Early childhood education is a critical phase in a child’s development, laying the foundation for future dispositions, sense of curiosity, one’s ability and desire to try new ideas and in making connections to people, places, the land, and with species that share our environments.

One common practice that has long been practiced in early childhood programs is the establishment of designated centers, such as block, dramatic play and art centers. The thought behind establishing these centres was that children would use the materials available to engage in the specific type of play related to the centre.  While these centers were well-intentioned, as I look at the importance of children being in environments where they experience 21st century skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, initiation, self-direction, collaboration, flexibility and adaptability, teamwork and negotiation skills, and social skills, defined centres reduce the options to engage in deep thinking and decision making. Because children’s brains today are being wired differently from children forty years ago because of life experiences, they now require places and materials that require them to think about ideas, tinker with ideas, and try ideas to see what happens “if”.  Predetermined, designated spaces and materials suggest to children that there are intended purposes rather than to be considered open-ended and there for them to experiment with unique and innovative possibilities for their play ideas. 

Taken from: https://www.amanceria-kindergarten.com/index.php?p=1_39_21st-Century-SKILLS

I define a child-centered approach to mean that children are partners in decision making about spaces and materials. I observe that they are most fulfilled when they are active participants in making choices and decisions about how to act upon their interests and play. Therefore, I believe it is time for us to reconsider how spaces are presented, especially how materials are placed that will promote children’s holistic development, creativity, and self-directed learning.  I now have many “wonderment questions” about when, how, and why educators adopted the approach of having designated interest or experience centres in both indoor and outdoor environments. I wonder why this practice has been accepted for so many years, without questioning “why”.  Having had many opportunities to play and observe children over the past several months, I now want to start a conversation with educators to determine if it is time to rethink this practice.  Below, I identify some of “my whys” for suggesting designated centres be reduced in early learning and childcare programs.      

Why we need to rethink having designated centres in children’s spaces

Holistic Development

Early childhood is a period of rapid cognitive, emotional, physical, language, and social development. One reason for considering reducing how designated centers are designed in early childhood programs is because they structure the types of play and thinking, thus reducing the potential for children to engage in holistic development that requires them to think about their “big ideas”. Designated centers often compartmentalize learning into specific areas, such as art or blocks, which can limit children’s exposure to how they use materials in diverse ways, influencing their depth and breadth of thinking, trying, and discovering. Rigid centers can stifle children’s thinking, integration of learning and restrict their development of essential skills as identified as key 21st century skills and next generation learning.

Inhibiting Creativity and Innovation

Designated centers can inadvertently inhibit creativity and innovation by imposing how predefined materials and space are used.  For example, art centers, may provide children with specific art materials, they can inadvertently discourage creative exploration because of the placement of the materials and the way in which they are presented.  Children may feel compelled to conform to use materials in the designated space, reducing the options for mixing and matching materials, ideas, and thus the results they acquire. This conformity can stifle children’s imagination, the ability to exercise how to express ideas and talents and limit their development of problem-solving skills; all of which are crucial components of creativity and innovation.

Fostering innovation with children during the early years is an important goal of child-centered programs. Curious children are more likely to be innovative, have better language and problem-solving skills. Children flourish in spaces and places that provide open-ended materials used for triggering their curiosity, leading them to want to explore and illustrate creativity and innovation without strict guidelines. They tinker, they reflect, they try other ideas, they observe, while they build upon their previous knowledge. The process of tinkering, idea generation and putting things together and taking them apart are foundational actions needed for children to develop effective problem solving, critical thinking, and sequencing ideas needed to scaffold their learning from simple to more complex concepts.   

Children’s desire to be innovative can be further enhanced by incorporating language and literature into various spaces. This includes adults and peers posing open-ended questions that may spark children’s curiosity, observing and making connections to space. Questions are carefully posed to children taking a conversational approach rather than being viewed as testing children’s knowledge. This will contribute to expand children’s wonderment resulting in building their confidence to entertain new ideas through thought and actions.

Children’s creativity and innovation is further supported when they are surrounded by role models who demonstrate their own curiosity, problem-solving, and creative thinking in the environment. As a facilitator of learning and opportunity, early learning professionals’ model and encourage experimentation and trial-and-error by trying new things, even if they might fail at first. Failure can be a valuable learning experience that leads children to return to thinking, testing, experimentation and in the discovery of innovative solutions.

Self-Directed Learning Reduced

Another drawback of creating designated centers is that children may not find materials that they need to execute their ideas.  Sometimes, children’s ideas and imaginations are ignited when they observe, see and touch materials that are aesthetically displayed but do not necessarily have similar characteristics or usage.  More traditional centres reduce children’s opportunities to engage in self-directed exploration of what could be and consequently influences the depth and breadth of their learning.  Ideally, children are encouraged to follow their interests, make choices, and explore their own questions using manipulating materials that helps them create their innovative idea. Designated centers can disrupt this natural process by dictating what materials and types of activities that are available and how children should interact with the items within the space. In contrast, a more open and flexible experiential space encourages children to take the lead in their learning, resulting in them building skills and self-confidence to foster independence and a sense of agency.


In conclusion, educators might wish to reconsider the use of designated centers such as block, mud kitchen or art centers, in favour of adopting a more child-centered approach to learning. By promoting holistic development, encouraging creativity, and creating spaces where self-directed learning is inherent in the spaces and places, adults can better support children’s growth and development during this critical period. Designated centers, while initially well-intentioned, can inadvertently restrict children’s natural curiosity and potential for exploration. It is essential to adapt our practices to align with new research such as the 21st century skills, the principles of child development and the importance of recognizing individualized learning that supports the strengths of children and in providing the best foundation to ignite their curiosity and sense of wonderment. 

By adopting a more flexible and child-centered approach, educators can empower children to become confident, creative, and independent learners, setting them on a path to embracing learning. 

What are your thoughts?
Send me an email at hello@playoutdoorsmagazine.ca. Let’s start the conversation.