Perspective: Classrooms as enviroment…

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I have spent over 40 years thinking about perspectives.  As an educator, it has been my responsibility to create environments for learning.  It’s not as easy as one might think.  A classroom must serve three, and often four constituencies:  children, teachers, and parents, and, sometimes, administrators.

One year I was a guest music/movement teacher in a private school.  Midway through the school year I entered a kindergarten classroom with the expectation that I would find the large, open space,  with small center tables around the periphery and a large carpet for a meeting space.  I was surprised to find that the room had been rearranged:  rows of desks with the teacher at the front replaced the previous set-up.  There was little or no space to move.  I was stunned, and as I scrambled to change my plans to work in the current spacial format, I asked the teacher what had cause the change:  “The principal said my room did not look like a school.” I wondered how the teacher managed such a change, feeling the impact of the new environment on my one-hour lesson.

We know that very bright colors and walls covered in too much signage  can interrupt attention for some children.  We know that young children need to move frequently and that all learners benefit from movement.  We know that how a room “feels” matters, as learners who feel safe and calm learn best.  We know that all children are not alike, thus complicating the challenge of designing a classroom that best meets the needs of students.

Now that I am retired, I spend my time looking at homes and design magazines, and  I became very aware of the cultural differences in the use of color, shapes, and room layouts.  Not only is there a rich array of individuality in home decor and design, I was reminded of cultural trends as well…

…which led me back to thinking about classrooms, and the current idea that we are now trying to maximize not only cultural differences but also maximizing the classroom for a wide range of learning diversity.

European classroom models are all the rage now:  Montessori, and Reggio from Italy, and Waldorf from Germany.  Classrooms designed along these models utilize light wooden furniture and a “natural palette,” taken from plants and bark, using a range of soft browns, tans, and greens.  Children’s work is highlighted in this range of hues, as the decor steps back in visual prominence.

Another current classroom model is the art studio or technology lab, usually found in classrooms for middle or high school.  Room color is a muted gray or white, tables are designed to be reconfigured for multiple uses, and chairs are industrial in design.

At a presentation for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Hawaiian educator Stephanie Feeney, shared about Hawaiian room arrangement.  She described the care with which adults create classroom environments, surrounded in daily life by exquisite beauty.  Instead of hard plastic crayon containers, teachers of young children line baskets with palm leaves.  Classrooms have windows that display the colors of nature, or corners in the room with live plants and a chair in which to enjoy them.

I, myself, am attracted to the calm created by a natural, muted environment, particularly when student’s art and creations are interesting and vibrant in contrast.

But as I viewed the colors of decor from around the world, I paused a bit.  Don’t children come into the classroom with their own cultural palettes as well as possible developmental needs?  In creating dampened visual classrooms, are we  tamping down enthusiasm for learning that may have been ignited through cultural displays and decor?  Are we making classrooms too “vanilla” for some children?

These are not really questions to be answered, but rather placed here to being a dialogue about how we choose to create room environments for children.  My own feeling is that classroom design requires thought and the many considerations I have put before you.  I’m sure you will be inspired to think of others.

Perspectives matter in classroom design.  At this point, I think that we do children the greatest respect when we consider their needs in the classroom.  Teachers’ needs matter, parents must develop trust in the school, so their needs should be considered, and school administrators have a vantage point others may lack.  But the real “client”  is the student.





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