Kara Rise

Furniture that enhances student learning

April 8, 2024

Is it time to select new furniture? Schools may be replacing worn-out systems, adding to existing inventories, or ordering completely new furniture. Before purchasing, think of this as an opportunity to enhance the student-learning process – the importance of furniture is frequently overlooked!

Engage an interior designer or trusted furniture dealer to develop a thoughtful furniture plan. Establish a vision for furniture. What are the objectives? Setting guiding principles will help plan for the needs of today and for the future – and prevents just recreating what was done in the past.

Shifts in teaching have transformed spaces to support various learning activities: lecture settings, independent study, small groups, team collaborative work, project-based activities, presentations and storytelling, and play/movement learning. Change is constant; a classroom with rows of traditional desks misses the mark. Flexibility is the key to enhancing learning and supporting future pedagogical shifts.

Students come in different sizes, each with their own learning styles. The Dunn and Dunn Learning Style Model provides an in-depth framework for graphically explaining the stimuli and elements that affect every person’s learning idiosyncrasies. Environmental, emotional, sociological, physiological, and psychological elements affect each learner differently. The Dunn model lays a solid foundation for selecting a variety of furniture that supports and enhances an individual’s unique needs and preferences.

Kinetics and ergonomics provide a brain-to-body connection for learning. Studies show that brain activity is stimulated through physical activity. Students need to move—fidgeting boosts the brain. Dieter Breithecker, a health and kinetics scientist and expert on ergonomics for children, emphasizes that movement is a vital ingredient in how a body supports well-being and development in the learning environment. His research reveals that learners are best served by 50% sitting (in dynamic/flexible chairs), 30% standing (at a desk), and 20% walking around (active learning, movement breaks). Breithecker emphasizes that the next posture is the best posture!

Experts agree that choice/flexibility are paramount in furniture selection. Take this opportunity to rethink learning spaces and how to furnish spaces to function best for today and the future. Planning criteria may include supporting a quantity of students (e.g., for classrooms, cafeterias, labs, small group spaces, presentations), establishing standards (e.g., providing similar furniture for K-2 and 3-5 grades), adhering to guiding principles (e.g., provide choice and support for varied activities), designing for change (e.g., thinking about students/teachers 10 years from now), and rethinking classrooms (e.g., preparing furniture pilot mock-ups to explore new ideas).

Think about the type of furniture that would best support user needs in various spaces. Share ideas through rough sketches, inspirational pictures, lists…whatever works to relay ideas. Think about who is using the space, when it is used, the function, space requirements and kinds of technology.

Designers can create “kit-of-parts” sheets as an excellent tool that serves as a menu to show various options/choices for designing furniture for a space. A ‘kit-of-parts’ sheet graphically shows options to consider for chairs, stools, active/soft seating, standard-height and adjustable-height tables/desks, portable storage units, teacher set-up equipment, and mobile markerboards.

Establishing a vision with guiding principles and planning criteria is a sure way to deliver the most thoughtful solutions in selecting furniture. Once the furniture is procured, allocate time for training and professional development. Supporting varied activities through furniture flexibility and choice prepares a pathway for enhancing student-learning!

Kara Rise, IIDA / LEED-AP ID+C ([email protected]), is partner at ATSR Planners/Architects/Engineers, a multi-disciplined firm specializing in school planning and design. Kara has 17 years of national/international experience in school furniture planning, selection, and design.

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