The Center Activity Table

The Center Activity Table

The Center Activity Table is “center stage” for the placement and rotation of toys and activities. This can sit in the center of your playroom (mine did until my oldest turned 13). The Center Activity Table usually hosts the main event.

After visiting a preschool, my nine-, seven-, and six-year-olds decided to play “daycare,” taking care of our babies from the House Area of Learning. The Center Activity Table became the feeding and changing station. At one point my six-year-old son hopped on and pretended to be a baby himself, for attention from his sisters.

After my middle daughter’s annual doctor visit, the Center Activity Table became the “examination room.” She set up a bench for her medical equipment, the toy doctor kit, miscellaneous items, and her plastic “laptop.” She learned this from her doctor, who uses a laptop to type on while she asks questions. The nurse gave her some supplies before we left (latex gloves, depression sticks, swabs for cultures, gauze, and masks), so the playroom transformed into a “doctor’s office” for over a week. Children become veterans at imaginative play and use all resources available to them. The Center Activity Table is always an integral part.


Many stores sell different types of train tables; just make sure it is solid and big enough for children to climb on and use for many different scenarios. Some tables are too short, and children quickly outgrow them, leading them to bend over uncomfortably to play. An ideal height is 17 inches tall.
The lip of the table is important for young children, as it prevents toys from falling to the floor and creates a barrier for play. It seems like a simple design feature, but it truly serves an important function. The lip creates a boundary for small children and acts as a guide when building towers or lining up cars. It gives a framework for the houses to sit up against and acts as a buffer (for balls, wheels, and more).
A lip will also prevent children from having to constantly pick up pieces from the floor, and as the toys and pieces get smaller and more detailed, from being lost (like on a complicated model or Lego set). One missing piece is frustrating! If you cannot find a table with a lip, add one with thin pieces of molding from your local hardware store.

When children are babies or beginning to crawl, the Center Activity Table is the perfect height to pull themselves up on and learn to stand. Having a table full of colorful objects is quite an incentive for any child to pull themselves up to explore. Eventually, they will toddle around the table, getting stronger and more stable, until they are walking.


On the Center Activity Table, put out a variety of options of open-ended toys and structured toys. Each day put out one game, a few puzzles, three to five manipulatives (magnetic or alphabet blocks), one toy house or garage, and one collection of figures (people or farm animals and accessories; vehicles and miscellaneous items). If you have more than one child, mix the toys based on developmental level (for example, puzzles appropriate for each age). Some days, change it and put out five puzzles and one manipulative, the dinosaurs and volcano pieces, a mat, and trees instead of a toy house.


Having many age-appropriate puzzles and manipulatives is the simplest way to keep children engaged and learning. Learning is so much more than being able to complete a task; it is figuring, practicing, building, creating, anticipating, and trying. Open-ended and structured toys help children gain knowhow. Doing a puzzle not only requires dedication and attention, but it also teaches and requires a child to practice planning, coordination, patience, problem-solving, spatial reasoning, and more.

Typically, if your children are young (10 months to three years old), all toys will require some level of introduction and facilitation. Refer to The Role of Facilitator. Some children may breeze through activities and puzzles in 15 minutes and need more options. Some children may take longer.

For example, when my son was between three and four years old, I introduced a Matching Puzzle Game, where three or four letters with pictures made a word. After watching his older sisters breeze through it, he said, “Mommy, that’s too hard for me.” I told him, “Let’s try together. I will play with you.” I didn’t expect him to match all the words or even search through all the pieces, to find three or four out of a hundred, to put together. It would have overwhelmed him. I started by putting three pieces that matched, mixed up in front of him, not making it obvious. It took him a while to fit the three together, but halfway through, he gained confidence and practice. He was so proud when he finished.

After he mastered that level, I stopped putting three in front of him. He figured out there were concepts, images, and parts he recognized out of the whole. The next time you bring out a similar activity, your child will know what to do. These are the building blocks of knowledge.

For any manipulative, set up a jump start to the activity. For example, hide small plastic balls under stacking cups or stack the cups on top of each other. Stack the ABC blocks into a tower spell the child’s name or make simple words out of the letters. Have balls ready to go next to a slide tower, put a few pegs in the peg board, or begin a base to a block structure. A child cannot resist the desire to explore something in front of them or take over.

Add and rotate in wooden food sets, food cutting board sets, and cake or pizza sets, to integrate with the House Area of learning. Bring in things from the kitchen, like pots or pans, measuring cups or measuring spoons, or a rolling pin. Set up plastic tea sets with the cups on the saucers and the little spoons in the cups. Fill up the pitcher with water! Rotate in real medical supplies or baby supplies and accessories. There are so many options.


Set up and stage playhouses, garages, and dollhouses. Put out a barn or farmhouse. Set up a few fences and take out the collection of farm animals or horses. Put the pieces in the right places (the farmer in the tractor, the horse in the stable, and so on). As they get older, offer a bin of farm animals next to the barn, but do not set it up. This adds to the experience, especially when the play becomes more involved. Doing this creates more “work” and encourages self-motivation.

Put out a dinosaur collection, with the landscape mat below. Set up the trees and group the dinosaurs together, putting the larger of the same with the smaller of the same. Put the mommy or daddy dinosaur and baby dinosaur together. Place the water animals in the pretend water and place others drinking by the stream. The children will begin to recognize water animals from land animals, and so on.

The paperback version of Create a Home of Learning is available at Amazon, your favorite bookseller or

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