Designing educational spaces

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By Dr Swati Popat Vats

We live in a new world where education, neuroscience and classroom instruction are joined. – Dr Stephen Rushton 2012, Exchange

In this new world, it is important to design educational spaces to help education become truly the development of the mind, body, and soul. It is important to break the monotonous image of a traditional school and bring in a more contemporary and scientific image of an educational environment.

It is time to fold away the ‘box’ that we call classrooms and unfold new age classrooms that are breathing classrooms, with ‘sense’ible material, comfortable seating and have an infusion of color inspirations and motivational designs.

Isn’t it sad that we expect our students to be creative thinkers but the environments that they are cooped up in for study are a far cry from being creative?

One of the biggest influences on the child’s thought process is the typology of his/her immediate surroundings. Thus, the architecture and interior design of a school play a crucial role in developing and defining a child’s concepts.

Designing educational spaces, brainfeed magazineBrain expert Jensen writes, “Brain-friendly learning environments strengthen neural connections and aid long-term memory, planning and motivation. To be brain-friendly, they need to be places that are comfortable and aesthetically engaging.”

It is time to create brain-friendly classrooms if we want to inspire, motivate, and nurture the brain development of our students.

How do we create such brain spaces? Attention, Processing, Memory, and Retention are the foundation of all brain development and so these brain classrooms must address the enhancement of these processes.

Here are some general design thoughts in the renovation of educational spaces –

Designing educational spaces, brainfeed magazineColours: Colours in our environment affect our emotions and behaviour – and possibly cognition. Colours also stimulate alertness and memory. Colours enhance brain functions –

• Yellow, beige, and off-white are optimal for learning
• Red, orange, and yellow spark energy and creativity

It’s time to move from white, gray, and brown in our classrooms to more effective colours that can enhance brain functions.

Smell: Try going to a school toilet especially after break time and your olfactory system will break down.

Now think of the classrooms that are adjacent to the toilets! Also, due to lack of space most schools make their kids eat snacks in the classroom and so after snack time the classroom is a ‘smell zone’ with all kinds of strong smells assailing your delicate sense of smell.

According to Pam Schiller and Jensen, olfaction – the neuroscience of smell – also influences our moods and levels of anxiety and fear, and even hunger and depression. Olfactory research scholars, Schiller and Jensen suggest that peppermint, basil, lemon, cinnamon, and rosemary enhance mental alertness while lavender, chamomile, and orange and rose calm nerves and encourage relaxation.

Unpleasant odors, on the other hand, are known to inhibit learning. Therefore, it’s time to fix air fresheners or automatic aroma diffusers in our classrooms and toilets. It’s not just fashion; it’s the need of the brain.

Designing educational spaces, brainfeed magazineTemperature: The new terminology is temperature-controlled classrooms. This is important as an optimal temperature is essential in the learning environment. According to Ornstein (1991), a rise of only 1 or 2 degrees C in brain temperature above normal is enough to disturb brain functions.

Important to keep the classroom around 25 to 27 degrees and this can be done by putting curtains when the sun is too harsh and having cross ventilation in the classroom.

Acoustics or sounds are important too in innovative educational spaces. What does this mean for the classroom? The brain processes about 20,000 bits of auditory stimuli every second. Nearly every sound in the range of 20 to 15,000 cycles per second is fair game for processing. If kids have to strain to hear the teacher above the other noise variables then attention and concentration suffer. And so does the reading!

Hearing what we want students to hear in the classroom is one of the most significant variables in predicting reading performance. Research, says that noise may have physiological implications. Noise can affect children by increasing their blood pressure and heart rates, and elevate stress levels – all these factors are not at all conducive to learning and brain development.

The walls need to be made strong and the structure such that sound travels in the classroom without the teacher having to raise her voice and external sound interferences from the next class or corridor can be minimized.

Light: Natural light is very important for a healthy school. Ultraviolet light activates the synthesis of vitamin D, which aids in the absorption of essential minerals like calcium, and hence it is important that our students are exposed to as much natural light as possible. Fluorescent lights have been shown to increase cortisol levels, a change likely to suppress the immune system. Low light makes close work difficult on the eyes and nervous system. This leads to attention and concentration issues and even behavior issues.

Keep the sun cycle in mind while designing classrooms so that harsh sunlight does not make closed classrooms mandatory. But, instead, sunlight would keep the classrooms bright and be breathing.

Oxygen: What do brains require? They require oxygen. Oxygen helps keep the blood flow to the brain active thus resulting in less drowsy kids and more alert and focused kids. Indoor plants are a good source of oxygen and they also help filter the air of toxins and increase oxygenation.

Jensen suggests that each learning environment should include four to eight plants. This will also connect kids to nature and teach them about nurturing nature. School rooms should include as much cross- ventilation as possible to keep the oxygen flowing.

Hallways/corridors: Neuroscientists theorise that “The brain is biased for high contrast and novelty; 90% of the brain‘s sensory input is from visual sources. The brain has an immediate and primitive response to symbols, icons, and other simple images’. Students transit from class, lab, outdoor etc and in these transitions they use hallways, corridors etc. these are the most ignored in a traditional school set up. Grey, dingy with ‘framed notice boards that bore’, these hallways or corridors should instead be a ‘repository of information, activity and social interaction’.

Flat surfaces on doors and partitions can be painted with paint and have the means to attach children’s drawings and work allowing the students to influence their environment and create displays they can be proud of.

Furniture: How high should the student’s chair be? How high should the desk be? What distance should the chair be from the desk? Should there be a footrest for students? How high should the backrest of the chair be? Should the chair/bench that student’s use be a hard surface or a soft surface? These are the questions that should be answered before designing the furniture in classrooms. Children spend more than 6 to 7 hours in school on that furniture and it affects their spine, their posture and incorrect furniture can lead to health issues like back pain, swollen feet, headaches etc. Well, think 90-90- 90. Ninety degrees of hip flexion, ninety degrees of knee flexion, and feet flat on the floor with ankles at a ninety-degree angle. The desk surface should be at about 2-3 inches above their elbow (measure when the elbow is bent down along the side of their body) and their shoulders should be relaxed.” – Kidz Occupational Therapy, The Ergonomics of a Child’s Work Space.

Designing educational spaces, brainfeed magazineFlexible seating: Also with space constraints in schools, the flexibility of design and multiple uses are vital elements in furniture design. Also, brain research says that the brain is social and the brain learns best with other brains.

Cooperative learning is one of the nine strategies raise student achievement (Marzano, Pickering, and Pollack so it’s time to do away with the regimented single desk seating and bring in-group seating.

Many global schools are now responding to a research project of James Levine, M.D., and Ph.D, of the Mayo Clinic, that explored the question “Do children really need to sit at desks to learn?” The prototype ‘school of the future’ that he designed, inspired teachers to experiment with using children standing up at workstations in the classrooms or bouncing on stability balls instead of chairs.

Dr Levine believes that the most significant advance comes from giving the children the chance to move at school. “Children are so amazing. They actually love to learn, we just have to let them move naturally.”

It is, therefore, time to explore the Flexible Seating concept in classrooms. Flexible seating is simply offering students multiple choices of where and how to sit in the classroom. Students can be offered choices of pillows, cushioned stools, bean bag type chairs, or the carpet to sit on.

Outdoor area

One does not need expensive and fancy climbing structures, they are found in parks too. How about a creative outdoors play area made completely with discarded tyres? One can get discarded tyres of all sizes. First, disinfect them and then get them painted and spread them in the shapes of a dragon, snake, the Olympic symbol etc. in the outdoor and children can have good physical fun with creeping, crawling, balancing, all these are midline crossing activities that are good for left and right brain co-ordination.

Safety and inclusiveness

Don’t forget safety aspects while designing schools, the following are a must –

a. Safety strip on doors so that kids fingers don’t get jammed
b. Safety cover strips on all sharp edges of pillars, walls etc.
c. Open plug points to be covered
d. See-through windows on doors so that one can see inside the classroom, this adds a design on the door and also helps when a child is locked by mistake in a room.

The most important aspect of a good school is inclusiveness so ensure that you have ramps incorporated in the staircase for those that need wheelchair assistance.

The brain is an organ that is shaped through its interaction with the environment and so if the brain is the organ dedicated to learning and memory then educators need to design brain compatible educational spaces and do away with those that are brain antagonistic. It’s time to renovate educational spaces and make them brain friendly. After all positive emotions make happy students.

(With permission from Dr Swati Popat Vats, President of Podar Education Network, President Early Childhood Association)

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