Versatile Spaces

Versatile Spaces

Making wise school furniture decisions.

The learning landscape is changing quickly, and education institutions are hard-pressed to make sure their academic facilities are meeting the evolving needs of teachers and students.

Within a universe of continual change, though, school facilities still need furniture.

Furniture selection goes beyond color or size. Furniture must be flexible and functional, and support the needs of individual students. With so much at stake, forecasting furniture needs for 2010 may seem overwhelming. Whether considering a retrofit project or new school installation, furniture is a key component in the planning process. The overall design affects how furniture will be used in the classroom, how the instructor prepares the curriculum, and how students learn.

Using information on a room environment, its general purpose and the expected enrollment, administrators should look for furniture that makes spaces more versatile, enhances the overall classroom space, and improves individual work environments.

Extending functionality

As new trends in teaching styles emerge, it becomes more important for the classroom environment to be appropriate for all types of curriculum. Furniture is not just a “thing,” but a tool to aid learning. The different teaching styles that furniture should support involve activities that are collaborative, traditional, self-paced or one-on-one.

To be most efficient, classroom furniture should work with more than one type of learning style. However, not all furniture is designed for this purpose. For example, desks designed specifically for collaborative learning are different from those designed for traditional learning. Although standard square desks can be pushed into groups, they do not support collaborative learning as well as those designed specifically for group work. In a collaborative setting, a teacher moves around from group to group, and furniture designed to work with this learning style encourages easier student-teacher interaction.

One example of the need for versatility in furniture can be found when teachers use more than one type of instruction method or style throughout the day, or if several instructors use the classroom. During first period, students may be engaged in traditional learning; the teacher is lecturing and desks are separated, facing forward. In the afternoon, students may be working in groups. And in the evening, the classroom may be used for community education. In this classroom, seating needs to be easy to move and rearrange to fit specific needs.

Another prevalent trend is the move toward “smart” classrooms and the integration of technology. With this in mind, furniture should accommodate the varied types of technology needed for learning activities. In addition to the dimensions of the work surface, consider power and cable needs.

Maximizing real estate

Some facilities operate at or near peak capacity. In those schools, it becomes critical to maximize the square footage of the classroom. Furniture should make the space comfortable and functional while working within the room's limitations.

With this in mind, furniture should be able to adapt to the changing spatial needs of -students and instructors. Therefore, furniture should be easy to move and store so that students and teachers can rearrange them safely. Casters can help teachers and students move heavier pieces more easily. Stackable chairs can open up the classroom when extra floor space is desired.

Often, classrooms need to be transformed temporarily for activities other than conventional learning. Elementary school classes that put on plays may need to rearrange the space into a theater, with rows of chairs for audience members and plenty of open space for actors. Middle school classes may spend more time socializing, and therefore have needs to reorganize the classroom to facilitate holiday parties or end-of-the-year celebrations.

Individual work styles

Students come in different shapes and sizes. Some eighth-graders may be reaching their adult height, while their classmates have significant growing left to do. Schools need to look for furniture that accommodates these differences.

In the last few years, the number of seating options offered by classroom furniture manufacturers has increased significantly, all with a greater emphasis on ergonomics and comfort for students. A study in the United Kingdom found that children improve in on-task behavior when using ergonomically designed furniture compared with less user-friendly models.

It also is important to recognize that furniture can affect classroom air quality. Improved indoor air quality can boost student learning. Because of this, many classroom furniture manufacturers provide products that are GREENGUARD-certified.

Additionally, one essential and often unaddressed teacher need is having a space that is separate from the classroom. Bookshelves, mobile whiteboards and freestanding wardrobe closets can help separate a teacher's work area.

Sidebar: Putting theory into practice

When preparing for the opening of Aurora Elementary School, West Fargo, N.D., in 2007, staff determined the number of books, the different types of stands, bookcase height requirements, the size of tables and overall vision for the library. Working with a furniture manufacturer and a school furniture dealer, Aurora Elementary created a design, layout and organization of its new library that would fulfill that vision.

For example, other libraries they surveyed had a lot of shelving positioned close together, and bookcases often were too high for elementary students. Aurora Elementary's library shelves have a height of 42 inches or less, so all library spaces are visible and media specialists can spot inappropriate behavior.

Whether reading during the school day or participating in an after-school homework program, students are enjoying a comfortable library environment that aids in learning.

Stewart is western regional sales manager for Smith System, Plano, Texas, a manufacturer of furniture for education environments.

Sidebar: For your consideration

Some questions to ask when thinking about furniture for education:

  • Does it allow easy movement from traditional to collaborative teaching?

  • Will it support computer use?

  • How easily is it moved?

  • Can it be stacked or stored easily?

  • Many chairs increase only in height for students as they grow. Does the new furniture consider overall student growth?

  • Does the furniture support communication?

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