Students at the Centre of Designing School Spaces for Wellbeing and Learning

Designing school spaces involves pragmatic decisions about how to support students to engage in their learning. Spaces also communicate symbolic messages about who or what is valued, and political messages about who gets to make decisions. When students are asked what kind of school they would like, the messages are consistent and clear:

 “I like school. I want my school to be open, so like nature’s everywhere. I want it to be exciting and motivating. [I ‘d like] a slide and a bench to sit on to socialize. Make it a healthy and active environment”


Students want school spaces that are fun and colourful, where they can play and move, but also where they can relax and have quiet to think. Instead of noisy, stuffy, crowded classrooms that are dark and have funny smells, they want to have space to spread out with fresh air and light and opportunity to be connected to nature and to animals. Sustainability and adventure are important, as are opportunities to feel supported and safe.


How do we know? This is the message of the many research projects reported in our new book School Spaces for Student Wellbeing and Learning : Insights from Research and Practice.

The students desired spaces that gave them the flexibility to be independent and collaborative learners who can be active and creative, and who can make choices and contribute to a socially connected community. This type of learning is a world away from the type envisaged in traditional school classroom designs that aimed to minimize activity to maintain classroom discipline (ch 4, Mallan, p. 61).


Yet classrooms of individuals facing the front of a room while seated at a desk are still the experience of many students today. This is despite ambitious goals for students to become creative, active and capable learners who can flourish within a democracy being outlined in the 2008 Melbourne Declaration.

Some educational systems, schools and tertiary settings have responded to these goals with a significant investment in flexible learning spaces, or Next Generation Learning Environments. These designs have often been driven by digital renovations, and a belief that changing a space will inevitably change teacher and learner behavior. A deterministic approach – if we build it the learning will change – does not automatically lead to the desired outcomes. Achieving the most out of innovatively designed spaces, whether they are small corners, classrooms, gardens or whole sites, involves understanding that capability emerges from an ongoing mediation between the space and the people within them.

This book provides rich case studies and challenging ideas that can prompt teachers, leaders, architects and builders to consider new ways to bring learning, wellbeing and school spaces into meaningful alignment.

Three of the big ideas in the book that take this field of research further include:

1. The importance of student voice in designing spaces:

Students in early childhood, primary and secondary school settings enjoyed providing critical and creative insights into their school spaces. The book identifies a range of ideas from students as well as methodologies to involve students.

The junior secondary precinct of Cannon Hill Anglican College was co-designed with student input. Use of writable walls and flexible furnishing was extended throughout other parts of the school based on student evaluative surveys and evidence of use (Photo: Anne Andrew in ch 11 Nastrom-Smith & Hughes, p. 209).


In interviews prompted by drawings, student led tours and card sorts, students evaluated Library spaces built as part of the Building Education Revolution, and Year 7 spaces as part of their transition to high school. They pointed out that tables on wheels are a nuisance if the rooms are too small to reconfigure the furniture or users haven’t been taught how to undo the brakes, and if they can’t be flipped up out of the way to enable the space to be used in multiple ways such as a drama performance (Willis et al, p. 126). Students’ had ideas for more artwork around the school and how to make corridors and playgrounds safer, as well as a desire for play equipment in secondary (Hughes et al, p. 116).

2. Universal design considers students with heightened sensory needs

Flexible and colourful learning spaces can create problems for learners where there has not been any orientation or opportunity to establish shared routines around the design. It can cause greater angst for those students who have difficulty with social interactions and find collaboration more challenging than others, or who have heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli or to change. Sensory overload, for example, can lead to anxiety and maladaptive behaviours for students on the autism spectrum. In their chapter, Saggers and Ashburner highlight a range of design considerations that can directly enhance the suitability of learning spaces for these students, benefitting many other students and teachers as well. Some ideas include:
• Temperature regulation
• No overcrowding
• Halogen lights rather than flickering fluorescent lighting
• Sound absorbing materials
• Movement breaks
• Whole class routines for structured turn taking, and
• Giving students some control over sensory input.

Many of these solutions are low cost and able to be quickly adopted by a classroom teacher. Others involve thoughtful selection at the design and build stage.

Ch 8. Principles involved optimising the learning space for students on the spectrum (Saggers & Ashburner, p. 144)


3. Student wellbeing is an essential aspect of learning, and not a side issue.

Increased signs of distress in students from anxiety and mental health concerns has prompted worldwide renewed interest in student wellbeing. We propose learning space design as a salutogenic wellbeing approach; that is, it is proactive, considers the wellbeing of the whole person and is based on enhancing a person’s sense of capabilities. In the final chapter of the book, Professor Jill Franz, brings together a powerful theoretical model from multiple research fields and the range of evidence in this book. She provokes us towards a better understanding of what can be done in a school community to make spaces more comprehensible, manageable and meaningful for students and teachers.

How do learning spaces impact on wellbeing?

Wellbeing is embedded into learning, as learning is an embodied experience. All through the book are stories from teachers and students and researchers about the many positive relationships between learning, spaces and wellbeing. For example, new patterns of sustained, slower and more adventurous play, and fewer behavior problems were reported by early years learners in their new sensory playground (Kucks & Hughes, p. 234). School gardens, kitchens and multimedia spaces made the purpose of holistic learning and the student achievements tangible and visible in the UK Open Futures schools (Woolner & Tiplady p. 171). The aspects of school spaces that students find troubling or overwhelming are also identified in the book, alongside critiques of how school spaces can be reimagined as beneficially risky spaces. Multiple methodologies for participatory design are also described and illustrated.

There are lots of ideas to put into practice, but just as many ideas raised for more research. If you are interested in being involved in future research into student voice, wellbeing or engaging learning spaces, the researchers at SELB would love to hear from you.

Jill Willis, Hilary Hughes, Jill Franz (editors and SELB members).

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