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Inspiring learning spaces for your children—because it’s time

Having inspiring learning spaces for children is important. Consciously or not, we feel and internalise what a space tells us about how to work and how to learn. If you are a parent, imagine for just a couple of seconds that you work in a space that looks exactly like most schools do. You and your team of about twenty people are all in the same room, sitting aligned in small desks.

Space matters. The human brain reads the physical environment like it reads a human face. When your children enter the space where they learn, how do you think their minds react? Do they imagine collaboration? Showcase learning? Can they imagine touching and experimenting? Brainstorming and co-designing? Is it a cosy place to hide for reading or mindfulness activities?

Since my son was born, I had the opportunity to be a bit more radical in my approach to his learning space than others might feel comfortable with. From one year old, my son was allowed to play with almost all the kitchen tools, including cutting boards, measuring cups, spoons, mixing bowls, whisks, tongs, spatulas, all pots and pans, and all the parts of the kitchen food processor except the blades. We were calling it “work”, not play, since we were both doing the same thing: cooking. Sometimes when I was busy with work on my laptop, he would mix kitchen tools with lego and Play-Doh. I’ve been grateful for having a dishwasher ever since. Along the way, I’ve learned that we have to prototype our way into any new passion of his. We have to continuously iterate, adapt and evolve our space. To think of learning spaces for children as a way to change behaviour, encourage testing and experimentation, not as a place to do homework. Supplies, tools and work desks are more apparently available than letter-sized paper, notebooks or worksheets.

According to Dr Robert Dillon and Rebeca Louise Hare, authors of The Space, the first question should be: What do you want your children to do in the space? They advise we should start with what we want our children to do and only then figure out what is needed to support that.

When you’ve thought about and formulated an answer to the question above, you can then check out the ideas below for inspiration.

Dry-erase surfaces from floor to ceiling. This availability of surface provokes children to be visual and prolific. Limit seating so that work surfaces get the most attention. Corporate-style dry-erase surfaces are costly. So try using alternative materials in various shapes and configurations to inspire your children. Most smooth, nonporous materials work well.

Pick a material to match the look and feel of your children’s learning space. Acrylic and polycarbonate come in transparent and translucent forms. Also, you can use chalkboard paint—which can now be found in a variety of colors—and paint a wall with it. Frame the space when they are very small to help them differentiate the working space from any other wall. Do not frame the edges when they are 12 or older to provide a sense of unlimited space for scribing and creativity.

A magnetic mounting surface, such as sheet metal or magnetic chalkboard, could be a great way to encourage dynamic learning. Children could mount posters with important content to remember using magnets. I would only advise this kind of tool for children older than 12.

Prototyping cart or simply hack an IKEA shelving unit and add casters. Horizontal surfaces attract clutter. Strangely, though, for something that is so intuitive to many, it is an often-ignored phenomenon that constantly impacts how people create. Our family is still fighting it! Horizontal surfaces, in learning spaces for children, especially for a creative young “engineer” collects remnants of false starts and exploratory trajectories. What can you do about it? Like us, you could keep horizontal space to minimum and invite children to participate in a regular clean-up.

Transparent containers for supplies are critical so that children can always see what is available. I would advise you to stock the supplies in five categories:

  1. Pliable materials: rubber bands, modelling clay, tinfoil and paper;
  2. Structural items: craft sticks, foam spheres, pipe cleaners and wire;
  3. Connectors: blue tape, white glue, samples and binder clips;
  4. Utensils: scissors, staplers, hole punches, pens and pencils, including Sharpies and painting tools;
  5. Treasure: decks of cards, toys, hats, stickers and balloons.

If these becometoo many, a new category is in order.

Floor treatments can become instant boundaries. You can place lines and materials on the floor to suggest separate activities or simulate full-scale experiences instantly. Simple lines on the floor can create surprisingly powerful partitions that can be used to change behaviours and define boundaries. Use carpet tiles, paint or tape to quickly suggest the footprint of a defined learning area, e.g., Meditation Circle, Reading Quadrant, Inspiration Triangle, or Do Not Clean—Still Creating Area.

After reading this, you might think that you need a big house to create good learning spaces for your children. Not at all! In a professional kitchen, for example, space is very limited. Chefs are forced to be creative when organising, maintaining and utilising everything around them. The most important aspect of a chef’s personal space in the kitchen is accessibility. If it takes the child more than three extra steps to grab something, the space is too big for effective experimentation.

“Design is the art form that is incomplete until it is engaged,” says Matt Kahn. In other words, a learning space is only as useful as the learning experience it creates. You can hire designers to create beautiful spaces, but the spaces mean little unless they are useful. Take this idea further and measure the success of a space’s design by the capabilities it creates. Don’t forget to share the results of your creativity with us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter! We’ll be waiting for pictures of learning spaces you love.

P.S. I trust you. That means that all readers of our blog take full responsibility for their children’s health and safety. The information on this website should never replace your own sound judgment. Do not follow any of this advice if you think it is not safe for you and your children to do so.

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