The difference between centers and provocations

two year olds put their houses on a map
During a meeting a few weeks ago a teacher asked the preschool staff what the difference was between 'centers' and 'provocations'. It seems to me that there are a lot of similarities between the 2 things. Provocations are materials or experiences that Teachers set out to provoke children's thinking. From what I've seen, centers are classroom areas that are set out to give children experience with certain developmentally appropriate learning activities.

So in a traditional classroom you might see a literacy center where children can practice certain writing activities, and in a Sabot classroom you will find writing materials, a variety of papers, things that make marks, envelopes, books and other tools and materials that can be used for writing. One mistake people sometimes make is to assume that the fact that the environment is set up differently and may look looser and less formal in a more progressive school means that teachers don't look for those moments when a child is ready to receive some information about forming letters or to support specific literacy skills.

But it seems to me there is a difference in control in centers vs. provocations. In a center the teacher has decided what will happen, and in the case of a provocation, the teacher provides some things and then watches what happens when the children come in contact with them...the teacher is not in control.

the children draw paths between the houses so they can visit each other
Does that sound right? Doesn' the difference come down to the image of the child -the way teachers can practice listening to the children through documentation, and the way they plan both the classroom environment and activities, with, and in response to the children? It's like what I wrote about the geese, and the farmer who thought about what geese need from their environment and then planned how he could create that on his farm. Provocations are provided to create a context where the child can explore and the teacher can listen and learn what to do next.

Some of the materials in our school may be the same as those found in a traditional early childhood classroom, but on a fundamental level, their purpose is different.

here are some links to some articles about centers, some more progressively focused than others;


  1. For me, centres are relatively fixed. We all have a block corner, reading corner etc. And yes, there is 'provocation' within them. In Australia we use the term 'intentional teaching' in a similiar way to the concept of provocation. It is about really tuning in to an individual or group of children and observing their current interest and reflecting on how we can 'intentionally' provide opportunities, resources etc. to encourage them to progress in their thinking about their interest. As in recognizing their 'zone of proximal development' and 'scaffolding' their learning (Vygostsky).
    Great post! :)

  2. Thank you for this post, Anna. Sometimes it is hard to put these thoughts into words, and I agree with your description. Sometimes it is not so much about the things - so many classrooms look different - but it is really the intention behind the things that a teacher chooses to present that matters.

    Happy New Year!

  3. Thank you so much for this thoughtful essay. In the art education world some of us are making strong connections to exemplary early childhood practice to what we call teaching for artistic behavior/choice-based art ed.

  4. This post is a wonderful resource, Thanks! I'll be sure to pass it on.

  5. Thank you for this thought-provoking post. Here are some of my own musings in response to this idea - would love to continue this conversation!

  6. This past school year I had a most wonderful topic arise in my kindergarten class. Several of the boys loved a toy called Bey Blades which is a type of spinning top. In the late afternoon they would play with them. One day one of the boys made a giant spinning top from mega blocks. Soon many children were making and testing mega block tops. Legos were the next material that was tested by the children for the creation of spinning tops. It was then that I brought in a variety of materials for the children to test in terms of "spinnability". They had a lot of interest in exploring what would or would not spin. We made more spinning tops using pencils and plastic container lids as well as toothpicks and small plastic bottle caps. The exploration of spinning things especially the creation of Lego spinners went on for 5-6 weeks. The children became quite sophisticated in their designs. And though it started as an activity that boys were primarily involved in, it grew into an activity that both boys and girls were actively engaged in. It was a wonderful learning experience that melded physical science learning with art and creativity!


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