You, Me, and the ECERS-3: Interest Centers and Play Areas

Bobbi Philson

You think you’re ready to move from the ECERS-R to the ECERS-3 for your preschool classroom, but you might still feel confused about play areas and interest centers? Read on, this one is for you.

On page 11 of the ECERS-3 scale (the yellow book), a play area is defined as a space with play materials. In contrast, an interest center is clearly defined for a particular type of play, with materials organized by type and accessible to children. Furniture is provided if needed, along with the appropriate amount of space for the type of play and number of children permitted to use the center.

For the benefit of enriching children’s play, at least 5 interest centers are expected, and one of those centers should be a cozy area protected from active play. You may think you already have at least 5 interest centers, but it might be a good idea to review each of your centers. The ECER-3 expects:

  • Cozy area: A space with a substantial amount of softness for reading or playing quietly. A quiet cozy area should be as far away from your noisy centers (housekeeping, blocks) as possible. Does your cozy area have one beanbag and a rug? That doesn’t meet the expectation for a substantial amount of softness. Children should be able to escape the hardness of a classroom in the cozy area.
  • Space for privacy: The intent is to relieve children from the pressures of the group. It’s a place where 1 or 2 children can play protected from intrusion by others. It’s possible that you could create a cozy area that is also a space for privacy. You may consider your computer a space for privacy; however, computer time should be limited, and the privacy space needs to be accessible for at least one hour during the observation.
  • Reading center: This interest center should include a place to store books for easy access and space with comfortable furnishing. You may want to create a cozy area that is a space for privacy that is also a reading center – three centers in one! How do you store your books? Consider a wedge bookshelf so children can easily see the covers and choose their books and put them away. 
  • Block center: This center should be set aside with storage and a suitable building surface. It should include enough space, unit and/or hollow blocks, and accessories (animals, people, vehicles) for at least 3 children to build independent structures at the same time. The focus should be on blocks and accessories, rather than including many fine motor or dramatic play materials. The block center should be one of your largest centers.
  • Dramatic play: This center includes many and varied materials, enough for the number of children you permit in the dramatic play center. You’ll want to include dolls, child-sized furniture, play foods, pots and pans, dress-up clothing for boys and girls. The authors advise you to include props for different kinds of work, fantasy, and leisure themes. Make dramatic play a large center, because it’s always popular. Make sure children can move around the area easily, opening and closing the refrigerator and oven and accessing the materials without disturbing other children in the center.
  • Nature/science: You’ll want to include at least 15 materials from these categories: books/games, living things, natural objects, tools, sand/water. All of the materials except the sand/water table need to be physically located in the nature/science center.

But wait, you say, I also have a manipulatives center, a math center, a writing center, a computer center, an art center! Those additional centers are absolutely welcome in your classroom. Just check them out carefully to make sure that each of those centers meets the definition of an interest center in this first paragraph of this article. Otherwise, those centers will be considered play areas. Play areas are perfectly acceptable in a classroom, and you probably will have some centers that actually are play areas.

Read your ECERS-3 book and let us know in the comments what questions you have. The answers may appear in a future blog post. The next planned installment will be some advice about managing your interest centers.

Still confused about setting up your interest centers? Check these links:

Setting Up Your Preschool Learning Centers

The Learning Environment

Tags : interest centermaterialsplayplay areatoys

The author pqaadmin


  1. I wonder if we are going to be able to keep all the interest areas after reopening during COVID-19. How are the classroom are going to keep social distance with preschoolers?

    1. Guadalupe, we would like to direct you to a couple resources. Please visit the Environment Rating Scales website at; they have an article explaining the use of Environment Rating Scales during pandemic conditions. Also, we remind you to consider the health and safety practices regarding COVID-19 as outlined in the most current OCDEL announcement regarding “Interim Guidance for Certified Child Care Facilities operating during the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic.”

Leave a Response