In the spring of 2015, I received what was probably a once-in-a-career opportunity to create a teaching and learning space with essentially no limits on funding (for my part, anyway). A great opportunity and a great responsibility! I got to imagine, design, shop, and repeat when things didn’t go as planned, many times. Beginning with one cramped floor in an old house, furnished over many years on a shoestring, we went to two fully renovated floors (plus a former attic for storage). I actually wrote this post a year ago but had to pull it down when I left the school. But I think my experience may be of help to some, so I am republishing, without images of the actual space. Instead, I’ll share my sources…and some others I think are especially good.
When you are designing a learning space from scratch, you have to look deep into your “why’s,” I think. Why do you do things the way you do them? What is your purpose? How does your philosophy about teaching and learning inform what the environment calls for? I think it was our CFO who solicited “a bird’s-eye view” at one point during the renovation process. I think he was talking about a physical – view. But I chose to take a philosophical bird’s-eye view as well.
What did I believe? What were the children’s rights in the space? How would the space be transformable by the teachers and children? How could the space become a partner…a collaborator, if you will… with teachers and learners? How could it be both amiable, to borrow a term from the educators in Reggio Emilia, and alive? How should the environment affect those…big and small…who walk into it? If the environment is the “third teacher,” what language should it speak? How can an environment evoke emotion? How can it support positive dispositions toward learning (which are, to me, the touch points for the teaching and learning that matter most)?
I believe that children should understand that a learning space is theirs. They should have access to the materials they need in order to make their ideas visible, in as many languages as possible. The space and schedule should be ordered and, though flexible, predictable so that children feel safe to explore their environment, to push the conceptual envelope, and to learn. I believe that children have a right to a richness in their learning environment…beauty, order, surprise, places for relationship building, places for many different kinds of expression, places that reflect their identity and the identity of their city and culture, places for learning that goes as deep as one wants.
And so, given two floors, each with two open spaces (things like an interior stairway, a bathroom and a kitchen separated the two open spaces from each other), and an addition that was to be an entryway on the first floor and a learning space on the second, we began. In the Spring I worked with a committee of administrators, each of whom brought his/her unique perspective and ideas to the project. In the Fall, a new teaching team joined the group to make decisions about wall colors and surfaces. Through it all, we shared visual ideas via a private board on Pinterest. And, of course, we asked the children what they thought should be in a learning place for children, both when we were in the planning stages and as the children anticipated moving to the new space.
The search for furniture that would complement the open space and support children meeting in large groups and small groups and support them in representing their ideas in multiple languages led us to our primary sources: FeelGood Designs out of Italy and Community Playthings.
Feelgood Designs Products
Feelgood Designs calls this “tier.” For us, it solved a perpetual need for a flexible meeting space for many or a few. This piece is custom designed, and the company worked with us to design a piece that would meet our needs. When sitting on the two levels, the children were close enough to see a book during read-aloud and each other during class conversations. The one change I would make if I were doing it all again is to order a darker color for the top surface. Because feet were often on the surface, it got dirty quickly, and every smudge showed.
“Moleculo,” “Snake” and “Flowers”
These soft pieces were big enough to present a bit but not too much of a challenge for the children to move around and required collaborative effort. Every day the children constructed different play places for themselves, often combining “Moleculo” and “Snake.”
The dress-up unit (light blue) creates a place for dress-up clothes and dressing, as well as a small space apart for quiet play.
The children used Flowers as seats, hats (though not for long because of their size!), pathways, towers and more.
Metamorfosi is a table with the possibility of interchangeable tops. I chose the double glass top. Flat objects, such as leaves or feathers can go between the layers. If the sun shines on the table, the objects on or in it cast shadows underneath. Here two children are exploring the power of magnets to move objects through a solid surface.
Theater is a wonderfully versatile piece of furniture (it comes with white curtains. The pink silk hanging in the picture is the doing of the children for a play they were working on). Note the three holes on the inside wall. The curtain can be hung from several different levels to accommodate puppet shows, plays and shadow play.
The arch bookcase is custom-made, so it can be as big or small as desired and with any of the colors in the Feelgood Designs palette. It does have to be bolted to the floor for safety, though. It can serve as a good, open room divider and dual-sided display for children’s three-dimensional work or natural materials, as well as books.
I will say that, though I love the design, look, and versatility of the Feelgood Designs products, they are very expensive and have to be shipped from Italy. In some cases, I think one could find similar products in the states, just not all in one place or as color coordinated.
I did order light tables from Feelgood Designs, but we had recurrent electrical issues, so if I were doing it again I’d order the light panel and accessories from Kodo Kids.
From Kodo we ordered an outdoor magnet wall. We ended up mounting it indoors with magnetic loose parts, many also from Kodo.
Among our values was a belief in the power of loose parts in play and exploration. We found and made a lot of our loose parts based on possibilities and observation of the children’s play. But sometimes we bought them, as we did this set of ramps and balls from Kodo.
Kodo’s product line has expanded tremendously in the past year or so, and it continues to expand. They are a particularly good source for encouraging exploration of STEM concepts through play. You can find their catalog here.
For basic furniture, I have found Community Playthings both versatile and durable. We bought our tables and chairs at Community Playthings. The height of the tables we bought could be adjusted easily, making them more versatile than standard issue tables. Sometimes the tables were low platforms, sometimes tables for making and eating, and sometimes adult-height tables, as for parent-teacher conferences. The legs also came off and stored under the tables, in case we needed to clear a large space.
Also from Community Playthings: an easel that could accommodate four individual painters but also the creation of murals. The easel was on wheels (or not, if we chose). The surface could have doubled as a white board if it hadn’t been in constant use as a paint easel.
It’s also worth checking out Community Playthings’ outdoor products under the name “Outlast.” We bought the Outlast blocks, which are designed to weather the elements, for outdoor construction. Since then, the company has released other Outlast products that look interesting.
We ordered portable storage from Community Playthings, as well. Our more permanent storage units were inspired by an IKEA design.
Because we liked being able to change out paintings and displays on the wall, we ordered Lil DaVinci frames, mounted them on the wall, and changed what was in them at will.
You just open the hinged front of the frame and insert new work. The frames also can store up to 50 pieces at a time. You can find these frames here.
Of course, the furnishings are only a corner of the tapestry that is an inspired, transformable and amiable environment. One must approach creating an environment for children with intention, with an eye toward the aesthetic and a mind toward how to make the space a partner in the teaching and learning that goes on there. And so, this is not a post about creating a learning environment, but only one about resources that helped us do it.