How one school transformed dark, cluttered classrooms into a light, bright learning space that works for every child.
With washing lines adorned with paintings and pictures criss-crossing the classroom, work stuck on the windows and walls and a wendy house in amongst all the toys and resources, the reception classrooms at St Mary’s C of E Pulborough would have been a familiar sight to anyone who has been in a primary school recently. But Headteacher, Sam Copus, knew that this environment wasn’t as effective as it could be at supporting learning.
After hearing a talk by Professor Stephen Heppell, Sam started researching how to create the optimal space for learning. Working with James Clarke at Spaceoasis and drawing on Stephen Heppell’s advice, Sam created a calm, nurturing space that works as well for teachers as it does for the children.
“We had a lot of walls, and wanted a bigger space that was much more collaborative, so children could work with their counterparts from the other class and teachers could also work together. We felt that a dynamic space where movement is encouraged, where there are loads of different spaces in which to learn, would be much more effective. Ultimately we wanted to take advantage of every element of the space to give the children the best possible learning experience,” explains Sam.
The first step was to partially knock down the wall between the classrooms, creating an archway in the middle with a double door that can be closed if needed – although that rarely happens. It was the first step towards a more open plan, collaborative style of learning.
Working with Sam, using mood boards to explore various ideas, James designed a dynamic space featuring several distinct zones that support different types of learning activity:
- Gather Zone, where children can gather around the LED screen (unlike projectors, this type of screen can be used in bright light, without the need to pull the curtains, sending everyone to sleep) for presentation and discussion. Two varied height Lobe sofas from Spaceoasis flank a green carpet with the screen as the focal point.
- Reflect Zone, a space where children can go if they need some quiet time. Retreat pods from Learniture, sister company to Spaceoasis, provide a comfortable space for reading or one to one conversations. A Little Retreat, a wooden wendy-house with writable surface roof and cushions and cuddly toys inside, creates the perfect snug for those in need of a little personal space.
- Collaborate Zone, where working together is made easy with agile furniture and dry-wipe writable surfaces, including Smile whiteboard tables and a Heppell Bench, both from Learniture, which can be used as tiered seating or varied height worksurfaces.
- Explore Zone, a breakout space for sand and water play, that also houses a PC for exploring online resources.
The natural look
As a Forest School, St Mary’s puts great emphasis on learning outdoors so the colour scheme for the classroom is natural wood floors, green and white. Nature has a calming effect and cognitive performance improves in naturalistic environments so bringing these elements into a learning space makes perfect sense.
Getting more light into the space was also a high priority as poor light levels make it difficult to concentrate and learn. The old classrooms were very dark, not helped by the clutter and the use of windows as display boards, so everything was taken out as part of a radical decluttering. Brighter lighting was installed along with white Dulux Light and Space paint on the walls to bounce light back into the room.
In another move to reduce clutter and increase the agility of the space, chairs were taken out and Turn and Learn stools, from Learniture, were brought in. These ergonomic stools enable learners to sit comfortably while fidgeting if necessary and can be stored underneath the tables to get them out of the way.
A space where any lesson can work
The resulting space has been very well received by the pupils, teachers, parents and even a visiting Bishop!
“It’s calmer, it’s a really nurturing space where the children settle quickly but in different spaces, they each find their niche,” said Sam Copus. “One child goes straight into the wendy house every time he comes in but that’s great – that’s where he wants to be now and in time he’ll choose a different spot. The children can choose where, or even if, they sit – it’s up to them, so it’s a space where anyone can learn because each individual can decide what works for them. ”
Teachers also enjoy working in the space because whatever idea they come up with, they can make it happen because it’s agile and responsive. They also enjoy working together, sharing ideas and being part of a team.
Sam explains, “There has been a huge improvement in staff morale. One really experienced teacher said it has given her a new lease of life, she can’t believe the difference it makes. Even though it was hard getting used to having so much stuff in storage – they have adapted brilliantly. There are a lot more conversations around assessment and more learning comes out of that. There is a great sense of flow and of camaraderie, and an atmosphere of respect, patience and kindness.”
The children have also adopted a no-shoes policy, wearing slippers while they are in the learning space. It’s more comfortable and makes it a more informal space – somewhere they can all learn, together but in their own way.