Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Schools Should be Fun Places

Fun and colorful elementary school classroom


We seem to have forgotten that schools have to be fun places. Schools are supposed to inspire wonder, creativity and innovation through the teaching and learning of 21st century skills (see www.p21.org). They are supposed to be welcoming environments that instill in us a love for learning, yet all too often they are boring, gloomy, colorless, and sadly, at times, dark, isolating and lifeless spaces.

The perceived realities of maintenance and cost have driven school districts to a culture of homogeneous, ‘Parchment White’, bland learning environments. In fact, it is sometimes hard to differentiate between prisons and schools as the typology of Epoxypainted CMU walls lining double-loaded corridors with obscure rooms seems to work equally as well for correctional facilities as it does for learning facilities in many counties. Our challenge today is the world of education has completely changed and we are hindered by a tremendously large stock of facilities that support an industrial revolution learning model that does not meet today’s or tomorrow’s educational needs.

As we prepare our students for the Innovation Economy where entrepreneurship and a cross-collaborative culture prevail, it is critical that our learning environments be places where students can practice every-day learning for tomorrow. Whether renovating/adding onto an existing school or building a new ground-up facility, there are three strategies that can be implemented to transform schools into environments for the future of Learning: design, lighting and color.


At Little, we are looking at a “Pattern Language” for rethinking learning environments and have identified eight patterns that can support a culture of sharing, collaboration, creativity and innovation — the critical skills necessary for tomorrow’s Innovation Economy. These patterns include:

1. Sharing-scaping — Rethinking every surface of the school as opportunities to inquire, exhibit, present and share ideas. Interpret the learning environment as a crowd-sourcing “sketch-scape” and implement design measures that promote the idea that learning is everywhere.

Spacious school design


Transparency at McNair Middle School, Fulton County Schools.

2. Transparency and Connectivity — This is the single most important pattern in creating a school culture of openness, excitement, belonging and accountability. Environments that promote transparency and connectivity allow the work of the students to be on “display” and offer more exposure to informal learning opportunities.

3. Creativity — Design learning environments as a tinkering landscape that supports the maker-generation and project-based learning. These spaces encourage manipulation of materials and hands-on experiments that lead to more engaged students.

4. Relevance — Create schools that serve as a mechanism to “connect-thedots”. This means designing an environment that supports transdisciplinarity and the making of T-shaped individuals who have the ability to acquire in-depth understanding of multiple topics.

Collaborative whiteboard table


Sketch-table at McNair Middle School, Fulton County Schools.

5. Collaboration — Environments that support a culture of collaboration is empowering to both students and teachers. Designing a space that can be configured for teamwork and collaboration amongst students prepares them for the real-world environment.

6. Funscape — Create spaces for out-of-the box thinking, unexpectedness, wonder and, most of all, fun. These innovation labs allow for authentic experiences that lead to a passion for learning.

7. Flexibility and adaptability — Design learning environments that have the capability to change and adapt to future needs. These environments also help provide a landscape of learning spaces to support personalization and differentiation.

8. Active and Engaging — Studies show that students retain up to 80 percent more information through active learning. Designing this type of environment includes the use of technology to support (not drive) education, functional outdoor classrooms and maker spaces.

Daylighting in library / media center


Daylighting at Apex Friendship High School.


Research shows that students perform better when exposed to natural light. In fact, one study says that kids in school who are exposed to natural daylight score 16 percent higher on tests than those who don’t. Why? Exposure to nature and natural daylight, is good for our bodies as it lowers blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol. As designers, we should open up the window line, making sure we bounce light as deeply into each and every one of the learning environments. Unfortunately, even with this design intent, many schools often decide to close blinds to avoid glare or will avoid incorporating additional windows in the design to protect valuable wall space.

To address this challenge, we use daylighting computer models to help determine how to maximize natural daylight while increasing wall space and reducing glare.

Spacious and bright school space


McNair Middle School.

As seen on these images and diagrams above, by elevating the windows in parts of the room with light shelves while lowering the sill to the floor in other parts, we have arrived to a great combination that allows visibility out, usability of walls up to 6 foot 8 inches from the floor, and daylight with less glare and farther “throw” to the inside of the room due to the fact that we bounce part of that light back to the ceiling and it indirectly reflects deep into the room.

Color and Branding

The importance of color in our learning environments should not be underestimated. The use of color has the potential to make us perceive spaces in an entirely different way. On the other hand, a lack of color can make us feel bored and uninspired. Color can be used to highlight areas and color theory can be used to support appropriate learning moods.

Colorful leaning space


Similarly, branding and graphics can create transformative cultures in schools and make environments feel less generic. Graphics are critical to expressing who you are; your culture, history, vision and values. When done thoughtfully, they create a more personalized experience to inspire learning and innovation. By using bold graphics and large fonts, we are able to mentally and emotionally connect students to a space while elevating the cool-factor of our learning environments.

School should always be a bright spot for our hearts, minds and our thinking. Thoughtful design, along with the incorporation of lighting and color, allow us to rethink the vital role that space plays in providing successful student experiences for the next frontier of education.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

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