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6 Tools To Optimize Classrooms: Learning Through the Senses

As the design of the workspace is slowly evolving to suit the needs of workers’ physical and mental health, the same focus is needed to develop stimulating and enjoyable learning environments for children. In average children spend almost 7 751 hours at school. Studies have found a link between student performance and classroom design, stating that the spatial design alone accounted for 25% of the performance. Therefore it is important to reimagine the classroom as an environment that can respond to children’s body and cognitive development. We present here 6 tools to design multi-sensory classrooms that can optimize children's learning experiences.

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Image: Courtesy of S.ZająCzkowski via PORT


A Scientific research conducted in the UK in 2015 has reveals that the effect of the built environment on children (and users in general) is experienced through multi-sensory inputs in particular spaces, which are resolved in the brain. It is necessary to adapt classroom to children’ sensory experience. Like within workspaces, classrooms host diverse groups of children, with different different learning abilities, physical and psychological needs depending on their age and bodies. Learning environment should be designed to facilitate exploration and provide appropriate stimulation, catering for those individual and groups needs, pace and preferences.

Design of learning environments, allowing for freedom and exploration

Classrooms where the physical space (classroom layout and overall design) supports active learning and engaging experiences for both teachers and students have been proven, by a Steelcase study to have a significant effect on student engagement.

Four major design principles are major factors that affect active learning: Flexibility, a sense of ownership of space, connection and the appropriate level of stimulation (complexity and colour).

  • Flexibility is key in designing a classroom. The Learning Space Rating System (LSRS) lists the “reconfigurability of the room” as one of the seven core principles for good classroom design. Designing a space layout that enables teachers to easily reconfigure their classroom layouts to support the learning goal for that day is important. The traditional classroom layout with the uniform rows of desks permanently facing the teacher were found to have a negative effect on learning outcomes.

  • Ownership denotes how personalized the classroom is. Intimate and personalised spaces are arguably better for learners to absorb, memorize and recall information. Flexibility gives students a sense of ownership of their environment, which fuels their imagination - giving them to opportunity to redefine their space per task or need. Classrooms and hallways that feature student work (presentations, concepts, projects, artwork, etc), are said to promote student participation and involvement in the learning process.

  • Interactivity among the students and with the teacher through design has also been found to crucial for a quality learning environment as it creates a sense of connection within the class. Creating opportunities for organic interaction by integrating interactive panels with mobile connectivity to multiple devices is beneficial for more reserved students and allows all students to get involved.

  • Stimulation within a classroom is governed by Complexity and Colour. Colour has the power to impact how students respond to a space, it can create excite or calm students down. Complexity refers to how the different elements in the room come together to create either a visually coherent or chaotic environment. Research suggests that focused attention is crucially important for learning.

So how do we apply these principles in order to achieve an active learning environment?

6 Sensory Tools To Improve Children’s Learning Experience

1 | Encourage Continuous Movement

School-aged children need 4-5 hours of movement per day to meet their developing central nervous system’s sensory needs. Sitting for prolonged hours can compromise student's health as excessive amounts of sitting has been linked to any health problems which should be prevented from an early age. The easiest way to allow for movement in a classroom is to offer students active seating options that allow for wiggling, moving, and adjusting as an alternative to the typical classroom chair. Adjustable tables (that allow for standing work or sitting on stools), yoga ball chairs, floor seating and standing stations with standing desks or easels.

Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Texas A&M Health Science Center Mark Benden and his team of researchers set out to investigate how the integration of standing desks changed the classroom learning experience. A group of 374 elementary school students in College Station, Texas were divided into a traditional desk control group and a standing desk group. To monitor data, the students had biometric monitors attached to their arms, which tracked measurements such as their heart rate and intensity of movement, these devices then calculated their caloric burn. As anticipated, results showed that students in the standing desk (using stand2learn desks) group were more active and burned more calories. Benden expanded "And they’re not necessarily standing the whole time. There’s a stool, too, but even sitting in a stool is different from sitting in a chair. It’s really not sitting or standing - because it opens up your trunk-thigh angle, you’re able to breathe better, and you’re able to swing your legs.” Overweight children in the study reportedly burned more calories at the standing desks. As Benden acknowledges, it is not about standing or sitting, but about the increased movement created by the standing desk, the study found that students were more engaged in activity permissive learning environments than in traditional seated environments.

Stand2learn children's standing desks. Image Courtesy of Stand2learn

2 | Multiple Types of Tactile Stimulations

Touch is a a powerful sense that which helps children to understand and explore their environment by recognising different textures and shapes. Introducing a variety of tactile objects and surfaces in classrooms help students to concentrate and remember what they learned.

Construction that incorporates natural materials such as tactile exposed wooden cladding stimulates the sense of touch, creating a setting conducive for learning as tactile stimulation can be used to reduce stress, to energize or to relax.

Tactile tools such as weighted objects and weighted lap pads are also an asset in a classroom classroom for seated tabletop tasks and carpet times for elementary students. Weighted materials like Harkla’s weighted lap pad offer deep pressure input that has a calming and organizing effect.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering found the physiological effects of Deep Touch Pressure were associated with participants’ reportedly lower anxiety levels following weighted blanket use. Children with attention disorders are reportedly greatly helped by deep pressure treatments.

Harkla deep pressure lap pads. Image courtesy of Harkla.

3 | Create an Atmosphere With Sound

The acoustics in a space are very important and architects and designers need to understand should pay close attention to the impact of sound levels in relation to activities and tasks that are taking place in the school environment. Sound is form of stimulation that can create confusion or calm down the occupants. A good acoustic design should maintain low background noise levels to enable normal speech and music, recorded audio, etc to be easily audible without interference. A classroom, for example will need to be quieter than a residential public space given the scale of the space and the need for the speech to travel to people further away.

There are 3 types of noise inputs to consider:

- ambient noise (from mechanical ventilation, heating systems, lighting)

- impact noise (from footfalls on balconies, stairs and circulation routes, or from movement of furniture or other class activities)

- external noise (traffic, aircrafts, etc).

These are negative forms of stimulation which disrupt learning. Unless care is taken, these individual sources can be loud enough to cause disturbance, particularly in spaces where low noise levels are required. Reinforcing sound insulation in walls, specifying soft flooring and furniture materials and finishes can make a significant difference in limiting impact noise.

Classrooms with greater external noise are more likely to have lower student achievement. In an experiment conducted in Sweden students between the ages of 12 and 14 were randomly selected to read about world cultures with one of four prerecorded noises (aircraft, road traffic, train, or verbal) in the background while others were to read in quiet conditions. As anticipated students surrounded by external noises performed significantly worse on a subsequent test of reading comprehension when exposed to aircraft or road traffic noise than without noise.

Recommendations for external noise levels outside school buildings are as follows:

60 decibels (dB) should be considered as an upper limit for external noise in schools. When external noises levels reach 70 dB, meeting the specified indoor ambient noise levels may be possible, however considerable building envelope sound insulation, or screening would be required. Noise barriers s illustrated below can more effective in reducing noise from road or rail traffic.

Illustrations courtesy of Institue of Acoustics

4 | Adapted Lighting and Visual Aids

Lighting is another form of stimulation which can be adapted to various tasks for more efficiency. Research shows that exposure to daylight alone can improve school attendance by an average of 3.5 days/year and test scores by 5-14% whilst increasing the speed of learning by 20-26%. Students exposed to more natural light (i.e., daylight) in their classrooms were also found to perform better.

In a study with more than 2,000 classrooms in California, Washington, and Colorado, students exposed to a larger amount of daylight in their classroom were found to have higher math and reading test scores than students who were exposed to less daylight in their classroom.

Although the benefits of natural lighting are astounding, incorporating more daylight into classrooms should be done carefully in order to avoid visual discomfort. It is advised that children with high energy need low level and natural lighting, while children with low energy require brighter lighting.

Image courtesy of Steelcase

Visual stimuli can support or inhibit students’ ability to process and retain information. Too much visual stimulation can result in loss of focus. In terms of visual aids, colour is known to have an impact on mood. Colours such as blue and green, are said to induce feelings of calmness and serenity - further facilitating learning. Colour can also help adjust the lighting in a space - in rooms with ittle access to natural light lighter colours can be used to brighten the space, which positively influence students' mood and energy levels. Conversely, in brightly lit spaces, darker colours such as deep reds can help significant elements in the room to stand out more.

5 | Temperature and Air Quality

Exposure to low-quality air is related to decreased student attendance and affects teachers’ abilities to teach well. It has been shown that for 10–12 years olds numerical and language test speeds increased when temperature was reduced slightly and ventilation rates were increased.

A classroom temperature of 20°C (68°F) is ideal for student productivity; it’s neither too hot or cold so the students are better able to focus. In an experiment investigating the effects of temperature on learning, male undergraduates performed best on a test of word associations when they had learned said associations in a 22° C (72°F) room. The experiment showed that the students and performed significantly worse in extremely hot or cold temperatures due to sensory discomfort.

In classrooms with exposure to direct sunlight which increases room temperature designers should consider incorporating shading systems for windows and installing sustainable HVAC systems to cater for cold and warm environments.

6 | Connection To Nature

Humans have an innate affinity toward nature. Visual and physical access to natural environments has been shown to restore cognitive abilities and reduce physiological arousal. A study of over 100 schools in Michigan showed significant gains in academic performance on standardized tests in classrooms that had views of green vegetation, suggesting that thinking is best suited to natural environments. Since children spend the majority of their time in school, it is important to integrate daily contact with nature in and outside of the classroom.

Images courtesy of IRenaud Araud via Dezeen

Studies have also found that plants in classrooms can lead to improved performance in spelling, mathematics and science of 10-14%. Mental Attention increases when children are surrounded by more natural, greener environments.

Paul Chevallier School in Lyon, France is an inspirational space for learning that incorporate elements of biophilic design. The school has been designed to increase contact with nature throughout. Both the elementary and nursery school have been laid out in v-shapes to optimize visual access the outdoor nature views. Green roofs extend the outdoor space offering further areas for the children to explore. There is ample fenestration as floor to ceiling windows flood classrooms with natural light which also reaches the school's spacious corridors. As if that was not sufficient, the school also has a vegetable garden and faces a woodland park, providing students with nature views from classrooms.

The above this sensory approaches to classroom design shows a dire need for designers and architects to collaborate with teachers and learners alike to create evidence based and user oriented design that positively impacts the learning and teaching experience.

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