As adults, we make choices daily. We choose where we eat, where we sit at the table, what we order, how much we eat, what we watch or don’t watch on television, what time we go to bed, and more. As teachers, we want our students to be decisive—but how much choice do we truly allow students to make?
Consider the classroom space, for example. By creating an environment that is brain-friendly for students, you also touch on many more of the brain-body compatible elements such as allowing for a safe space for reflective thinking, movement around the room, choice by students, and ease of collaboration. Therefore, it is imperative never to overlook the impact of your learning space—nor to overlook how students should be involved in that process.
A good friend of mine often reminds me that we aren’t raising a class of second graders, but in fact, we are raising future adults. She says, “If they’re old enough to do it for themselves, they should not only be allowed to, but expected to do so.” This pearl of wisdom also aligns with the research Susan J. Kovalik and Karen D. Olsen have done regarding the impact on growing responsible citizens. Their “Integrated Thematic Model” focuses on ten body brain-compatible elements of curriculum development and instruction. These ten elements (listed to the right) have shaped the way I approach teaching and learning in our classroom—and for this article, I’ve chosen to focus on the “Enriched Environment” element of this list.
Creating a Brain-Friendly Enriched Classroom Environment
Throughout my research and field work in the industry, some of the most beneficial ways to begin the steps for a brain-friendly, enriched classroom environment are as follows.
1. Layout and Use of Space: When designing any space, one must first look at the available square footage and think about how to best maximize that area. For example, our space was long and narrow with an odd half wall that blocked some of our open space. So, a breakfast nook made sense to allow for corner seating and storage (inside the bench seating and under the bench).
2. Furniture Choices: Deciding what furniture options will best accommodate the space is key. Because it is important to have maximal floor space, it is also essential to have ample seating available. Students need comfortable options, but they also need choice, so keep in mind that not all seating has to be uniform within a single space. Children will have different preferences.
3. Color Selections: Avoiding bright colors and busy patterns is one of the biggest ways to begin transforming your space into a brain-friendly environment. Research shows that more monochromatic and muted color schemes work best. Additionally, less patterns is key in effort to avoid distracting and confusing learners.
4. Lighting: Allowing natural light to be the main source of light is ideal. However if this isn’t an option, bringing in incandescent lighting is preferred over harsh fluorescent lighting. Lamps can warm up a space and provide light better for learning than bright overheads.
5. Nature: Adding plant into a space not only warms the environment and adds oxygen, but also gives students an opportunity for authentic class jobs—like taking care of the plants and flowers rather than always the typical class jobs.
6. Environmental Print and Design: Lower any posters on the walls to be at the eye level of the learner, specifically if the material is meant to be a resource for learning. Also, avoid any laminate that can create a glare—it makes the information difficult to see. Lastly, keeping environmental print that is displayed on your walls to a minimum is important. Avoid distracting walls—less is more. When we have the same anchor charts posted on our walls, they tend to become permanent wall-paper.
7. Organization of Materials: The first step to de-cluttering is keeping our space as a workshop for students—and not a storage room for teaching supplies. Hiding materials behind cabinets and curtains avoids the clutter from becoming an eyesore and a distraction. Having an organized space for student materials is also important.
Bringing Students Into the Classroom Transformation
When I considered the nine elements mentioned above, I began to think about the way my learning space was designed. I felt that I had an enriched environment; however, my space didn’t allow for much movement and collaboration. There also wasn’t a lot of opportunity for choice within our space, because students lacked areas to demonstrate their learning and apply their knowledge. That is when I had my lightbulb moment… why not ask the students what would work best for their learning landscape?
During my time studying as an interior designer (which I did prior to teaching), I always started with my client’s vision for their space. Why should our classroom be any different? After all, there’s one teacher and a room full of students.
I began to present some of the brain research to my students. For example, we discussed the importance of movement and what impact this could have on our learning. The furniture was too clunky and didn’t lend itself to a flexible environment for movement and collaboration.
Then, we began to think about the layout of our space. We immediately knew we had to maximize our square footage. That’s when the students and I decided to “ditch the desks.” Through this lens, we began to think intentionally about each aspect of our classroom.
My students embraced the opportunity to be actively involved—and empowered—in shaping their learning space. I quickly learned that they were not only responsible enough to offer their quality ideas, but also to make the transformation happen. Getting rid of anything we haven’t recently used was essential. We first had to declutter—and then we all rolled up our sleeves and got to work.
And what about the impact on teaching and learning in our classroom, you ask? Of course, we had more room for movement and opportunities for collaboration. However, many indirect benefits also followed. We created a space that made it more natural to take our time, relax, and be reflective as we worked towards mastery and understanding. The physical landscape of our room took on a different emotional feel upon entering. Our space was inspiring. It was warm. And most of all, it was an invitation for learning where all felt welcomed and valued. After all, students knew their voice mattered—they helped created their space.
I wasn’t what I created, it was what we created together—with a little bit of brain-based best practices integrated into the design, as well.
Have you redesigned your space? What impact has this had on learning? And if you haven’t—are you looking to redesign your learning environment, and where do you plan to start?