MATH CENTER GUIDE - How to make math centers easy and independent

MATH CENTER GUIDE - How to make math centers easy and independent

January 4, 2018


Math Centers are a great way for students to communicate, collaborate, critically think, and be creative.  Ohhhh, math centers are also a great way for kids to fall in LOVE  with - that might be too strong of a word - REALLY LIKE math. Math centers provide a way for students to obtain information differently than traditional direct instruction, allowing students to develop their thinking skills. Centers provide for that verbalization that can help students structure their thoughts and engage in higher-order thinking. I want to share some ways for you to set up math centers in your classroom or after school program and answer any questions you might have on how to get started. Let’s begin!


Introducing and Exploring Concepts

Introducing students to math concepts is just a preliminary step; the Math Center focuses on also having students explore math concepts to increase understanding. This works particularly well if you are working on geometric ideas like finding and comparing shapes or data gathering - what does the information gathered tell us?  These centers have a teacher as a facilitator, who manages personalities and not concepts.  The teacher makes sure that each voice is heard and cooperation is maintained, and asks more open-ended questions like "what does the information you gathered tell us?" and "what do you think are the similarities of each of those shapes?"

Reinforcement of concepts without worksheets

To reinforce math concepts, students need to be allowed opportunities to practice the skills they have been taught. Our focus is to get them off worksheets while still giving the repetition needed for mastery. Math Center concepts can be game based, so the repetition is driven through competition. This provides a fun way to practice which takes away the stigma of “homework” and “worksheet” driven math.


Keep the groups small.  The ideal size is four, but have no more than six students and no fewer than three when dividing into groups.

Random grouping

Drawing popsicle sticks with names on them is one classic way to randomly select groups. Another way is giving students numbers 1 – 5 (number of stations), with each of the five numbers respresenting one of the five groups and stations. This can allow the opportunity for students who wouldn’t normally get together to be in a group. Students will often take on non-designated roles like leader, follower, reluctant participant, and eager participant, providing an opportunity for students to learn how to work with people of different abilities, learning styles, and personalities.

Selective grouping based on abilities

This allows for differentiated instruction. Students can expand on the lesson/game provided and play it more strategically. Teachers can apply more direct answers to groups that require more direction and ask more open-ended questions for students expanding their number sense. Grouping students based on similar levels of learning will keep groups consistent with little change occurring between students. Students in these groups will more quickly fall into standard roles- for example, the "leader " will often been seen as the only leader.

Grouping based on gender

There are studies shown in the Open Review of Educational Research that indicate that boys and girls perceive mathematics differently. Research has shown that boys perceive mathematics to be more important than girls do. Boys, over girls, value good grades in math and see it as a means for income and status. Boys can also receive more of a teacher's attention during math instruction, as they are quicker to respond to math answers than girls, and in group settings, teachers tend to believe that girls are more inclined and able to stay on task and do what is told, so the teacher's focus is often drawn to boys. Awareness of this can help with grouping based on gender. Girls, who sometimes can be less overtly competitive, can find more cooperation in gender-based groups. Teachers can become more self-aware of how they treat boys and girls and their classroom, dividinig their time equally and applying more open-ended questions to both boys and girls.


How much time is available and what do you want to accomplish in that time?

Establishing Routines

Routines are very important in student learning. Students need to know what is expected and when it is expected. If you are setting up centers, schedule them to begin at the same time and last for the same length of time. If you are going to change up something like grouping or objectives, let the students know well in advance so they can mentally prepare. Math groups can change based on the objectives: while students working on a specific skill would benefit most from staying in groups with similar levels, students exploring a math concept may benefit from students of different learning styles and personalities.

Duration of centers

Length of time for work at each center should be no longer than 20 minutes per activity. If more time is taken than that, students lose interest and discipline becomes an issue. Ideally, 15 minutes and rotating through 4 to 5 centers is best. This means blocking out an hour and half for math centers. Remember that the first time through any new game takes more time, as students will need to figure out the directions of the game. The second time through, students will still be working on the rules, but beginning to apply strategy. It isn’t until the 3rd time playing the same game that students start to develop the critical and strategic thinking that comes with great math games.


How will students know when to move from station to station? How do they know when to ask for help? What do you do with a child who is left out?

Management can always be an issue, but setting up some simple “tells” helps students know how and when to respond:

  • Giving a 3-minute warning with a bell or hand clap gives time for students to finish up. Have a signal-bell, honk, clap, etc to notify them when it is time to move. Students can then stop, clean up the space and return it to its original set up before rotating to the next center.
  • Before asking for the instructor’s help, students must all agree they don’t know how to proceed further without the assistance. Students should also agree on who is asking the question and what question will be asked.  This provides opportunity for students to collaborate and determine if the question is necessary. The teacher isn't the answer key. Ask open-ended questions to drive students' interest and exploration.
  • When first starting centers for the year, it might be helpful to have group leaders, to read the rules and figure out the lessons before the groups use the centers. Teachers can “teach” each lesson to the group leader, who then teaches it to the group.
  • The reluctant learner -someone who doesn’t feel like a part of the group or doesn’t believe they have any skills to offer-is in every group. This child may benefit from one-on-one instruction, whether with the instructor or a single student. This child may require a boost of self-confidence that comes with a more individual approach. Have a few games set aside that work on basic skills like math fact fluency.


Time is important, especially when you have multiple subject areas to cover. Creating your own centers requires research and the ability to come up with 5 or more lessons per week, covering the math standards for the grade level or levels you are working with. Also, lessons need to have clear directions; if they don't, the instructor will spend much of their time explaining, and students will do little learning.

Pre-made math centers can be big time-savers for teachers. Math centers are very worthwhile, but do take time and thought. Let MANGO Math help you with our Deluxe Math kits. We do all the work for you! Everything the students write on is laminated, all the materials are in the pouch, and the math lessons are well researched to guarantee math success. Test out some of our MANGO Math lessons for yourself.

math games