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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Stretching Your Free-Explore Preschool Centers: Inexpensive Add-Ons that Extend Interest

It's happened to the best of teachers.  You set out a new and exciting free-explore center for your students - let's say a new sensory table.  When you first open it, it's all the rage.  Your students crowd the center, excited for a turn to play there.  They ooh and ahh about all the discoveries they find there.  But then, after a week or so, you notice the the visitors at that center are dwindling.  Many days it stands unvisited, all of its sensory splendor going un-sensed.

What's a teacher to do?  Center items like the objects in a sensory table can be time-consuming to change frequently.  Plus, it can be expensive to fill a sensory table well, and most teachers can't afford to change them out too frequently.  As a result, you find yourself looking for ways to "stretch" these centers and find ways to extend your students' interest (and learning) in and from them.

Obviously, you could just change out one or two small items in the mix to make it more interesting, but I find one of the easiest and cost-effective ways way to extend learning in many of my centers is through containers.  I have found that adding different types of small buckets, boxes, or even cups sudden provoke a renewed interest in a center.  Most times, the center finds some new life in these containers, which are not just another type of object, but instead promote new ways to play and learn.  These new ways are the skills of sorting, classifying, quantifying and plain arranging and rearranging.  For example, in my fall Sensory table, the Little People might decide sort the fall flowers into one container and the fall berries into another.   They might sort the containers out by color among two friends, and each friend gets to fill their own group of containers up.  I even had one Little Person today insist on stacking up the cups in a pattern today at the end of Center time, although I'm guessing that this was more of an avoidance (of cleaning up) tactic than it was a compulsory need to create a pattern.

Here are some of my favorite containers:

The cups found above were found in the current Target Dollar spot.  I think of them as "oatmeal" sized, and they come in wonderful fall colors:

Here they are with their green dot, showing what a bargain they are:

There were also in dollar area at Target:

They come in a package of three:

They even fold flat, which I think is a complete bonus:

I find these at the Dollar Tree.  I believe there are about 10 in the package.  The lids are easy enough for most of the Little People to open and close alone, which leads to all kinds of sorting, filling and stacking:

I also love these glittery containers from the Dollar Spot.  However, they are more expensive, at $1 each.  But oh - so much glitter!

I do also love this Target Dollar Spot bag for its cuteness and its fall theme.  However, in my experience, containers like this almost beg the children to take the materials out of the sensory table and carry them off somewhere else in the room.


Maybe it's the handle.  I don't know.  But since I don't like rounding up all of these little sensory caches around the room, I avoid these containers.

Whatever containers you use, just remember - don't put them out the first few days the center is open.  That would be the equivalent of handing your own three-year old child the entire contents of a new "car toys" bag at the outset of of ten-hour road trip. Let the excitement of a new area play itself out a little bit before you "stretch" the center with the addition of the containers.

I think you'll like the "stretch" that these containers will give your free-play centers, along with the added learning opportunities it will give your students.

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