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  • Becky Carlisle Cothern

How to Set Up an Ocean Theme in Preschool

Whether you are doing ocean animals, water, aquarium, the beach, or any other ocean related theme in your classroom you need help and ideas to set it up, make it inviting, and of course pack it full with educational opportunities. That's perfect because I have some great tips, ideas, and resources to help you conquer this theme in your classroom.

1. Dramatic Play Center

Try setting up an aquarium for ocean animals or a swimming pool for the beach in the dramatic play center. Whichever one best meets your needs kids will enjoy the fun water activities you can include in this center. Below are some ideas of props you could include in each center idea.


- Cameras

- purses

- buckets

- plastic fish

- ocean animal puppets

- walkie talkie

- medical kit

- magnifying glass

- tweezers

- fishing net

- diving gear

Swimming Pool:

- floats

- swimmer puppets

- inflatable swimming pool or blue butcher paper

- beach ball

- beach towel

- umbrella


- snorkel mask

- whistle

- play money

Don't forget to include lots of signage with text and pictures. This not only makes the space seem more authentic but it also increases the children's learning opportunities as they interact with print (through words and pictures). I also always include a writing element. This becomes an authentic writing experience as students are given the opportunity to put ideas on paper.

You can download printable resources on my TPT store:

2. Art Center

Watercolors are easy and fit well with this theme. Another idea is to dye salt and make salt pictures. This is great not only because the ocean is salty but the dyed salt also resembles sand. Students can use school glue to trace simple ocean shapes (shell, fish, starfish, etc.) or make their own designs. Using a salt shaker cover the glue with the dyed salt. Allow the artwork to dry and ta-da you have a beautiful salt picture.

3. Block Center

I love seeing the creativity and engineering that happens in the block center. I love challenging the students to create things they haven't thought of before. To help spark student's imagination I post open-ended building cards. These cards give students ideas of things to build but without any instruction on how to build them. Watching the thinking process as students break the object into block pieces is entertaining to watch. For this theme students can build boats, sharks, or even octopus. You can find this center on my TPT store here: Ocean Block Center

4. Water Table

Fill the water table with sensory items: water, shells, sand, etc. I love to put water on one side and sand on the other and then cover both areas with shells. I include a variety of shells so they can touch smooth, bumpy, pointy, etc. I like for them to feel the contrast between the sand and water. This is especially important if you live farther away from the beach and your students have probably not experienced what a beach feels like. Use the water table to recreate a few sensory items of being in an ocean environment.

5. Writing Center

I always provide a variety of writing materials for students to participate in. I try to provide materials that build fine motor, allow students to color, write letters and names, and meet varying needs. For an ocean theme I'm going to have:

- students draw pictures in buckets of things they might collect on the beach or see in the ocean. - colorful beach paper to write names, letters, or scribbling.

- salt trays to trace letters and write names.

- water gel bags to squeeze, and form letters in.

6. Science Center

The ocean is FULL of science opportunities. Learn more about ocean animals. You can sort them by type of animal (mammals, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, etc.), where they live (coral, deep ocean, beaches, etc.), what they eat (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore), etc. You can also experiment with water (color mixing, float and sink, etc.) and don't forget the salt (salt crystals, sink and float with salt, taste salt, etc.)

7. Math Centers

Math centers include:

- Fish Number Cards. Students use play dough to make each number. After creating the number in play dough students count and put the same number of "fish" in the play dough.

- Fish Sorting. Students sort fish by type of fish or color. The fish can be sorted on the ocean sorting mat.

- Fish Counting Cards: Students count the fish in the water and clip on the correct number.

- Bobber Shape Puzzles. The students match shape words with the bobber shape. I read the word to the students and then they had to find the matching shape.

All of these games plus more are available in my TPT store:

8. Literacy Centers

In literacy centers you can work on individual skills such as alphabet, rhyming, syllables, etc. You can find some great centers for these skills in my TPT store: Family and Child Development Lab the link for ocean themed centers is included in #7 above.

Also don't forget to bring in quality literature using books and nursery rhymes. Some great nursery rhymes for this theme include:

- 3 Men in a Tub

- A Sailor went to Sea

- Jack and Jill

- Once I caught a Fish Alive

- She Sells Seashells

This year we also enjoyed reading quality literature such as "There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Shell", "Out of the Ocean", and "The Sandcastle Contest".

If you need other ideas to incorporate the ocean into your classroom try some of the following resources:

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