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Impact of Classroom Space on Students’ Learning and Engagement
Park Tudor Senior Kindergarten Team: Stephanie Behringer, Marion Harris, and Nombi Mundawarara


students inside and outside the classroom

There is a science to effective learning space that can have a serious impact on students’ cognitive performance. How you use your space can make all the difference in children’s learning.  The Park Tudor Hilbert Center teachers are doing some extensive research, with the help of Chris Lewis, a Lower School Teaching and Learning Strategist at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning Lower School Research Lead, on how classroom design and space impacts the learning of young children. Many aspects of classroom space and arrangement deeply impact children’s cognitive load and are directly correlated to children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. Things like lighting, air quality, layout of furniture, natural light, and connection to outside space all play an important role in children’s learning. We are rethinking the way our classrooms are designed and are finding new ways to arrange our rooms for optimal learning. 

Questions we are asking ourselves are:

  • Do we have spaces that invite our students to engage in cognitive play? 
  • Are we creating an environment that has developmentally responsive spaces that invite our students to engage in their physical space and spark their interests? 
  • Are we maximizing the natural light that comes through our windows?
  • Does our classroom space have relevance and meaning to our students? 
  • Are we looking at the classroom from a child’s vantage point or is our space focused on what we see as adults? 
  • Can we see the outside world from different areas in our classroom?

Too much clutter can add an extraneous load of cognition, known as cognitive overload, which strongly impacts students’ learning – instead, a more minimalist approach that focuses on children’s work and interests provides a safer and happier space for learning. We need to plan for optimal executive functioning, where students have room to explore and engage with materials, work collaboratively with others, learn from their mistakes, and feel safe to manage emotions and social growth. What is visible in our space shows what we value as teachers.

students in the classroom

Here are key areas to consider for optimal learning:
Natural light - When looking at all the different design options, lighting has the greatest impact on student learning. Lighting can have both physical and biological effects on children and can not only enhance their mood but also their cognitive development. Exposure to natural light can affect energy level, focus, and alertness.

Exposure and connection to outside space - “Research suggests evidence of profound benefits of the experience of nature for children, due to their greater plasticity and vulnerability (Wells and Evans, 2003; White 2006). It is believed that the quality of life in a school is greatly enhanced when an abundance of usable outdoor space is present. Nature and natural materials are known to reduce stress levels in children.

Materials - All materials should be available at child’s height so that they have easy access to them, creating more independence and allowing for more creativity and expression. We want to invite kids to engage in their environment and make them feel like the classroom was designed for them and set-up for optimal learning experiences. 

Classroom Design - The layout of the classroom environment plays an important role in student development and often serves as an additional “teacher” in the classroom. The physical environment can promote language development and socialization, as well as cognitive learning. One of the best ways to do this is for children to have different spaces in the classroom (e.g. small tables for group work, whole-group meeting space, mindfulness spaces, reading nook, and spaces for both individual and cooperative play).  It is also important to have spaces to display the students’ work at their eye level, giving them a sense of pride and accomplishment, as well as ownership of their classroom space.

Classroom Navigation - “Developmentally responsive spaces and routines support the sense of safety and belonging needed for young minds to explore new ideas and skills.” Intentionally embedding spatial challenges for the students to navigate as they move through the classroom not only helps to improve self-control, but it also builds stronger executive functioning skills, and promotes responsible, productive behavior.

We have focused a good portion of our professional development on rethinking and restructuring our classrooms by moving furniture, decluttering our learning spaces, and creating areas in our rooms that maximize cognitive development. Based on the results of the HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design), funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, clear evidence has been found that well-designed primary schools boost children’s academic performance in reading, writing and math.