Learning Centers in Preschool: Ideas for Hands On Play Based Learning

I’m excited to be partnering with ChildCare Education Institute. As always, all opinions are my own.

There’s no denying that kids learn best when they are playing. After taking the Launching Learning Centers in Your Classroom (CCEI450A) professional development course from  ChildCare Education Institute (CCEI) I was re-inspired to hone in harder on preschool learning skills and creative play centers.

The CCEI540A course developed by ChildCare Education Institute gave me the knowledge and tools I needed to not only evaluate the structure of our current preschool learning centers but also how to modify it and assess the centers based on age appropriateness and students’ needs. There is an incredible amount of potential to not only expose children to learn through discovery but also to create simple hands on higher learning activity centers.

list of preschool learning centers

My daughter is currently in preschool and has one more year of preschool left. Our school just announced that they are altering their traditional curriculum to play based learning strategies which is full of hands on activities and tactile learning centers. I’m so excited about it! This course helped me to understand why learning centers are so important and the anatomy of a fantastic learning center.

You may remember a few weeks ago I took another course from ChildCare Education Institute and I appreciate how easy it is to take online courses for professional development. CCEI has an interactive map that will allow you to click on your state to see if CCEI’s coursework will be accepted.

Learn more about the Exploring Visual/Spatial Intelligence course I took here.

green basket weave butterflies sensory

What is ChildCare Education Institute?

ChildCare Education Institute is the industry leader for online professional development. CCEI has over 150 courses online in both English and Spanish and are accredited by the DEAC and IACET.  They offer professional development courses, Head Start training, certificate programs including the CDA and even customized child care course hosting! Read more about ChildCare Education Institute curriculum here.

You can view all of the professional development course options here.


What I learned in the “Launching Learning Centers in Your Classroom” course CCEI450A:

I am so glad that I took the Launching Learning Centers in your Classroom (CCEI450A) course with ChildCare Education Institute and highly recommend it to preschool teachers! It gives great insight not only to why you need learning centers in preschool but the course also gives specific categories, ideas, and resources on how to maximize the learning efforts in your classroom through learning centers.

In this course I learned about:

  • How to motivate children to learn.
  • How to create and use effective learning centers.
  • Understand the difference between structured and unstructured play.
  • Learn how to create new and update existing current learning centers.
  • Study the different between theme-based learning centers and special-interest learning centers.
  • Learn how to assess the students’ needs and adjust the learning centers accordingly.

Key takeaways: Learning centers should be age appropriate, engaging, rotated, and designed to meet student needs.


Play Based Learning Center – Math Ideas:

colored glass beads sensory tins

  1. Place a balance with small counters in the math activity center. Create simple addition and subtraction activities.
  2. Simple tangram challenge cards provide great spatial reasoning activities!
  3. Follow a pattern! Using lacing beads, counters, blocks, or other manipulatives available, create activities to work on patterns and sequencing.
  4. Measuring height. Use blocks and stacking counters to measure the height of objects.

Play Based Learning Center – Science Ideas:

fall nature basket sensory bin leaf

  1. Set up a microscope station along with objects easily accessible by students. (leaves, flowers, moss, etc.)
  2. Create magnetic “bottles” to explore. Add small things like springs, bells, pipe cleaners, etc. into bottles and have magnetic wands in the station.
  3. Set up a smelling station. Using old spice bottles or small water bottles with holes, add in things like cinnamon sticks, lemon slices, etc.
  4. Set up a fish tank and garden viewing center for observation.

Play Based Learning Center – Interest Ideas:

plush dogs and cat math learning center

Interest areas are fantastic ways to capture a child’s interest and encourage them in exploring a center. Above you can see our veterinarian play center in which we incorporated faux grass for sensory input, a water dish for care, and some numbered blocks to add up how many animals are available. (2 dogs + 1 cat = 3 pets) You could also add band-aids, stethoscopes, gauze or fabric wraps, check in sheets, and other medical care items for pets.

dinosaurs and fossils sensory play learning

In this center we encourage students with a special interest in dinosaurs! I added cork boards for additional texture and sensory input. You can additionally add fossils, sand with small brushes, paint for creating dinosaur tracks, faux grass and vegetation for habitat play, etc.

Other special interest ideas:

  • Farm / Horses
  • Transportation (trains, hot air balloons, planes, boats, etc.)
  • Fairies
  • Gardening / Fairy Gardens
  • Marine Life / Beaches
  • Comics / Cartoons
  • Pirates
  • Holidays

I’ve taken two professional development courses this year with ChildCare Education Institute and I couldn’t be happier! I found the topics and course options to be extremely interesting and exactly what I was looking for. Both courses were packed with useful information and resources that I was able to then take and apply to our areas of learning.

Since CCEI offers online coursework I have been able to take these courses on my own time. That means it didn’t interfere with my work schedule and I was able to work around my sick kid’s needs this week! With spring break coming up and the summer just ahead of us, it’s a great time to enroll in a few professional development courses and get those CEUs taken care of!

Learn more about the Professional Development with ChildCare Education Institute here or sign up for their free trial course here!

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