Contrary to traditional classroom practices, research is confirming what classroom teachers have always suspected – that reducing recess time and physical activity during a school day is having an impact on a student’s ability to learn. Research is proving that physical movement influences attention, organization, vision, speech, balance, and coordination. It also enhances focus, memory and cognitive flexibility – the tools needed for improving academic performance.
In the past, children entered the educational system at the age of five, when their minds flourish in a routine of active play, individual discovery and creativity. But something happened as they progressed to upper grades. Our traditional educational pedagogy required them to quietly sit for long periods and to focus on teacher-led lessons. Learning spaces were also rigid with rows of desks and uncomfortable chairs. But today, educational methods are evolving as students are required to enter the workforce in the global, high-tech, 21st century economy.
The framework for learning in the 21st century begins with building block skills – the “5 Cs” (collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, communication and character building). So learning spaces are also evolving… to enable these skills. Structured rows of desks are being replaced with more common spaces that encourage collaboration. Teacher-led activities are being replaced with opportunities for “hands-on”, student-driven activities. The movement of students between areas for individual, small group and large group learning has impacted classroom design. New requirements for mobile desks, tables and chairs and wireless technology offer flexibility so spaces can be reconfigured in minutes.
These changes are driving some interesting trends that need to be considered as we redesign our learning spaces for student success.
1. Movement Furnishings
Encouraging physical movement may actually help fidgety students to stay focused. The extra dose of oxygen that is gained from kinesthetic movement is easier with new design trends in student furnishings.
• Stability Balls & Movement Seating – Sitting on a stability ball or ball chair encourages focus, as well as strengthens core muscles that are important for proper posture. A stability ball allows a student to roll side to side or back and forth, providing the movement their sensory systems crave without disrupting other students. Movement seating and movement stools are designed to rock gently back and forth and side to side for any type of learning style but fits under desks and tables and offers a bit more versatility when planning classroom spaces.
• Stand-Up Desks & Workstations – Allowing students to change their position from sitting to standing can also offer benefits. Standing to work at a desk allows a person to move “at will” in any direction. Specially designed desks that can be individually adjusted at a moment’s notice are ideal, but providing several stand-up desks in a classroom that students can migrate to is also a viable solution. Newly designed, stand-up desks with a moveable footrest bar, allow fidgety students the ability to move their feet and legs in a rocking motion. Studies show that this can stimulate the brain for better focus.
• Treadmill Desks – Adding aerobic activity to a stand-up desk, treadmill desks provide the physical need to move while taking academic instruction. While this is becoming a trend in office design, some manufacturers of school furniture are experimenting with similar methods.
2. Shaped Desks and Mobile Furnishings
Incorporating desks, tables and seating with casters offers instant adaptability within a learning space. As students change daily activities from individual to partner learning to group settings, mobile furnishings that can be easily rearranged are the perfect solution. Flexible collaboration desks with shaped tops that fit together like puzzle shapes offer the flexibility of creating zonal areas for small or large group activities. Creating a U-shaped large group set up is perfect for presentations. Clusters of 2-5 desks offer collaborative areas for small group projects.
3. Indoor and Outdoor Common Areas
Thanks to wireless technology and hand held devices, there are fewer barriers to learning in any setting. Learning can be extended beyond the traditional classroom and even to outdoor spaces. School districts are getting creative as they create collaborative, common areas. Large hallways are being redesigned as collaborative zones for group projects. Media center shelving and traditional furnishings are being replaced with additional soft seating for small group meetings and research activities. Cafeterias are becoming more multipurpose with bistro areas and booth seating. And where weather permits, outdoor common spaces are being utilized as “nature zones” complete with gardens and all weather furniture. Learning is not limited by location in a 21st century school. Not only will the children have the chance to stretch their legs, their interest will be piqued, heightening their propensity to absorb whatever lesson comes next.
4. Zone Designs for Large Spaces
Setting up learning zones within classrooms, media centers, cafeterias and large common areas allow students to move from area to area as activities change during a day. Creating zones in multipurpose areas and classrooms allow students a range of choices as their tasks change. Enclosed or “cave” zones with beanbags or club chairs provide a quiet zone for individual study. “Campfire” or collaborative areas purposefully attract small groups of students as they gather to discuss projects or to share information. The analogy of a “watering hole” zone is accomplished with the right furnishings for the purpose of informal social interaction. You’ll notice these spaces furnished with bistro tables and booth seating in hallways, cafeterias, outdoor common areas.
Ongoing research is being conducted on the benefits of classroom furnishings that allow student movement and collaboration, the cornerstone of 21st Century Learning pedagogy. New design trends backed by research point to the selection of mobile, flexible furniture that can be adapted to create fluid, multipurpose spaces for large groups, small teams or individual learning activities.