COVID Insights, Perspectives 05.11.2020

Tips for At-Home Learning Spaces from a School Designer

By Kami Kinkaid, K-12 Practice Leader in our San Francisco studio
Make your own fort out of wood dowels and copper pipe fittings!

This story is part of our insight series around the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Life in lockdown is hard on learning. I’ve seen this with my own children, ages five and eight. Not only are there the emotional disappointments of not getting to see and be with their teachers and friends; but the physical challenges of where to learn are very real.

There are a handful of environmental essentials for learning.  We think about these when designing for education—whether for a preschool space, college or other age group. As an educational designer, I am constantly trying to maximize elements that contribute to student success like fresh air, natural light and quality furniture. But when designing spaces for schooling at home, parents have to get scrappy and work with what we have on hand.

Many of the parents I surveyed for this post started off at the dining room table. My colleague, Brent Ross, sums up the issues this causes for smaller students–preschool and elementary kids. “A few days into isolation, Ellie complained about her feet and legs going numb. She couldn’t touch the floor. Even with her legs crossed and propped on the foot of the table, this was uncomfortable.” Others shared similar complaints of squirming, kneeling, and standing. Appropriately sized furniture can make all the difference.

Instead of racing off to Amazon to invest in adjustable tables/chairs that grow with your children, parents should look around their home for something that will work at home. Poofs are good chairs for younger kids. These small scale seats allow them to move their bum around similar to the “active chairs” you may have been seeing more and more at school. Exercise balls could be an alternative to your teen or tween’s hard wooden desk chair.

Siblings distracting each other is another pitfall of the common study area. The need for private spaces is universal, but ample space is not—especially in urban areas where space is a luxury.

My son, Nelson, shares a bedroom with his sister, which is problematic for school work. Nelson didn’t have any place that was his. So we created Nelson’s corner.  We had a play table and chairs that are size appropriate for a preschooler.  He has nice light, a comfy chair to sit—now, he kind of has the best space in the house.

When you have to work within the open spaces of a home, acoustic issues arise when a student is on a call at the same time mom or dad have an online meeting. The blanket fort concept isn’t a bad one—a place where the kids (or parents) can hide out for some acoustic separation.

If you are looking for a project, you can make a fort out of wood dowels and copper pipe fittings. Use our plan (see top of page) or create your own design. You will need different length wood dowels, 3-, 4-, and 5-way copper pipe connectors and caps. Construct a frame and cover with some blankets. Voila! You have created some sound separation, and a little architecture fort.

Retreating to separate bedrooms is an obvious solution for students who don’t require consistent oversight from their “teachers”. Many kids’ rooms have a perfectly good desk, but they still prefer to study on their bed. It’s hard not to think about the bad posture habits this is creating, but props like poofs and floor pillows can help reduce neck strain.

Try and keep them sitting up if possible and make sure there is the right amount of light and air to keep your student alert. [Yawn.] As we all know, laying down in bed to read or work on the computer can be easily derailed by a nap. Allow students to be comfy—just not too comfy.
Every parent is realizing the imperatives of organization. For older students, making the most of small desks filled with materials and devices requires getting control of the clutter. For younger students, having bins for supplies and materials helps mom and dad, too. Kids can be more independent (allowing parents the autonomy to do their own work) when they don’t have to ask where things are or for a parent to get stuff down for them.

With learning mostly taking place online, having something physical like a white board, glass door or window can help kids manage their assignments and deadlines–or even just a place to be creative.

In California, we are about half-way through our learning-from-home stint for this school year. Whatever spaces you have created, look for opportunities to make little changes that can make a big improvement. Is there good light … or the possibility for a view? Are the students comfortable, e.g. good chair, table? Are the materials are comfortable to the touch? Is there airflow? Is the temperature comfortable — not too hot or cold? And lastly, do they have the right tools to learn?

If this inspires you to retool your kids’ learning spaces, I’d love to see! Share your before and after pictures on Instagram and use the hashtag #AtHomeLearningTips. Good luck!