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Homepreschool/Homeschool Learning Centers: The “Creative Curriculum”

Posted by homeschoolmentormom on March 25, 2011

         NOTE:  The Creative Curriculum is the “curriculum” used by most institutional preschools, and taught at most colleges. (The book was a required element in one of my Child Development courses.)  As I stated in a previous post, the book itself is really intended for preschool teachers and daycare providers; much of its content is not for home use and it is very expensive. However, I have heard of a few homeschooling families who are using the Creative Curriculum as their homepreschool/homeschool “method”. Since there are some ideas that you might be able to use in your homepreschool/homeschool, I thought I would share about it–specifically, about the use of “learning centers”.

         The book, The Creative Curriculum, lays out the traditional institutional preschool setup: A daily schedule centered around learning through creative play and including a thematic approach (what we homeschoolers call “unit studies”.) A typical day would include circle time (music, finger plays, story time), play time, and learning centers. 

Learning Centers 

        A learning center is just an area set aside for a certain purpose or activity. They don’t have to be big; they can even be a box or dish tub with special items kept in it. There are many different types of centers used in preschools; some are set up all the time, and some are rotated. The centers that are almost always set up are:

1) Blocks (various types of blocks and cars; this is usually an open rug area)
2) Housekeeping (dress up, play kitchen, dolls and cradles, etc)
3) Table toys or manipulatives (Lego Duplos, puzzles, pegboards, stacking/nesting toys, lacing cards, big beads to string, etc–either set out on tables or placed on shelves near tables so that children can choose their own activities)
4) Art (usually crayons and paper, felt tipped pens, etc; some preschools keep easels out all the time; others only offer the “project of the day” at this center.)                                                                                                                   5) Library (sometimes audio books are included–a cozy area with books and throw pillows.)

        Some preschools include computer centers and music centers (although, to my way of thinking, computers simply take away from active play time…and leaving musical instruments/rhythm band out all the time is too loud.) Other activities or “centers” that are often offered but usually rotated include sensory tables (sand and water tables, or rice/bird seed bins) and cooking experiences.

        The activities in the centers change according to the theme (especially the library) and the specific skills that are being emphasized (especially the table toys.)

        The outside environment is considered a “center” by some, complete with activities that are alternated: Outside toys (balls, hoops), obstacle courses, and props for dramatic play (boxes, sidewalk chalk, etc.) Sensory tables and easel painting are often offered outside only, due to the mess.

        Some preschools allow children to freely move around the room, choosing the centers/activities they want to participate in during inside play time; others divide the children into groups and rotate them through the centers. Children might rotate between circle time, art, cooking experience/snack, and a table activity such as manipulatives, but the disadvantage to this is that some children don’t have enough time in the play/art centers. Other preschools do circle time, music, art, and cooking experiences as a group and then let the children move freely around the centers as they see fit…taking all the time they want for art, manipulatives, play, etc.

Applying These Ideas to the Home 

        Some families try to totally copy the institutional model–making their homes into “schools at home”. They set up a spare bedroom, play room (wouldn’t that be nice to have?), family room, or basement just like an institutional preschool, complete with “centers“. I don’t think this is necessary, however, I do like the idea of having certain materials available for my children to use whenever they like.  Even in a small house with no spare rooms, it is really easy to set up a few areas of your home to accommodate your children’s play/activities—without having to rearrange the whole house. I know it’s possible, because our first place (with kids) was around 1000 square feet, and our second only 1400.  Here are some ideas we used:

-Blocks: When my children were little, we always kept blocks, cars, and plastic animals underneath our coffee table in bins or baskets. The table served double duty as a play table. We’d often keep bins with Duplo Legos or other toys nearby.  Lately, I’ve given up my formal dining room table for puzzles, blocks, and models.

 -Housekeeping: When my daughter was young, she had a plastic “play kitchen” and a doll cradle that were kept in various places–sometimes in her room, and sometimes near the real kitchen, so that I could keep an eye on her as I worked. Even an old box with kitchen burners drawn on it with felt-tipped pens will do. (I also kept plastics and non-breakables in a couple of low kitchen cupboards for my little ones to play with. Toddlers like nothing better than banging on pots and pans with old spoons–if you can stand the noise!) If you have room, you can save old kitchen items (plastics, small pots, spoons, etc), old boxes of cereal and empty juice cans (metal cans often have sharp edges, so use paper or plastic juice cans instead. You can tape labels from other canned goods over the top of the juice cans.) These are also fun for playing “store.” Dress-up: Purchase an old suitcase from Goodwill and fill it with dress-up clothes: Hats, old dresses, high heels…and for boys, old suits and ties, camouflage clothes, firefighter hats, cowboy hats, etc. My boys used to love to put on an old snow suit, snow boots, and a bike helmet to play pilot or “astronaut.”  For girls it’s fun to include an old square dancing petticoat or other type of full skirt for dancing and spinning to music. The suitcase can be kept under a bed, so that it can be pulled out or put away with ease.  

-Table toys and manipulatives: I kept these types of activities in a bedroom closet, hall closet, or low bookshelf. Most often I’d pull them out one at a time, usually late-morning or late-afternoon (after extended outside play!). Sometimes I let the children choose their activity;  other times I’d just set things out on the kitchen table or coffee table for them to “find”.

-Art: I’ve always believed that it is important to have art supplies available for children to use whenever they want to (not messy things like paint or glue, or items that need close supervision, like scissors; make sure whatever you leave out is safe for your children‘s abilities.) For many years we’ve used a re-purposed china hutch for this. The drawers hold crayons, paper, and learning games; the shelves hold books, more games, and school supplies. If you don’t have the space for such a big piece of furniture, you could easily use plastic drawers on wheels instead. We usually keep out copy paper, scraps of paper from previous projects, scrap booking paper (which is heavier), pens and pencils, crayons, colored pencils, felt tipped pens, glue sticks, stickers, safety scissors (4+ if they won’t cut their own hair with them), hole punches and stencils (plastic or homemade shapes to trace, cookie cutters to trace, etc). The rest we keep out of reach. This way, the children are able to draw/color whenever they want to (as long as they pick up after themselves later.)  Play dough and projects involving paint or glue need my full attention, so these materials are brought out at my discretion. 

 -Library: Collecting picture books for your children?  It’s easy to turn your bookshelves into a “home library.“ Make your “library” cozy and inviting for your children by placing big, fluffy pillows or a bean bag chair nearby, so that children can sit and relax while looking at books. Be sure to keep preschool books down low, so that your child can choose books for himself. You can also use dish tubs or baskets to display books that are appealing to your children, alternating them by season, holiday, or the theme/topic that you are learning about. 

        There are two more home learning center ideas that I’d like to share. One is a science or collection table (or shelf.)  Children love to look at and collect natural objects. It’s wonderful to have those materials on display, where children can touch them, look at them and learn more about them. Ideas for a nature table (for all ages): Natural objects/collections of shells, stones, feathers, bird nests, pinecones, plants, etc; small live animals/insects (caterpillars, gold fish, hamsters); science books, field guides and magnifying glasses. You could even include magnets, compasses and motion/tornado bottles.  A nature table can even be seasonal…in fall, display beautiful leaves, acorns, etc; in spring, blooming tree branches, pussywillows, and so on.  Some families also use their nature table as a holiday table, setting up touchable displays related to the holiday (this is big with Waldorf homeschoolers.) Nature tables are great for displaying treasures from nature walks/nature studies.

        Another fun table or shelf to set up is a unit shelf or table. Your unit shelf could include books related to your unit and hands-on items related to your unit (to explore.) For example, for a unit on “farms” you might have different kinds of fruits and vegetables for your children to touch and smell, or plastic farm animals to play with; for a unit on rocks and minerals you could have samples of various types of rocks, books about rocks, field guides, and magnifiers; for a unit about birds you could have bird nests, blown eggs, feathers, books/field guides…you get the idea. Older children might enjoy the addition of notebooking supplies, file folder games/matching games (from free printables on the ‘net), etc.  

        Other ideas for older children include:  Scrapbooking/journaling centers, academically themed areas such as file-folder centers, math centers (weights, scales, things to measure, abacus, money/money games), etc.  The possibilities are really endless.

        These ideas allow us to enrich our children’s play and education while maintaining a homey atmosphere. 

Links, pictures and other ideas                                                            (remember that I can only vouch for the particular blog page that I link to):

Learning Center Ideas

Ideas for “Creative Learning Centers”—fun items to alternate

The Attached Mama: Behind the Scenes: Our Learning Environment (Note: Remember, if you don’t have space or money for all these goodies OR a an extra room for a “school room”, don’t worry; these things are nice to have, but not necessary to the success of your homepreschool/homeschool. See my post, “The Keyword in Homeschool is Home.”)

Some of My Favorite Things for Learning Centers/Manipulatives/Play Time (No, I don’t get any money out of this…)

Insect Lore (we had great fun with the ladybug house last summer)

Discovery Toys (some of the best educational toys available, divided by age; our favorites include Measure UP! Cups,  The Giant Pegboard, Place and Trace Puzzles, A, B, Seas,  and for older kids, Marbleworks and Mosaic Mysteries.)

Dr. Drew’s Blocks (we made our own–fun and appealing to all ages!))

Citi Blocks (fun and appealing to all ages!)

Wooden Pattern Blocks

Lauri Puzzles

Ravensburger puzzles (they are expensive, but they are the best…beautiful.)

Duplo Legos


       Have fun! But remember…these things are nice to have, but not necessary. That being said…the toys I linked to above are classic and your children will enjoy them for years. In fact, we’re saving our blocks and plastic animals for the grandkids (someday!)

© 2011 Susan Lemons all rights reserved.  Copyrighted materials may not be re-distributed or re-posted without express permission from the author.


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