To begin, I teach 6 and 7 year olds. Therefore, I need to keep them moving, moving and moving! Math centers is a great way to do this, especially if you include activities that are interactive, exploratory, and kinesthetic.It's also a time that allows me to work with students one-on-one or in small groups. I essentially use this time the same way I use the time students work on literacy tasks in reading workshop: I will either work with an individual student or with a small group. I will also use this time to observe students and gather information about their performance. This in turn allows me to determine appropriate next steps for students, as well as decide how else I can help students in their learning.
What are the logistics of running math centers in my class? Well, I have a pretty simple math centers system. I am not one who likes to fuss with too much prep, so I look for activities that are fast and easy to put together. If it's too complicated or too much work, it doesn't go into my centers. Period. Essentially, I have 5 different centers in my math centers. This is because I have 5 table groups. If you have 4 table groups, you would have 4 center activities (if you followed this system). Students do only 1 a day (I allot 20 minutes of my math block to centers). This eliminates the constant rotating of students and/or materials (again, I go for easy and simple). Centers are labeled "A" to "E". I have a basket for each center activities, and the basket goes to the table group that has it that day.
Here you see a picture of my center baskets. A is graph paper for area graphing. B is our Math Notebooks where students work on different problems. C is making numbers with playdoh. D is a Bump game. E is Kodable (nothing is in this basket because they play Kodable on the iPads, which has their own home).
To keep track of which group does what center, I make a little graph on a small whiteboard that I keep next to the center baskets. Whenever we start a new cycle, table group 1 always starts with center A. Then, I rotate every group down. For example, Monday table group 1 starts with center A. On Tuesday they do center B. Wednesday center C, etc. If you look at the graph to the right, you can see this rotating sytem. Each time a center is completed for the day, I erase the table group numbers (in red) and then rewrite them for the following day. To make it easy for me, I always move table group 1 first on the chart so I don't get confused and rewrite it incorrectly.
A few tips:
1) Center activities must be pre-explained to students (yeah...I probably didn't even need to mention this one, right?). I will do this by having students sit in a circle as I introduce the activities.
2) Games taught to the whole-class can become center activities: This tip has saved me a lot of time! Typically when we play a new game for the first time, I teach the whole class at once and we play at the same time. Then, that becomes a game that can be played in centers (they already know it!).
3) You don't have to do math centers every day: Some days I will not do math centers because I want students to work on an activity that might go into their math center time, or our schedule has been modified for some reason, or (insert reason here) and so we simply don't have time. That's okay! Let math centers enhance your math block, but allow for flexibility.
4) New math centers do not have to start every Monday, or on a Monday for that matter. I'm giving you this tip because I just realized this, this year! For as long as I have been doing math centers, I've always felt the need to start new center activities each Monday. Why? Who made that rule? Once I figured this out, I was liberated! I start new math center activities (which I actually call a "math center cycle") when I'm ready to start them (i.e., when we finish a math center cycle). This means sometimes we will start on a Tuesday, perhaps a Wednesday or Thursday, but there's no actual set day. We start a new cycle when we are ready to start!
5) Try to have games or activities that can be modified into different versions. This makes it easy to frequently incorporate the game or acticity as students will already know how to do it, and you'll just have to explain the modification. For example, we like to play Bump in our math centers. Bump is a fantastic math game that has MANY different versions (addition, subtraction, 2 more, 2 fewer, doubles, etc.).
As you can see, math centers do not have to be complicated. This system has proven to be easy and simple for me, requiring very little preparation. If you aren't currently doing math centers in your classroom, I encourage you to give it a try and let me know how you like it.