School Improvement Agency - Redesigning the classroom environment

Redesigning the classroom environment

The layout of the classroom affects the behaviour of all those in it.

In my work as an educational psychologist I often encounter the difficulties that the physical environment poses to class teachers and children and I have been very struck by the way in which the layout of a classroom affects the behaviour of all those in it.

This was highlighted to me, when working with a group of teachers on an early years curriculum, by a teacher from New Zealand. She had been very shocked by the learning environments offered in old Victorian school buildings and the lack of recognition given to how they impact the staff and pupils.

We listened in awe at her descriptions of new schools in New Zealand where the environments had been designed for children. There were “soft“ areas, areas with different temperatures, a drinking area in every classroom, fruit available for a snack at any time, ventilation and light sensitive to the weather. In short, the whole environment was dedicated to promoting feelings of well-being and therefore motivation to learn and focus.

Does this sound like your classroom, your school? Some of us may be fortunate enough to work in a new purpose-built school, but for the majority this is not the case.

But there are different ways to think and use space. This article aims to bring creative thoughts to the process. Before the start of a new term and as you are taking down the decorations from last term, creativity may help you to rethink the use of space and resources in your classroom.

Rationalising space
A good way to begin thinking about your classroom is to consider what you value about any spaces you experience. Also reflect on how these spaces make you feel and the effect they have on your behaviour and thinking.

Good starting points might be your favourite shop or art gallery. What is it that you value about the way merchandise/exhibits are presented and how does it enhance/detract from your experience.

We live in a society that often seems to value high levels of stimulation. This can lead to confusion, tiredness and lack of clarity. There is too much to take in and this affects our thinking. Think of a store or display that has this effect on you. This is also the case in classrooms and particularly so for children still learning to focus and discriminate. We need to think how to best facilitate these skills by the environments we offer.

Looking at your classroom from this point of view one can see that less can mean more and children will benefit from clarity of space and function. This helps them to “read“ the space and this is then a very good environment in which to learn.

In an attempt to be “stimulating” some classrooms can go overboard on displays and materials that can be overstimulating and confusing to the child.

Space to move
The use of space is vital in its flexibility and ease of movement. It is very important that children don’t feel squashed and uncomfortable. Just think about when this happens to you as an adult and how uncomfortable it feels to have another person encroach on your space – for example, on an aeroplane. Yet we often expect this of children on a daily basis.

There should be enough space for children to cross and be beside one another without banging into their fellow pupils. There should be sufficient space for every child to sit comfortably during story time and ideally sit in a circle with 2/3 inches between each child for circle time activities.

Working spaces that fit the individual
Furniture should be selected that is the right size for the age group of children and has flexibly of function. (So often children are working with the wrong size furniture.)

Each piece of furniture should have a clear purpose and be used regularly otherwise it should go. Do you, for instance, really need a teacher’s desk in the classroom – exactly what function does it fulfil?

Each child should have enough room to work so that their arms do not bang into one another. In the case of left-handers they should be sat at the left hand corner of the table with their left arm having room to move. Left-handers may also need to sit at a different angle to their work and they need space to do this.

For any child with motor co-ordination difficulty – for dyspraxic pupils this is a key issue. They may also need the provision of a sloping work surface and a foot rest.

Children with attention difficulties need consideration of a separate work place with minimal distraction visually and socially for specific tasks. This should be seen as a requirement rather than a punishment and a variety of children may choose to work in this way at different times. Children should be encouraged to think about how they work best at different tasks and be praised for this reflection.

Children with Asperger’s syndrome will find issues of space very important and they will need to know that their space will be respected. They will find an uninvited intrusion into their space very threatening.

Many school buildings have windows, doors and displays that are at adult level. This is stressful to children when it is a constant feature of their daily environment. Imagine if everything you were asked to use each day at work was too small.

Displays should be at child level and they should be very clear in their message and purpose according to the appropriate developmental stage of the child. So the young child needs experiential displays while the older child needs clearly labelled displays that highlight key points.

Teaching organisational skills
As children develop, you should expect a greater degree of autonomy. This can be reinforced by the layout of the room and storage so that pupils can increasingly “help themselves”. These are such important life/organisational skills and are particularly pertinent for children with Special Needs.

Healthy environments
There is evidence that many classrooms are unhealthy places to be especially in the long winters we have in this country. Ventilation is vital for young busy children. I am often struck by the lack of air in the rooms I visit in schools and how this must be affecting the children and adults in them.

Research has shown that many children in schools are often very dehydrated. They should have access to drinking water and be allowed to drink whenever they choose. This has great benefits for their present and future health, the teachers should be drinking water too.

Finally, an uncluttered space, well placed furniture, organised materials, simple and clear displays, and carefully considered seating arrangements will all assist in keeping the environment clean and healthy. And most importantly they will all enhance the teaching and learning of all those working there.


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