But I do have trouble getting them to go to writing, math, science, and literacy. And those unpopular centers are ones I also consider to be playful learning centers because they are constructed by us, the teachers, to help meet a learning goal through play.

In contrast to free play centers that are very natural, and they often don’t need explanation. Those free play centers in my classroom are blocks, art, library, and sensory, and, a lot of times, drama. So those free play centers don’t take a lot from me. But the playful learning centers like science, math, literacy, and writing do take more from me.

Let’s dive into each 4 of those unpopular centers and give you a little glimpse of what my center looked like before and what I’ve done to really try to up the popularity of these centers and how it’s going.

Science Center

So we’re gonna start with the Science Center. About 3 or 4 years back, my teaching partner told me my science center was kinda sad. I knew it was true, but hadn’t taken the time to figure out what to do instead. I had some materials on the shelf for children to manipulate, but no real direction.

For example, I might have had magnets out, and I had all these different materials that they could do with magnets.

But what I was finding was that children were going to the center thinking, oh, let’s touch all this stuff. And then they didn’t really know what to do with it, so they turned around and left. This is what I was observing.

So, my teacher partner suggested we try out trays for more structured science activities, based on a theme. It was a great idea, because while I still wanted it to be open ended and for them to choose, the problem with the old science center was it was too open-ended. They didn’t have any instruction, and therefore, I was just kind of crossing my fingers, hoping that they would do the thing that I thought that they were going to do with it. <- Not the best way to do things!

So what we do now is we have 4 different trays for each science center theme.

There are different themes like My Body, Magnets, Winter or See and Touch and Feel – and many others. Each theme has 4 different trays with 4 different activities with picture instructions. And then we also have a sensory tub to go with them if we choose to use that. Also, there are real pictures of the things around that science theme.

But here’s the key: when we put out a new science center, we go ahead and take those trays off of the science shelf and put them on the main table in the morning. As our students come in, they are able to choose a learning center.

Many times, they are choosing the table because they wanna know what’s going on here. And this is where we sit and show how to use the materials on the trays. It has helped us explain to children how to use it and also create interest in using it. And the wonderful thing that I found is you don’t have to have every child come and play with these science centers because there is always a child that is willing to show another child (who didn’t interact with the materials) how they work once they are back in the science center.

The results? Well, the science center is now one of our more popular centers. It went from a desert or a just kind of go in, touch some things, leave, to a very popular center that lots of children like to do – so much so that we had to add a bigger table for them to sit at!

Writing Center

Now let’s move to the Writing Center. So, my writing center before used to be just a lot of different materials that they could use to write with – this worked okay. You’d have those friends that were very interested in writing going there, but it definitely wasn’t a popular center. It wasn’t one that they loved to go to, and it sometimes was confusing for them because the art center and the writing center feel the same to them because a lot of what they are writing is drawing.

So I decided that my writing center needed a different purpose. We didn’t need another space in the classroom where children went to draw on paper. We already had a space for that in the art center. So I really wanted to focus on teaching children about different types of writing and letting them explore that without any expectation attached. So what I came up with were writing invitations.

Where I was inviting them to come write, but not expecting them to (because many of our children just aren’t in that stage yet). But what writing invitations did was create an interest.

Here is an example of a writing invitation: during Thanksgiving, we have a lot of things to buy food for. Right? And we’ve been talking about feasts already in whole group. So in the writing center, the invitation is to make a list of things you wanna buy at the grocery store, and I have a grocery ad present to inspire them.

I model this during whole group. It takes me not even 5 minutes to model it. I just explained to them we have something new in the writing center, here’s what it is, here’s how you use it. Then, after I introduce and explain the invitation, I put it in the writing center.

And… it works. When the next free play centers time comes, so do many children (who weren’t going to the writing center before) wanting to try out the invitations. They might only write scribbles on the list. Perfectly fine because we know that’s a great writing stage. They may do first letters. They may just do the best they can, and this is where I definitely drive home the idea that it is okay to write like a preschooler- because they are preschoolers!

But I find that when I have that invitation open, they are much more willing to go over there and explore – plus I’m able to introduce them to many different types of writing – win, win!

Math & Literacy Centers

Last, we’re gonna look at the literacy center and math center, and I’m gonna put these together because they’re very similar in the way that I structure them.

In the past, I have used my math center as basically just a place to hold manipulatives. The the goal here was to take some manipulatives off the shelf and explore them in the way they saw fit. Did this happen? Sometimes. More often than not, it was just kind of getting them out, lining them up, not really knowing what to do with them, and then putting them away. And… that was kind of the extent to the math center.

As far as the literacy center goes, I didn’t really have one that was functional. I had some literacy manipulatives, like letter pops that you match up, some different letter bead and letter puzzles. There really wasn’t a lot of structure to the literacy center. It was, again, very open ended. And, again, what I was finding was that children were just a going in, touch some things, and leaving.

Both the math and literacy centers are now what I consider to be playful learning centers. I knew that I needed to add a little bit more structure from the teacher side to help them know what to do in the center and create learning opportunities that would support the skills that they needed to know.

So, I decided to go back to the whole tray thing because trays were working really well in the science center, so why not try them in the math and literacy center? But I also added a vertical component by using little pocket charts. And I did this because I didn’t have as much room for all the trays that I wanted. These pocket charts are something that they love to use when we’re doing whole group, so now they can use them at their level in a smaller version with a game or an activity. So math and literacy now have these two components going on.

The activities vary and many of them are theme based. At the start of the year, the activites are definitely more simple.Then as the year goes on, they get a little bit more complex.

Now there are opportunities abound for them to practice math skills and literacy skills. This change has helped me be more intentional about bringing in skills that I want them to be practicing.

And instead of just crossing my fingers again and hoping that they’ll use them the way that I want them to use them, I’m just gonna lay it out for them. We do introduce *some* of these centers during table time, small group or whole group. But, many activities don’t even need explanation – they understand it right away (and picture instructions are included) – very independent!

I’m hoping that these ideas kind of sparked some ideas for you in your own unpopular centers because the goal here really is to get children to want to visit them without making it a requirement!

Many times when we make it a requirement and we assign centers, it backfires on us, and children aren’t excited about going there and learning, and they find more mischief to get into.

Making our centers inviting is a very, very important piece of the puzzle!

Guide to Preschool Centers

Does setting up centers in your preschool classroom leave you feeling overwhelmed?

Don’t worry! This guide will walk you through all.things.centers!

Thank you for subscribing!


I love helping preschool teachers be the best they can be, by providing quality resources and sharing fun ideas!

If you’re looking for play-based learning ideas, free trainings and all things preschool – you are in the right place!