I don’t know about you, but centers have always been my favorite time of day in kindergarten. And now, suddenly, they’re going to have to look completely different due to social distancing in the classroom. That’s what this post is all about: ideas for socially distanced centers that still engage kids!
In my classroom, I didn’t do the traditional centers – I did math tubs and literacy tubs (a post on that coming soon…sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss it!), but it’s the same general idea.
My math & literacy tubs were filled with activities that encouraged students to interact with one another while they learn. Some of the tubs included partner games. Others had individual activities with enough materials for up to 3 students at a time to work from them. Not only that, but I also allowed a lot of choice. Students were allowed to move freely between tubs, as long as they finished what they started.
But now, with all the social distancing guidelines and rules about not sharing materials, it would be pretty much impossible for me to run my math & literacy tubs that way. That absolutely breaks my heart! Tubs were consistently one of my students’ favorite parts of the day, because it was almost like play time. And I strongly believe that because of the playful quality of it, some of their best learning happened at that time.
So, I wonder, how can we create playful learning opportunities while maintaining social distancing rules? It’s gonna take some creativity, and probably some extra prep time to create socially distanced centers, but it is possible!
I’ve been spending some time brainstorming ideas on how to modify existing centers so you don’t have to start from scratch. I’ve also come up with some (possibly) new ideas for socially distanced centers that would be easy to implement, fun for students, and provide real learning. Read on to find out what I came up with!
- Build a Strong Classroom Community (Despite Social Distancing Rules)
- The First Week of Kindergarten: Lesson Plans
- Distance Learning for the Early Grades
Socially Distanced Centers Idea #1: Individual Learning Kits
A lot of teachers have been saying that they aren’t allowed to have shared materials in their classrooms. If that’s the case, then I think individual learning kits are the way to go! Although they may be a little more work, they’ll allow students to still engage in hands-on, independent learning. In this section, I’ve listed some things that I would put in individual learning kits for both math & literacy.
Put all the tools your students will for the week need into individual bags or containers for students use with socially distanced centers. Include:
- Pencil and/or other fun writing utensils
- Mini white board & dry erase markers (PRO TIP: save the scraps & ends from things you’ve laminated and use those as mini white boards!)
- A set of multi-colored manipulatives like Unifix cubes (or check out the fun ideas below!)
- Mini number chart, number line, or 100 chart for reference: I recommend just sticking to one at a time and changing it out depending on each student’s needs. Check out the Little Learning Charts in my TpT store – there are 4 math and 3 literacy charts in 2 different sizes so they’ll fit in whatever type of kit you use in your classroom! Here’s a picture of the math charts:
When you put it all together, your students will be able to complete so many activities! With one set of manipulatives that contain different colors or shapes, students can work on:
- STEM challenges
- Building letters, numbers, or words
- Bingo or other similar games
They’ll have the charts right at their fingertips so they can work more independently. And they can use the dry erase markers & boards to record their work or solve problems using methods that make sense to them.
All you would need are some signs that show students what they need to do at each center. They take their set of manipulatives with them and complete the activity. Easy peasy! Or, if your school’s rules about social distancing are too strict for that, you can have them stay in their spaces – just post the instructions on your interactive whiteboard or projection unit.
But what if I don’t have enough of one type of manipulative for my whole class???
Guess what? It’s okay if students don’t all have the same manipulatives! Maybe some can have Unifix cubes for the week, while others are using buttons, bean counters, mini erasers, etc. As long as everyone knows they’ll get their turn…it’s gonna be okay!
I mean, occasionally you’ll have that kid who just can’t understand why they can’t have what they want when they want it. But 99% of the time, in my experience, kids will be happy with what they get. And for those 1 percenters, it’s a good lesson to learn. Just make sure they do get a turn with their first choice within a couple weeks!
Keep kids engaged with fun math manipulatives!
You can change the manipulatives out for your socially distanced centers each week to sanitize or “quarantine” them. Students will look forward to getting new ones – and trust me, even the most mundane math activities can be made exciting with some fun little manipulatives! Here are some from Amazon that your students will love:
Mini candy toys:
The same thing goes for literacy – you can put together a bag or container for each student, and not all the materials need to be exactly the same. Switch them out at the end of the week with fresh materials and let the old stuff “quarantine.” Your students will be excited to do the socially distanced centers with their new manipulatives! Here are some things you can put in your literacy kits:
- Letter tiles, magnets, or beads – or write your own letters on manipulatives! (Keep reading for some fun ideas)
- Writing utensils: a pencil, of course, but also something fun to write with, because let’s be real: it makes all the difference! Some of my favorites are Gelly Roll pens (they’re the best gel pens), smelly markers, or erasable highlighters
- Mini white board & dry erase markers (PRO TIP: save the scraps & ends from things you’ve laminated and use those as mini white boards)
- Personal Word Walls: sight words, CVC words, whatever they’re working on (so easy to differentiate here!) – check out My Little Book of Words in my TpT store:
- Alphabet chart, vowel chart, and/or digraph chart like these from my TpT store:
Keep kids engaged with fun literacy manipulatives!
Again, just like with the math manipulatives, when you add something fun and exciting, your students’ engagement level will go way up! Here are some things you could write letters on and put in your students’ kits for letter recognition and word building:
Socially Distanced Centers Idea #2: Activities from my favorite TpT sellers
Okay, I know I create my own classroom resources and should totally be promoting my own stuff…but honestly, there are so many great things that other people have made that I couldn’t live without. And many of them are perfect for socially distanced centers just as they are, or with a few modifications. So here’s what I recommend you add to your TpT ClassFund campaign ASAP:
Write the Room
Write the Room is one of my FAVORITE center activities! You just hang the cards around the room and give your students the recording sheet (and maybe a clip board!), then send them to work! I love this set by DeeDee Wills because it covers tons of skills and has lots of fun seasonal themes.
Write the Room lends is perfect for socially distanced centers because the whole point is for learners to be up and spread around the room. They don’t need to share materials or be in close proximity to one another.
Sight Words Mystery Pictures
These activities from A Differentiated Kindergarten are SO awesome because you can enter your own sight words and they auto-fill into the pictures. Then you just print them off and your students follow the code using their personal set of crayons or markers to complete the picture. My students always LOVE these!
Hint: you can use them for more than just sight words! I’ve used them for letters and numbers before, too!
Spelling Practice in a Snap
I always have these printables from Anna Brantley in my literacy tubs – they’re perfect for sight word practice. There are so many fun, creative ways for students to practice spelling words or sight words!
I’ve always thrown in some gel pens, highlighters, or smelly markers to make it even more fun for my students. That might be more difficult if you can’t share materials, but you could always add them to their literacy manipulative kits and change them out weekly.
In this game by A Differentiated Kindergarten, students draw a card, then race to find & cover the picture that matches it on the mat. They shout, “Yatta!” when they find it. Fun, right?
There are a couple ways that students can play without sharing materials to maintain social distancing rules:
- Each student could play individually without racing anyone
- Students could play against each other, but each could have their own set – they would take turns drawing from their own card pile and covering the matching picture on their own mat
- Instead of laminating a set of cards for each student, they could draw from their set letter magnets or word/picture cards that are in their literacy manipulatives kit
Socially Distanced Centers Idea #3: Go digital!
Truth be told, my students only got to use the iPads once a week for math tubs and once a week for literacy tubs. I’ve always tried to use technology sparingly because I feel like it’s so much better for them to interact with other students while they learn.
However, there’s a strong case for using more digital games & centers during socially distanced centers:
- Kids love using technology, so it’s a way to keep them engaged in learning when they can’t sit near their friends, play games with them, or share materials. It’s not my favorite way to engage them, but it seems like all my favorite ways are banned right about now…
- Side effect: being focused on a tablet or computer means less chance that they’re touching each other or licking tables or otherwise spreading germs.
- If you teach them to use digital tools like Seesaw in the classroom, they’ll already know how to use it if/when they need to do distance learning. It will save you lots of stress trying to figure it out if your school has to switch without any warning.
- It’s perfect for a hybrid model too! They can do the activities in the classroom or at home.
- It’s low-maintenance. Thinking of how to keep everything cleaned & sanitized is so overwhelming! Who has time for that? At least with digital games & activities, you just need to wipe down the tablet instead of each and every material that got touched by a student.
- Instant feedback! With Seesaw activities and Boom Learning cards, you can see right away what each students knows & does not know. You don’t have to shuffle through tons of papers to get the data…it’s right there on your screen!
There are tons and tons of great digital games and activities out there! Here are a few that I’ve created:
I played mystery sentence with my students using the white board for several years, and it was always one of their favorites. I love it because it’s great for students of all abilities and doesn’t make anybody feel like they’re less-than. Like those kiddos who are still working on letters – they can still be successful because part of the game is guessing the letters. For others, they’re starting to think about what that sight word might be, or what would make sense. Last spring, I created a digital version for PowerPoint & Google Slides so I could play it with my class via Zoom. You can learn more by clicking on the image:
Digital Seek & Find
Another classroom favorite that I use often is Seek & Find, which is so great for practicing letters, numbers, sight words, and more! Again, I wanted to be able to play this game with my students during distance learning, so I created a few different digital versions. This one is for sight word practice:
Seesaw Scratch Activities
Oooh, these are so fun! I would have loved these when I was a kid! This pack includes 4 different scratch-off games for practicing letter identification. Students use the eraser tool to “scratch off” the top layer and reveal the content below.
Seesaw Question of the Day
We used Question of the Day for taking attendance during distance learning last year. Each day of the week we did a specific activity that focused on a skill and fit the week’s theme. But they’re not just for attendance – I think they’d be awesome for socially distanced centers in the classroom! I posted 7 weeks for free on the blog! You can read more about it and get the free download by reading this post.
Socially Distanced Centers Idea #4: Create outdoor centers!
Why not take the learning outside? You can plan tons of fun outdoor learning activities and it would be so easy to keep students socially distanced!
Sidewalk chalk activities
This post from What Moms Love is the ultimate guide to using sidewalk chalk for learning. You could set up a bunch of these and have your students rotate through as centers. I mean, I can’t even begin to describe all the awesomeness here! You’ll just have to check it out for yourself:
Balls and Balloons
A few years ago, I bought a set of 100 ball pit balls from Walmart for less than $15. We would go outside and each student would get a ball. I would write out a sight word on a whiteboard, then we’d spell it, tossing the ball in the air once for each letter. You could turn this into a center activity by writing out several sight words and having students spell out each one using their own ball. Then they could set it in a “quarantine” bucket when they’re done with it. You can grab a set of 120 balls from Amazon at a great price here:
You could also use balloons the same way – just make sure it’s not windy! Then, instead of worrying about disinfecting them, students can just pop them when they’re done. Another similar idea is this one from Gift of Curiosity (though instead of tossing it back & forth, students would just toss it & catch it themselves):
While none of this is ideal, there are ways we can make social distancing in the classroom work. I think that will probably be the mantra this year: make it work. And I have no doubt that educators will go above and beyond, like they always do, to make this year as meaningful and engaging as possible despite the social distancing rules. Hopefully the ideas in this post will help!
As always, if you have ideas to share, comment below! I’d love to hear them!
Thanks so much! Great ideas! I have made slot of individual fun packs of things the kids are enjoying, but always great to get more ideas! For your literacy and math bins, can you tell me how you manage the logistics?
-how many sets of each?
-what do you do with the pages when completed?
-I’m currently setting a timer on my Smartboard so they don’t get to switch for 10 to 15 minute “play blocks” of time, and this allows another educator to do small group learning
Thanks for some more details about the bins. I have math bins ready but still wondering about literacy bins. Maybe I’ll make 2 sets for my JKs and 2 sets for my SKs and change them up every two weeks? Just wondering as this is a whole new world for all of us!
Thanks for any suggestions!
I’m hoping to get a blog post written soon with all the details about math & literacy tubs, but I haven’t had a chance yet, so I can answer your questions here for now. 🙂 I usually have 8 tubs with enough for 3 students to do the activity in it. For literacy, I also have groups that work on Write the Room and in the writing center. Of course things will be a little different this year with Covid – so I plan to put each set in its own bag instead of all together in one bin.
For the activities that require papers, I have them put them in all in a basket when they’re done, or even if they’re not done and time is up. I then sort through the basket, check their work and give it back to them if things need to be fixed or send it home with them if they did it correctly. If they’re not done, I put them in their 3 drawer cart to finish during tub time the next day.
I have never used timers, but that’s a good option! I usually let them move between activities whenever they feel ready – but I have a rule that if you start a paper, you have to finish it before you can move to another tub. And if you start a game with a friend, you can’t switch until the game is over. It usually works pretty well, but they do occasionally need reminders.
I think changing them up every 2 weeks is perfect! That’s about the time frame I use too…sometimes longer if it’s a favorite activity, and sometimes shorter if they don’t choose it often or if they don’t use it the right way.
Thanks for reading, and for asking these questions!
This is so appreciated! Thank you so much. I’m so glad I stumbled upon your website and blog.
You’re welcome! I’m glad you stumbled upon it too! 🙂