- Touch-free lighting, calming spaces, and transparent walls at Crest Elementary School, USA
- Rooftop garden, elevated glass classrooms, and quiet spaces at Fuqiang Elementary school, China
- Textured walls, trail rails, and lots of nature at Hazelwood School, Scotland
- Soothing music, essential oil diffusers, and math-anxiety support at Paradise Canyon Elementary school, US
In recent years, many schools have been transitioning towards flexible and innovative learning environments as the demand for physical spaces that support innovative learning grows. Flexible and innovative learning areas typically encompass the design of the learning space, which offers options in where to sit, integrates comfort and a sense of inclusiveness, and fosters connection among learners. New schools are being built with increased consideration around these alternative, adaptable learning spaces, something which applies not only to the classrooms and the furniture – think chairs and desks on casters – but also to other spaces, such as hallways, libraries, cafeterias, and other communal areas.
Some schools even go so far as to apply this adaptability to the entire look and feel of the learning space, by making the tech, the walls, the layout, the colours, and the acoustics customisable. Other schools create architecturally unique educational facilities – which include nature trails and wellness areas – to enable learners to thrive across a multitude of subject areas. And as there’s a growing awareness of the importance of addressing the current mental health crisis, flexible and innovative learning environments increasingly include the integration of ‘wellness areas’ or ‘calming rooms’ as well, spaces where learners find a bit of peace in turbulent times. Here are 4 great examples of schools of the future, where flexible spaces, flexible learning, and learner wellbeing take centre stage.
“Most schools think about flexible classrooms as spaces where all of the furniture is on casters. Rolling furniture has become the proxy for the word ‘flexibility’. But what happens when you need to change the walls, the tech, the tools students use, the look and feel of the space? For a great learning space, you have to consider acoustics, colour, light, layout, materials, interactivity, graphics, inspiration, technology, and so much more. Putting furniture on wheels and calling the classroom ‘flexible’ is not the answer. That’s a fraction of what makes a learning space.”Danish Kurani, architect
1. Touch-free lighting, calming spaces, and transparent walls at Crest Elementary School, USA
The new Ehrman Crest elementary/middle school in Seneca Valley, Pennsylvania, USA – an innovative and cutting-edge building for learners from kindergarten through sixth grade – boasts transparent spaces with lots of windows and visual connections to the outdoors, a dynamic interior ramp, and touch-free plumbling and lighting. The school also boasts ‘calming spaces’, in the school’s corridors the day and time of year are projected on the floor by a solar calendar, and there are ‘learning stairs’ that also function as auditorium-style seating. The library functions as a maker space, boasting technology like 3D printers, VR, and coding tools, and the cafeteria is an open space where eating and drinking, socialising, and studying can all happen simultaneously. All of these are incorporated with a view to improve pedagogy, encourage movement, help with thinking and creativity, and improve learners’ physical and mental wellbeing. The school puts lots of emphasis on the fact that learners are ‘whole humans’, and need to be approached this way as well, by focussing on collaborative learning, hands-on experiences, and small groups where learners receive individual attention. Each grade has its own identity, and teachers and even kids also helped with the design of the spaces.
2. Rooftop garden, elevated glass classrooms, and quiet spaces at Fuqiang Elementary school, China
In Shenzhen, China, the Fuqiang Elementary school was built with the aim to become an educational centre that supports new ways of learning, quenches Shenzhen’s growing thirst for creative talent and innovation, and feeds its rapidly expanding economy. The ‘hybrid space’ concept was used to create a space that can represent the role of a ‘second teacher’ in the learning process. The idea is to present various educational activities and programmes in close proximity, interspersed among the floors, including rooftop gardens, elevated glass classrooms, and small learning terraces. These will serve to provide opportunities for and enhance new connections, curiosity, cross-disciplinary interaction, and enthusiasm for learning. For instance, from the library on the first floor, students can also see sports activities in the gym, or watch performances in the theatre. The school also has a blue and white theme throughout, representing the ‘‘container of creativity that is as wide as the ocean” – meaning that each learner is free to explore learning in an area that supports them, such as interactive zones, the roof garden, stairs that also function as seats, the sports arena, or an (outdoor) study room. Learners who need a calm place can make use of an area that is dedicated to provide peace and quiet. The indoor and outdoor areas of the school are designed to facilitate a harmonious correlation between studying and seeking experiences. Vertical gardens hang from the top of the building and dangle in front of the classroom windows, and in the middle of the school is a garden that is used for a wide variety of educational activities.
3. Textured walls, trail rails, and lots of nature at Hazelwood School, Scotland
The Hazelwood School in Glasgow, Scotland, is an educational facility for up to 60 children with visual or auditory impairments or mobility difficulties. The design of the building was aimed at avoiding standard, conventional details, preventing any ‘institutional’ aspects, and developing the learners’ independence while also providing them with a safe and secure place to experience and learn. The huge celestial windows maximise natural light and the building design also includes sound, visual, and tactile features. The school ‘meanders’ through a beautifully landscaped area with mature lime and beech trees, and provides a safe, stimulating environment for both its learners and the staff members. The small learning spaces include garden areas that maximise the potential for more intimate external teaching environments, enabling learners to breathe fresh air, feel the rain, and hear the wind rustling through the leaves of the trees.
In between these garden spaces are focus-learning rooms as well, which offer viewing options for staff and visitors without disturbing the children, and can also function as spaces for quiet time if needed. Some of Hazelwood’s many innovative features include textured walls created with materials that are stimulating to smell and touch, such as cork. These materials also provide ‘messages’ to help determine the learners’ location within the school. The ‘trail rail’ enables the learners to navigate around the building, providing a sense of mastery, confidence, and independence. At Hazelwood school, methodologies consist of a range of active learning, holistic approaches, and sensory based learning, all of which are enriched using digital technologies. Learning experiences include languages, math, and sciences, but also expressive arts, social studies, technology, and health and wellbeing. Where needed or appropriate, digital learning and teaching can also be facilitated via technology like Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom.
4. Soothing music, essential oil diffusers, and math anxiety support at Paradise Canyon Elementary school, US
Wellness rooms can be used in combination with social emotional learning (SEL), which is aimed at helping learners gauge their ‘emotional temperature’, self-regulate through sensory awareness or breathing techniques, learn to recognise triggers, and ask for help when it looks like the learner is losing control of a situation. Data generated in these wellness rooms can provide loads of valuable information. For instance, from chats with a teacher about a learner who enters the wellness room every day around the same time, the school can discover that that is the time of the math class, indicating that the learner may be dealing with math anxiety. This valuable data will enable educators to offer academic support to make numbers less daunting for the learner, preventing the development of any (other) learning anxieties later in life.
Paradise Canyon Elementary school in the US has a wellness room for its learners, which is dimly lit, offers comfortable chairs, provides soothing music, and even offers yoga mats. Some other schools in the area offer meditative support like essential oil diffusers, colourful lighting, or tipis where a learner can take a break. Upon entering, the learner will check in with a paraprofessional who will ask about the emotions the person in question is experiencing and at what intensity level. Younger students or those with disabilities often need help identifying what they’re feeling. A teacher at the school says: “We have a lot of kids who need to be disconnected from the world. It’s good for them to have different skills and get free of their emotions.” She said she wishes she had had access to such a wellness room at school when she was young, as the programme is very effective at helping people to recognise and deal with difficult feelings. “It gives them knowledge of their emotions. Before, the learners wouldn’t know what was going on and they would act out. Now it’s more controlled. They’re pretty aware of how they are feeling and how they are in the world.”
In the future, schools will increasingly view each space as an opportunity to offer something unique, and to cater to different learners. These spaces will each support and enhance a specific way of learning, whether it’s through performance, discussion, observation, or creation. Spaces designed for a different type of learning experience – or spaces that can be adapted to a multitude of different experiences – will offer a much more powerful learning environment in which every learner can feel comfortable and supported. The learning environments of the future will become much more responsive and use real-time data to adapt to and enhance the learners’ experience. After all, learners who spend their days in supportive surroundings that cater to their various needs are more likely to become better learners and have the best shot at reaching their full potential.