Learning Centers in the Classroom Using 25 OT Activity Ideas

OT Activities for Classroom Learning Centers

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 center activities for any grade level.  Help your young children improve fine motor skills, perceptual skills and sensory processing during your learning stations!

Editor’s note: This post has been modified from it’s original content.  Additional activities have been listed for your convenience.

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. 

~My teacher’s desk is in front of the chalkboard facing the room.  Small wooden desks and chairs of various sizes 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 a baby doll section for dramatic play.

~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 had the best physical space!  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!

Developmentally Appropriate Play-Based Learning Environment

What room from my childhood can I still picture? 

My kindergarten classroom!  (Were you thinking a preschool or early childhood classroom?!)

My kindergarten room was full of amazing Play Based Learning Centers.  And a bonus room with additional important developmental sensory and motor opportunities!  My center time covered social, emotional, communication, motor and sensory development. It encouraged creativity, independence and cooperation.

No wonder why I became an occupational therapist!  I’m still able to remember the details of the classroom learning centers from my half day kindergarten program.  At five years old, I valued the importance!

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

Even much more than before since we are seeing less play in kids and too much screen time

I strongly encourage every elementary teacher to add fun and unique activities to each lesson plan whenever possible.  We have sadly become too academic.  It’s important to include developmentally appropriate practices.  And not just in preschool and kindergarten.  Kids in preschool and all elementary grades need hands-on experiences.  

My sister teaches third grade.  Her students love and enjoy the OT activities that I share to improve specific skills that they need some work on.  

The Negative Impact of Academic Pressures, Over Assessing, and Grade Inflation

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 and 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. (Some preschool programs are also too highly academic.)

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

Some advanced students and kids that have had appropriate developmental opportunities in the important formative years can handle it. But it’s causing unneeded pressure on many others. 

There’s pressure on these kiddos to perform tasks before they’re ready. This results in a lack of success with tasks above their developmental level which then leads to a lack of confidence.  Then finally, a dislike for school and some emotional red flags (stress and anxiousness) and behavioral challenges.  (Click the link for tips on handling behaviors in kids.)

This lack of confidence and unneeded struggle sticks with these children throughout their elementary years.  And they don’t lack intelligence.  They’re just being expected to complete academic tasks when they’re not ready. They lack simple foundational skills.  

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

Some early childhood education programs have even shifted to cognitive learning rather than a more appropriate developmental approach.

You see it, right?!  And you see how it is harmful to children. Why is it still happening and what can be done?

Why Learning Centers Are Important for Kids

Learning centers provide students with hands-on learning experiences that fuel their brains for learning. When the body is actively engaged, the brain is engaged.

Societal expectations have changed but development has not!  Children’s developing brains need proper opportunities for learning!

Even though these changes have happened around us, you can still support your students’ developmental needs. Offer a center-based classroom.  Set-up your favorite academic learning centers but add new things and fun OT activities to feed your children’s growing bodies and brains! 

The ideas shared in this post work for (and can be adapted for) preschool, kindergarten, first and second grade.  Many teachers of older students (third and higher) have also found these helpful for Brain Breaks, project based learning, and to supplement a lesson plan.

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

OT Activities That Are EASY to Add to Your Centers

Teachers amaze me. You have so much on your plate, but you handle it all so well.  Especially with the ever-changing demands and challenges.  

Your typical center work likely focuses on reading, language arts, and writing. You have your math center, science center, and social studies activities.  Maybe you even have a mindfulness and emotional growth center!

If you feel like you need some ideas, 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.)  And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, read these quotes, take a deep breath and return back to these activities when you’re excited and ready to add some fun new activities to your world!

In this post, I’m sharing my favorite OT Strategies and OT Activities with you.  These strategies can be added to what you already have for each learning center.  It might take a little prep at the beginning of the school year, but then you will have options to rotate through.  My sister had fun creating these added activities for her centers.  She even offers them for free time or student choice time.  The novelty doesn’t wear off; her students enjoy the activities all year!

These supplemental activities are so important for multi-sensory learning and hands-on experiences.  

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

You’ll find lots of new ways to help your children learn with more parts of their body and brain.

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

Motor Activities for Your Classroom Centers

Sensory and motor activities are the building blocks for a child’s brain and central nervous system.  There are so many different ways to make sure kids get the foundational skills that they need.  

Higher parts of the brain work best when lower parts are used and mastered first.

Click on each center category for more ideas.

1) Core Exercises for Kids

Add quick core exercises to a center before students begin.  A weak core means difficulty sitting upright and difficulty using the hands optimally for school tasks.  These are important to routinely add to your lessons!  A free printable is offered on this post. 

2) Crossing Midline Activities

Midline crossing should naturally occur at age two.  However, I see a large majority of young elementary children who do not automatically cross the midline of their body. Crossing midline activities help both sides of the brain work together for learning.  

3) Bilateral Coordination Activities for Kids

Kids need bilateral coordination skills to use both sides of the brain and the body to complete school tasks.  These tasks and crossing midline activities are super important and easy to add to any center.

4) Motor Coordination Activities

Add fun motor coordination activities to learning tasks.  Pairing movement with learning improves memory and retention. Add coordination tasks during transitions or in between lessons or centers.

5) Handwriting Warm-Up Exercises

Getting the body and hands ready is important before writing.  And movement gets the juices flowing in the brain!  Use these quick warm-up exercises for the whole class or before small group time. 

6) Best Toys for Fine Motor Skills

I’m seeing a rapid decline in young children’s hand skill development.  This is due to decreased play with toys and too much screen time.  Add fun toys and games (93 top OT picks) to your centers to build basic hand skills!

7) Improve Hand Strength with Easy Exercises  

As previously stated, I’m seeing a rapid decline with hand strength in kids. Classroom learning centers are a great place to work on hand strength.  Many of the (107+) hand strengthening activities can be added during a transition activity in between learning centers. 

8) Hand and Finger Dexterity Games & Activities to Improve Fine Motor Skills for Writing

Finger dexterity and in-hand manipulation skills are needed for many fine motor tasks and writing tasks for kids.  I see many kids that unfortunately have great difficulty with dexterity!  The exercises, games and activities listed can supplement your learning centers to offer a variety of hands-on activities.   

9) Math Manipulatives That Build Fine Motor Skills 

This math manipulatives post shares simple everyday classroom objects that you can use for your math center.  It also shares important math manipulatives that work on fine motor skills.

10) Super Simple Fine Motor Creativity Craft

I’ve had kids of all ages enjoy this creative fine motor craft activity.  It can be so simple and used for preschool centers, or it can be used for older elementary students during language arts, science or social studies. 

Perceptual Activities for Your Classroom Centers

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

11) Important OT Visual Skills Activities

Improve eye muscle control, visual attention, visual perception, and other visual skills to strengthen skills for reading, writing and math with these 15 basic visual activities.

12) Balance and Movement Activities That Improve Visual Skills

The 17 movement ideas listed in this post share ways to pair movement with a learning task.  Moving more parts of the body, activates more parts of the brain.  Additionally, balance activities support the visual system.    

13)  An Easy Visual Motor Activity Using Magnets 

This is one of my favorite visual motor activities!  It’s so simple to use to supplement language arts, spelling or math.  It works on fine motor skills, hand awareness, visual tracking, visual memory, and bilateral coordination.  And kids love it!  Some think it’s magic!

14)  42 Easy Visual Perceptual Activities That Support Learning  

Visual perception is how our brains make sense of what our eyes see.  This skill is needed to support almost every area of academics. The visual perceptual activities shared in this post support several areas of academics.  Many kids need continued activities throughout the early elementary years.  

15)  Best Educational Toys and Games for Kids 

These educational toys and games focus on improving problem-solving skills (which so many have trouble with) and they address visual perceptual development for learning.  

16)  Visual Tracking Activities Using Flashcards and the Infinity Loop 

This is a great activity to add to learning centers that works on crossing midline and visual tracking. Rather than having kids just go through flashcards for math skills or for literacy skills, try this!  It strengthens eye muscles and works on visual attention, too.  

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

Motor, Perceptual and Sensory Activities for the Classroom

Sensory Activities for Your Learning Centers

Kids need movement, muscle input and hands-on experiences during the learning day. Sensory activities that use large parts of the body or specific types of sensory input improve attention and focus in kids.

And they make learning fun!

17) Sensory Writing Activities

This article is most helpful for the early childhood classroom when teaching kids to draw shapes and for the kindergarten classroom or first grade classroom when kids learn to draw letters and numbers.  It offers 33 important sensory writing activities that improve motor memory and learning.

18) How to Improve Reading Skills with 50+ Sensory Strategies 

This article shares sensory strategies to support reading skills: auditory activities, visual activities, crossing midline activities, and balance activities.  A free printable is available on this post. 

19) Tactile Learning: A Unique Hands on Activity 

This is a cool way to add a fun element to any of your learning centers.  This post shares a tactile discrimination activity. It challenges the brain by using only the hands without the eyes helping.

20) Auditory Activities to Improve Learning and Reading

Kids need extra help processing sounds and auditory input to help them listen and follow directions and to help them read.  Several of the auditory activities shared here are kid favorites.  

21)  30 Movement Activities to Enhance Learning 

There are quick and easy to use movement activities listed in this post to easily add to your day.  Use them in between lessons or during transitions to your learning centers.  Additionally, this post shares tips on how to make brain break games with the exercises.

22)  25 Brain Breaks for Kids 

Have your kids use the muscles and joints (proprioceptive input) to both calm and alert the nervous system.  

These proprioceptive brain break activities are great for all kids!  Again, use in between learning centers, lessons or during transitions.  A free printable is available on this post.

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

There are two posts that share simple ways to change the location and position of your center activity. This is a must for child development!  

It’s so easy to slightly change up what you’re already doing. Check out Vertical Surface Activities for Kids (30+ Ideas) and 27 Easy Prone Position Activities to Improve Strength in Kids. Another free PDF printable is available with this information. 

24)  Sensory Deep Pressure Tools & Activities that Increase Focus 

There are many easy tools to add to any learning center that provide kids with extra body input!  These calming tools and activities especially help kids focus during reading centers.

25) Best Flexible Seating Options for Your Learning Centers

Get creative with your centers by adding cool flexible seating options.  But make sure you choose items that support good posture for attention and fine motor skills, especially if it’s in a writing center.  

Be sure to also check out Correct Sitting Posture to see if you have a good set up.  

Additional Thoughts & Ideas for Your Learning Centers

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 or practice with scissors, you’ll appreciate the tips in How to Improve Scissor Skills PLUS Worksheets for Cutting Practice.

I hope you enjoy using these activities as much as my co-workers and family members do!  The more our kids have extra practice with building body skills, the more success they will have with learning.  

Bookmark or save this post so it’s easy for you to find. Take your time to look through all of the ideas in each category. 

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 children thrive!

Share this post on your favorite social media platform using the share buttons.

Follow Develop Learn Grow on Teachers Pay Teachers, Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest! Or, sign up for the newsletter to receive the newest posts.

Related Posts:

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 22 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.  

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This