Elizabeth Hyde of PLASTARC shares research-backed tips for leveraging space, design, and organizational systems to better meet kids’ needs.
The current era of widespread distributed working has revealed much about us to us, both individually and as a society. Meanwhile, we’ve grown accustomed to spending copious amounts of time at home in set-ups of our own design. Through these experiences, we’ve discovered the upsides of daily flexibility, including the unprecedented degree of control we could suddenly exert over our built environments during business hours. For some, leaps in productivity ensued. For others, an intersecting (and sometimes, interfering) variable garnered increased attention. That’s right, we’re talking about kids.
There’s no doubt that adapting to virtual and hybrid school models comes with a learning curve for parents and students alike. And yet, it turns out the key to our children’s success in operating remotely is not all that different from our own: it hinges upon a sense of ownership—first, over one’s immediate space, and by extension, as it relates to one’s educational trajectory.
In collaboration with Professor Peter Barrett, an expert on the relationship between the physical design of classrooms and academic progress, we at PLASTARC have compiled what some might call a crash course on the subject. While we won’t be handing out letter grades, we hope the real-world applicability of the teachings ahead is motivation enough to lean into that learner’s mindset!
Crack open a textbook and you might come across the term biophilia. It refers to human’s innate tendency to seek connection with nature and other forms of life. Studies show that honoring this basic need has a positive influence on satisfaction, wellness, and performance, even when we remain indoors.
Lesson summary: Curate surroundings for the presence of natural, healthy elements.
1. Maximize Daylight.
Confirm that furniture is not obstructing windows and anticipate issues with glare by installing curtains or blinds for shading. With seasonal variation around the sun’s rising and setting, consider investing in some new fixtures to help your learner’s circadian rhythms sync up accordingly. This could take the form of a “smart” alarm clock to ease the strain of early morning wakeups or a dimmable lamp with a blue, high-Kelvin bulb to prevent squinting while finishing homework in the evening.
2. Invite in Fresh Air.
Ensure adequate ventilation by leaving windows open or else relying on fan circulation. It’s also worth urging your child to engage in deep breathing exercises to reduce stress, boost alertness, and ward off drowsiness during long video sessions. You won’t always be available to prompt these restorative pauses firsthand, which is where environmental cues come in—a quirky pillow or prescriptive imagery can nudge them for you.
3. Regulate the temperature.
Here, the goal is “cool but comfortable.” If possible, experiment with the thermostat together. If not, aid kids in reaching their own state of homeostasis by wearing buildable layers of clothing, keeping a blanket nearby, or placing a glass of water within arms’ reach before class gets underway. Just remember—overly cozy might be a problem!
4. Liven it up.
Don’t underestimate the benefits of bringing living things into the mix. For a low-maintenance approach, introduce some greenery with houseplants or a potted flower. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you might allow a pet to keep your child company to foster affiliative emotions while apart from peers. Teacher policies as well as the energy levels and noise thresholds of those involved will dictate the feasibility of this last tactic.
Having the right systems in place can bring order to the everyday chaos parenting entails. To begin, call a family meeting and let it serve as a forum for each member to articulate their priorities and responsibilities. Pinpoint any tensions or conflicts before soliciting kids’ participation in coming up with solutions. Why? Research shows that harnessing young people’s problem-solving capacities to address their own challenges reinforces a sense of self-efficacy—and that is critical to thriving in and out of school.
Lesson summary: Formalize routines and rules to add structure to the household.
5. Model time and information management.
Try gathering education-related details into one place where they can be readily absorbed. Though schools likely communicate via online portals or over email, you can still pull out an old-fashioned whiteboard or upgrade to an electronic equivalent for tracking purposes. Transfer over calendar events and assignment lists so that everyone can see them prior to planning complementary time and space allocation. This is also the moment to take into account your work commitments and where they fit in.
6. Align around an enforceable schedule.
In advance of this, mentally revisit habits that may have fallen by the wayside and ask whether they could add value if reintroduced. Some straightforward recommendations for morning rituals include: insist everyone get dressed in real clothes, portion out nutritious grab-and-go snacks, stock backpacks for ready mobility, and instate a faux commute to kickstart the day even when staying home.
7. Benefit from breaks.
There must be agreement around sanctioned behaviors between classes. Are these periods in which children can squeeze in some exercise? Practice an instrument? Socialize with friends? If so, what boundaries need to be articulated so that no one’s flow—or meeting—gets interrupted?
8. Set expectations re technology.
Deciding where and when devices make an appearance should be a topic of ongoing discussion. For those in search of inspiration, the Internet provides many ideas for parsing the day with categories of approved activities, screen-based and otherwise.
The ideal learning environment will vary depending on students’ ages and stages of development. The younger set will require less autonomy but a wider range of zones, especially if art or play is a core component of instruction. Older students, by contrast, may prefer to settle into a single, dedicated spot for lengthier stretches.
Lesson summary: Select the appropriate degrees of choice and customization for study set-ups.
9. Attend to ergonomics.
Whether at-home workstations are temporary or permanent, they must be designed around furniture and equipment that caters to the user’s musculoskeletal demands. To start, everybody should be seated in front of a steady surface, such as a countertop, desk, or table. Repurposed and makeshift versions are welcomed! From there, teach kids to facilitate their own comfort by testing out a height-adjustable chair, placing back cushions for lumbar support and improved posture, or sliding something underneath their feet to stop them from dangling.
10. Signal heads-down time.
It’s critical to build in features that convey: This is a designated study area—separate from where we partake in other pursuits, like eating, sleeping, or relaxing. If class must occur in a common space, a semi-private nook can be crafted using whatever is on hand as a dividing screen. At the conclusion of the school day, identify symbols of work (e.g., a favorite pencil case, a place mat for writing) and tuck them away to mark the psychological transition.
11. Switch spaces.
For those craving a change of scenery with minimal hassle, give some thought as to whether siblings can periodically alternate where they’re situated. In this case, they can leave office supplies (but not clutter) behind rather than schlepping gear to and from.
12. Promote individuality.
Encourage children to express their uniqueness through casual updates to decor. Looking for examples to get you going? Incorporate inviting colors, pin up personal art, or simply display possessions that spark joy. The line between energizing and distracting is a fine one, so don’t forget to manage visual complexity—aim to arrive at a result that is mood-enhancing but not overstimulating.
It’s been said that the most effective way to master content is to teach it. While children will likely require assistance with the initial implementation of these strategies, you will both internalize them better by offering the rationale behind each step in the process. In other words, treat this guide like instructional material! Then, inquire as to whether your student might advise siblings or friends on how to optimize their learning environments, drawing on these principles, as a true test of understanding. After all, the objective ought to be to prepare ourselves and our kids to pivot at a moment’s notice by leveraging existing resources, quantifying our needs, and laying the infrastructure for a built environment that can rise to meet them.