Learning Centers in the Classroom – 12 OT Activity Ideas

Learning Center Ideas for Elementary Students

Learning centers in the classroom are important for elementary students to address developmental skills. Check out these OT activity ideas that you can easily add to your centers. Help your kids improve motor skills, perceptual skills and sensory processing during your lessons!

My sister is shocked that I can still visualize this environment from my childhood.  I have many vivid memories from the early 1980’s:

~There’s a large green chalkboard at the front of the room.  Above it, the alphabet strip. 

~Mrs. “Wonderful‘s” desk is in front of the chalkboard facing the room.  Small wooden desks and chairs are spaced equally apart, squared up to her.

~One side of the room houses the cubbies for coats and backpacks. (Occasionally, all belongings housed in black garbage bags, per the school nurse’s recommendations… remember this?!)

~There’s a dress up area, and a puppet show area (with a red curtain.)  And ribbons and wands… a kitchen area… and baby doll section…

~The writing center has such cool ways to practice forming each letter.  I remember using a small chunky crayon to form a letter over a screen.  Then, the excitement of feeling the texture of the letter with my index finger as I traced it after.

~The large room across the hall was the best!  A balance beam, jumping mats, and a slide. A large sensory table with big tools for digging.  Trucks and jump ropes… water play and painting areas… 

~This large room is not our indoor recess room, it’s part of our daily learning. During my HALF day of school!

Learning Centers in the Classroom

Developmental Play-Based Learning Environment

What room from my childhood can I still picture? 

My kindergarten classroom!  (Were you thinking preschool?!)

My kindergarten room was full of amazing Play Based Learning Centers.  And a bonus room with extra developmental opportunities!  The learning centers covered social, emotional, communication, motor and sensory development. They encouraged creativity, independence and cooperation.

No wonder why I became an occupational therapist!  I’m still able to see the details of the centers in my head.  At five years old, I valued the importance!

It might be several decades later, and times have changed.  But child development hasn’t changed.  And I still value the importance of those learning centers. 

Even much more than before!

Why Learning Centers Are Important for Kids

In Early Intervention programs, young kids are assessed to make sure there are no delays in ANY area of development.   The developmental areas we evaluate are cognitive, social / emotional, communication, adaptive and physical.

Brain development for learning relies on development in all of these areas.  When students are in kindergarten and elementary school, the focus has shifted to mostly assessing cognition.

There’s pressure on admin and teachers for increased scores on tests.  New programs have been developed to push young kids academically… way too soon!

Young developing brains and bodies are expected to read and to write without proper nourishment and readiness skills. They’re expected to quickly take in info and spit it back out.  Assess.  Test.  And test again!

Some kids can handle it if they’ve had appropriate developmental opportunities in the important formative years. But it’s causing unneeded pressure on the others. 

Pressure and then a lack of confidence.  Which leads to stress and anxiety.  Then, a dislike for school and some emotional and behavioral challenges.  (Click the link for tips on handling behaviors in kids.)

This lack of confidence and struggle continues with these kiddos.  They don’t lack intelligence.  They’re just a little behind.  They aren’t able to fully grasp the concept when the class has already moved on to the next one.

And this isn’t their fault.  This is because the expectations have changed around the child.  Grade inflation.  Kindergarten now looks like first grade.  And first grade is second… etc. 

You see it, right?!

Expectations have changed but development has not!  Developing brains still require the right type of learning input!

Even though these changes are around us, you can still support their developmental needs.  You can set-up your learning centers in your classroom to feed their growing bodies and brains! 

These ideas work for (and can be adapted for) preschool, kindergarten, first and second grade. Many teachers of older students (third and higher) have found these helpful for Brain Breaks, project based learning, and to supplement lessons.

Learning Centers in the Classroom
(pin me on Pinterest!)

12+ OT Activities That Are EASY to Add to Your Centers

Learning centers in your classroom will likely address reading, language arts, writing, math, science, and social studies.  Maybe you even have a mindfulness and emotional growth center!

Teacher Vision explains  how learning centers in the classroom work.  The article also gives tips on how to create different types of centers (enrichment centers, skill centers, interest and exploratory centers.)

I want to share some of my favorite OT Strategies and OT Activities with you for your centers.

These supplemental activities are important for multi-sensory learning.  You can easily add them to your current learning centers.

Sensory, motor, and perceptual skills are a significant part of learning and brain development!  The more input you give to your kids’ brains, the more pathways are created and strengthened for learning. [See the Pyramid of Learning for more info.]

The following 12 ideas are divided into three different categories: motor activities, perceptual activities, and sensory activities for the classroom.

Motor Activities for Your Classroom Centers

Adding a variety of fine motor, visual motor and perceptual activities to your centers is very important.  These skills are additional building blocks to helping a child’s brain learn.  

(Click on the links next to each number for more information on the 12 center ideas.)

1) Bilateral Coordination Activities for Kids AND Crossing Midline Activities

The first link shares 5 important bilateral coordination activities that are easy to add to any center. The midline crossing activities are also easy to add to any center. Both sets of activities help the two sides of the brain work together for learning! 

2) Visual Tracking Activities Using Flashcard and the Infinity Loop

A favorite activity! Rather than having kiddos just go through flashcards, try this!  It strengthens eye muscles and it’s a great midline crossing activity. 

(And it doesn’t need to be used with flashcards… there are several other ways to use the infinity loop!)

3) An Easy Visual Motor Activity Using Magnets

Another favorite activity!  So simple to supplement language arts / spelling or math.  It works on fine motor, hand awareness, visual tracking, coordination, etc. Kids love it!

4) Improve Hand Strength with Easy Exercises AND Improve Hand Dexterity with Games & Activities

Hand strength, dexterity and in-hand manipulation skills are needed for many fine motor activities for kids. And I see many kids that unfortunately lack it! The exercises, games and activities listed in these TWO posts can supplement your learning centers.

Perceptual Activities for Your Classroom Centers

5) How to Improve Reading Skills with Auditory Activities

Includes quick attention grabbers and brain break games.  So good for reading, listening, and following directions!

6) 42 Easy Visual Perceptual Activities That Support Learning

Visual perception is closely related to cognition. These skills support several areas of academics. Many kids need continued activities throughout the early elementary years.

7) Best Educational Toys and Games for Kids

At least according to this OT!  In case you’re looking for some learning toys and games for your centers.  This group of toys and games focuses primarily on visual perceptual development for learning.  However, they also address fine motor, visual motor, and auditory skills.

Sensory Activities for Your Learning Centers

Tactile or hands on activities are easy to add to your learning centers.  Article number 8 is a fun activity that kids love! You probably already have math centers with manipulatives.  (If not, check out Simple DIY Math Manipulatives for Tactile and Kinesthetic Learning.)

Kids need movement and muscle input during the learning day.  Articles 9 through 12 share easy to use movement and body sensory input ideas to help kids increase focus and attention for learning. 

8) Tactile Learning: A Unique Hands on Activity

This is a cool way to add a fun element to any of your learning centers.  It works on tactile discrimination.  This challenges the brain with a simple twist to hands on learning.

Sensory Strategies for the Classroom

9) 30 Movement Activities to Enhance Learning

Quick and easy to use movement activities.  Use them in between lessons or during transitions to your learning centers.  Additionally, it shares tips on how to make brain break games with the exercises.

10) 25 Brain Breaks for Kids

Use the muscles and joints (proprioceptive input) to both calm and alert the nervous system. 

Great for all kids!  Again, use in between learning centers, lessons or during transitions.  A free printable is available on this post.

11) How a Vertical Surface and Floor Activities Improve Core Stability

This post shares simple ways to change the location / position of your center activity.  This is a must for child development!  And so easy to slightly change up what you’re already doing. 

Another handout / free printable is available on this post. If you’d like more Core Stability Exercises, click on the link for 40 ideas and an optional printable.

12) Calming Deep Pressure Weighted Tools & Activities that Increase Focus

Easy tools to add to your reading center.   Or to any learning center for kids that need a little extra body input!

Additional Thoughts & Ideas for Your Learning Centers

Make sure that kids are using good posture during fine motor and writing centers. Be sure to check out Correct Sitting Posture to see if you have a good set up.

If your kids have poor posture, help them use correct muscles for fine motor tasks and attending: 40 Core Exercises.

Incorporate Flexible Seating Options into your classroom or learning space. The recommendations in this post also improve posture and increase attention.

For younger kids learning to write, please look at Form Letters Properly with These 9 Helpful Tips. I can’t stress enough how important it is for kids to use correct letter and number formation!

Add an art center if you don’t have one already (Art Projects & Crafts for Kids.) It’s always important to foster creativity.

For preschool and kindergarteners who haven’t had much exposure / practice with scissors, you’ll appreciate the tips in How to Improve Scissor Skills PLUS Worksheets for Cutting Practice.

That’s it for this roundup! Bookmark or save this post so it’s easy for you to find.  Share it with others who’d appreciate the ideas. 

Learning centers for your classroom help differentiate student learning.  More importantly, adding fun, developmental OT activities into the centers will stimulate brain learning connections and enhance skills for school tasks.

Let’s work together to help kiddos thrive!

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School-Based OT

Amy Hathaway MOT, OTR/L, CIMI-2 is a licensed and registered occupational therapist.  She is the founder of Develop Learn Grow. 

Amy has 21 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist.   She enjoys collaborating with teachers, parents, therapists, administrators, and support staff in preschools & schools, as well as coaching and guiding parents of infants and toddlers in their homes.

She is married and has three children.  Click to read Amy’s bio.  

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