It’s back-to-school time which means it’s time for school-themed centers and activities to help your students get to know the classroom and supplies. Learning what tools and materials are in each center and how to play with them will make the rest of the school year go smoothly. I typically do these activities for table time or small group so I am able to model, and students can practice how to use various school tools. Then I place the activity in the center for students to do independently unless they need more practice (ex: writing trays).
>> Want all the printables? Grab my School Themed Math and Literacy Centers HERE <<
Make sure you grab the Crayon Pre-Writing Card FREEBIE later in this post.
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My classroom starts with bare walls for the most part because I want student work on the walls. This watercolor name craft makes an amazing bulletin board. Here are some ways you can modify this activity for your students. Do this for small group, like two or three kids at a time or more if your students are independent. Use bounce back scissors which bounce back open making it easier to cut. Another option would be for students to cut some of the circles and when their hand gets tired, a teacher can cut the rest. I have precut circles ready to go next to me for that reason. You can also have students trace the letters (you write it in pencil and they trace it with a marker) or have name cards available for students to use.
Magnet letter fishing in the sensory table is a ton of fun and easy to clean up. Make DIY fishing poles like I did with doll rods or use magnet wands. Put a cookie tray by the sensory table for students to stick the letters to or place it in the table. I also added students’ name cards on a book ring the second week. Students could sort letters by color, make words with the letters, make names with the letters or just explore the letters.
Make a school-themed play dough tray with letter tiles, school mini erasers and shape cookie cutters. This tray is from the Dollar Tree. I make a play dough tray for EVERY theme we do, and it is played with almost every single day during free choice centers. Plus it’s great for an arrival or table time activity.
Teach students how to use glue sticks is a must for back-to-school. Model how to use a glue stick and let students practice as they make a paint chip cutting collage. I cut the paint samples horizontally to make them skinnier and easier to cut. These make a gorgeous bulletin board and a fabulous cutting sample for their student portfolios.
Writing tray time! Do you see the yellow tray under the writing tray? If you are worried about students getting the sand all over the first few times they using writing trays, then this is your new favorite trick. Just put a tray under it to catch the sand that flies out.
The first time we use writing trays I model how to use them: the tray stays glued to the table when you shake to erase and use the tool or one finger to write. I like to start with pre-writing cards because they need to be able to make the strokes before they can put them together to make letters.
Play Dough Letter Match can be easily differentiated. Students can match the colors, uppercase to uppercase or lowercase to uppercase. Just a note, I only put out about 10 or so letters when we play the game, NOT the entire alphabet. That would be very overwhelming. If 10 letters are too much for your students, just put out five or seven letters.
School Supply Clap and Build is a ton of fun and it helps students learn the names of various school supplies they may not be familiar with like instruments, dice, aquarium or watercolors. Students clap the number of syllables in the word then build it with snap cubes visually showing students which words are BIG and which words are small.
Make and build letters with these school-themed letter mats! Grab some mini erasers, gems or pom poms and build the letter. You can also have students trace the letter with a dry erase marker.
For every theme, I also change the writing center. I added school-themed word cards (in uppercase and lowercase) and writing paper to keep it fun and exciting for students. In buckets and baskets, there are also envelopes, family word cards, stickers and various writing tools (crayons, markers, colored pencils).
The bookshelf is packed with books about school and our classroom centers. You can see my giant School-Themed Book List HERE.
For a school theme, talk about the school rules. Our rules are: We take care of our ourselves, each other, our school and our world. During circle time, we brainstorm and make a poster for each rule to help students know the expectations. You can grab the Rainbow Design School Rules HERE or the Simple Design (plain black border) School Rules HERE.
Pete the Cat Play Dough tray has got to be my favorite play dough tray EVER. I always read Pete the Cat and his Four Groovy Buttons to introduce the math center, and we play the game below. Then I thought, “why not create a play dough tray for the boo?” I used small and large t-shirt cookie cutters (Amazon), number magnets (Target), beads, buttons (Walmart) and match sticks (Michaels by the popsicle sticks), mini roller (Walmart) and play dough to make this FUN math play dough tray!
You also have to play the Pete The Cat Button Counting Game if you read the book! Students roll a die, count the dots and count out the corresponding number of buttons. They play until their shirt is covered in buttons. I made these wood dice with dot numbers 1-3 on it for my young three-year-olds.
Building and making numbers with play dough and manipulatives strengthens those little fine motor muscles. Plus these animal school themed play dough mats are much more fun and meaningful than a worksheet!
Counters! Grab any counter you have and show students they can sort with counters on a sorting mat. Once you show them, they will be sorting by color in no time.
How fun are these simple School Bus Shape Puzzles? Students match the shapes to complete the puzzle. Then they can talk about the names and characteristics of each shape. For extra fun, have students “sky write” the shapes (pretend to draw the shapes in the air). Use a few or use all eight puzzles depending on the level of your kiddos.
For a school-theme, I always have students using and exploring various science tools in the science center. Many students have never used some of these tools before, especially if this is their first school experience. Grab my Being a Scientist Unit HERE for tons of printables, posters, vocabulary cards and science visual prompts. Many of the posters and anchor charts can be made during circle time and used all year long!
Do you LOVE Counting Stews? School Stew is so much fun just because it’s so bright and colorful. Students pick a recipe card, count out the corresponding number of objects and place it in the pot. If you want to know more about Counting Stews, READ THIS POST. Teachers and students LOVE counting stews, and there is a counting stew for almost every theme! Once students learn how to play it you can just put out a new counting stew without having to teach how to play it!
Adding school-themed props to blocks is super simple! I added School STEM I Can Build Cards to the bulletin board, letter blocks, people (Lakeshore), marker lids, counting bears and dominoes. My students’ favorite thing was to build a playground.
In dramatic play, keep it as home living and just add backpacks and lunch boxes. Now students can pretend to go to school! Going to school is a big transition and it’s helpful to give students the opportunity to act it out, making the transition easier.
SLIME! Grab some school table scatter from the Target Dollar Spot and make school slime. CLICK HERE for directions on how to make it.
Name activities are always perfect for a school theme too! I wrote a comprehensive blog post all about how you can use Name Mats in the classroom. CLICK HERE to check it out.