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5 Tips for Running Effective Math Centers

Math centers add so much value to your classroom. They’re a non-negotiable part in many primary classrooms because when rolled out appropriately, centers promote great learning strategies. They can completely uplevel your teaching!

Hands-on access gives kids a chance to explore concepts they’ve already learned and strengthen their skills at their own pace. We get an opportunity to observe and assess children as they practice at the center stations, so we can see how to better meet their needs.

Centers also help with classroom management because kids can engage in high interest, small group activities that keep behavior problems down, engagement up, and provide an opportunity to practice specific classroom rules and expectations. Kids feel ownership over their learning and a sense of control.

Your time is valuable and I want to make sure you and your students are set up for Math Center Success! Here are 5 top tips you should consider to make certain that your centers are effective, efficient, and worth the time and energy investment on the front end to get them off the ground. Keep these in mind in order to get the most out of your math centers:

1. Choose skills that need review- nothing new!

While you may choose to front load new concepts by linking them to activities they’re already familiar with, your kids are going to approach centers with a lot more confidence and independence when they incorporate review skills. This will also give your students who need more time with a concept an opportunity to build their proficiency.

2. Choose centers that have straight forward instructions.

Choose activities that students can easily do on their own. For example, matching and sorting games are easy for students to do independently. We want our kids to spend their time practicing actual math skills, not decoding complicated instructions. You don’t want to set them up for frustration. Once your students show proficiency, you can add on an additional step to differentiate their learning, but keep it simple.

3. Keep it short.

Don’t give any games that take too long to play. Shorter center rotations are key for avoiding disruptive behaviors and keeping little ones engaged. Centers are not play time. They’re practice time! It seems to work best to keep rotations around 10-15 minutes long. 

Tip: I like to project a timer so kids can keep track of how much time is left.

4. Practice expected behaviours.

The first weeks of school and the return from breaks are a great time to practice rules and routines. I usually just throw simple things in my center baskets when we’re getting started (whiteboards, card games, etc). The focus isn’t the actual game. The goal is to practice finding your basket, choosing a seat with your partner, sitting properly, putting things away, etc. Once your students know what is expected and have practiced, then it’s time to start the “real” learning games.

5. Designate a teacher table.

Have more complicated center games? Maybe one game is a little more complex or needs a little more guidance. Save that game for the teacher table. While circulating the room for assessment and management, you’ll want to start with that table to get that group settled and on task before roaming the rest of the crowd.

These tips are great to keep in mind as you are getting started. If you’re still curious about how to pull it off in your own room with great results, here are some Frequently Asked Questions about Math Centers:

Math Center FAQs:

Q:How often do I change centers?

A: As soon as everyone has completed each task. That may take one week or two depending on our schedule and what we have going on. I don’t stress about that. I’d rather we work on them well rather than rushing and trying to squeeze in too many in a week/day.

Q: How many students per group?

A: For me, the magic number is two. Not more, not less. If I have an odd number of students, I don’t have a choice, but I try to avoid groups of three. My students tend to work much better when they are paired up vs. when they are in small groups. Try out different things and be open to changing things around. It won’t take long before you figure out what works best for you. If the teacher is happy and comfortable, the rest of the class will be too.

Q: Do I correct what students complete in centers?

No. I keep recording sheets in plastic protectors and they are re-used by every group. I constantly roam the room, observing my kids and taking notes to remember who needs more help with what. I also spend a lot of time helping them arrive at that ah-ha! moment. Centers are a great time to get a math skill to “click” because they are with only one partner and the teacher so they can easily get that individual attention.

Q:What games do I put in my center baskets?

I have some resources you’re going to love! Try these:
Math Center Bundle
Manipulative Math

Want to try some centers for free? : Math Center Freebie

Ready to jump in? I’m here to support you as you navigate math centers in your classroom. Check out my Facebook and Instagram pages, and make sure to comment with your questions and pro tips about how centers are going with your students.

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