It’s easy to accept the idea that children who attend clean, well-maintained schools have an easier time succeeding than those who don’t. But do the environments teachers create in their classrooms have an impact on their students’ ability to learn?
The research says they can. According to Dr. Sheryl Reinisch, director of Early Childhood Education Programs at Concordia University-Portland, studies indicate that high-quality classroom environments “help children feel safe, secure, and valued. As a result, self-esteem increases and students are motivated to engage in the learning process.”
The living room effect: ‘When I’m relaxed, I’m more ready to learn’
Dr. Reinisch cites a study of 25 first-graders whose classroom was revamped over a period of four months to include appealing elements such as comfortable reading spaces, fish, plants and displays of student artwork. The children’s reactions were recorded through interviews, student journals and observations.
The first-graders expressed ownership and pride at their artwork being included in the classroom decor, and their journals, comments and drawings expressed appreciation for the aesthetic additions to their environment.
Students in the study said that being comfortable helped them feel at home in their classroom, which in turn helped them learn. Quotes included:
“I feel relaxed. When I’m relaxed I’m more ready to learn.”
“It’s like a little living room when the plants are here.”
“Up here [in the reading loft] makes me learn because I read and it’s comfortable reading here.”
How important is a comfortable classroom?
Of the elements teachers might consider adding to their classrooms, which ones are the most important to student success? Reinisch notes another study in which 775 students identified “comfort” as “most necessary” in their classroom. The students, who ranged from fourth to eighth grade, also correlated the following elements to a good learning environment:
- A clean classroom
- Artwork and wall decorations
- A classroom pet
Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail:
Because children have an almost infinite capacity for making messes and spreading germs, it’s incumbent on teachers to tackle cleanliness issues head-on. A few things to keep in mind:
- Spills should be reported to the maintenance staff immediately to prevent mold and bacteria from taking on a life of their own.
- Kids should be schooled in sanitation, washing their hands after potty breaks, using hand sanitizer and avoiding hand-to-hand contact when they have colds and the flu.
- Never let your own work pile up and clutter your desk or any areas of the classroom. Clutter makes it that much harder to get through your lessons efficiently.
- Always tidy up before you leave for the day.
Artwork and wall decorations
Decorating school walls with children’s artwork is as old as school itself. Suggestions for classroom art:
- With an eye toward keeping the room clean, save the glue, scissors and glitter for special occasions and make sure you account for the time required to get the room back in order before the end of the school day. Kids can work wonders with a few crayons and pencils.
- The Internet has become a vast trove of ideas for classroom art projects. The image-sharing site Pinterest is a particularly rich resource.
- Because there are no limits on what you can do with art in your classroom, it’s easier on your brain to keep it simple: connect artwork to lessons, current events, holidays and such.
A classroom pet
Hamsters, bunnies and aquarium fish have much to teach us about behavior, diet and socialization. Pets also fuel children’s natural fascination with animals, so they naturally enhance the classroom environment. Of course, animals also can carry diseases and spread allergens, so you have to keep a few things in mind before bringing critters to class:
- Does your school have plan for pets in place? If not, a handy brochure from the department of public health in Columbus, Ohio, offers excellent guidance on having pets in the classroom.
- Do you have a way to inform parents of any pets that will be in a classroom, in case your students have allergies or phobias?
- As the teacher, are you comfortable with being responsible for the keeping the pets fed, preventing students from harming the animals and preventing the animals from harming students?
Note that pets should not be in the class for fun; they should be brought in only to advance the learning objectives of your class.
Helping youngsters feel at ease
For young children, classroom and educational design needs to take into consideration the wide range of different home backgrounds and lifestyles while introducing them to the school environment for the first time. Edudemic has some tips on how to help young children feel safe and more at ease in the classroom:
- Have group activities where children are encouraged to decorate the classroom together.
- Install a large bulletin board and encourage student to bring photos of their family and pets to pin on the board. Children should also be encouraged to bring and share items of cultural significance to display.
- Hold an orientation early in the school year where parents are invited to the classroom. This will serve as an icebreaker and help the classroom environment feel less strange.
Keys to making school comfortable
Teachers aren’t the only ones who can improve the classroom environment. Administrators and school boards can do their part by investing in more aesthetically supportive schools.
Prakash Nair, author of “The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools,” has developed a host of ways that schools can make their classrooms more comfortable. The noted school designer and educational aesthetics expert suggests:
- Clearing the air: Cleaner, fresher air improves the lives of children with asthma and allergies, and improves livability for the whole class.
- Reducing the racket: Noisy bells, buzzers and even loud air conditioners can make life miserable in a classroom.
- Minding their emotions: Kids learn more effectively in an environment that provides emotional support and avoids emotional upset.
A commenter on Nair’s post noted: “I was surprised by responses to a survey I gave to middle-schoolers two years ago. I just assumed that they would want fewer punishments, no homework, more respect etc., but what they wanted most were comfy chairs. The students even suggested that they be allowed to make or decorate seat cushions.”
Doing your part to make classrooms more welcoming
The evidence appears to show that small changes can make a big difference in classroom environments. Teachers who include cleanup time in their classroom management or create something as simple as a space to display students’ art can help students feel empowered to learn.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- "Safely Caring for Animals in the Classroom ," Columbus Public Health
- Prakash Nair, Randall Fielding, "A Comfortable Truth: Well-Planned Classrooms Make a Difference," Edutopia
- Kandace Heller, "5 Ways to Make News Students Comfortable in the Classroom," Edudemic