- Forest Park Elementary School
Collaborative Efforts Transform School Environments into Dynamic Learning Spaces
September 28, 2023 – Peek into a Hamilton STEM Academy classroom, and you may find a few students sprawled out on soft furniture reading a book, one bouncing in a Chose to Move chair as the student vigorously writes down answers to math problems, or some on brightly colored floor rockers listening intently to their teacher. It may be a bit more chaotic-looking than every child sitting ‘criss-cross applesauce’ on the carpet with their eyes and ears on the teacher, but they are engaged and learning.
Every need, child, and school is different, and everything inside a school affects a student's flow and day-to-day experience. So, what is needed for a positive learning environment?
After working closely with staff, teachers, and even students, the Capital Improvements Department determined that flexibility was at the top of that list.
“We received feedback from District staff and leadership,” said Project Manager Annslee Stevenson. “The focus was mainly on flexibility. We wanted pieces and parts that teachers could take and create whatever environment they like in their room to support their style of teaching and fit their curriculum.”
When considering a flexible classroom, teachers wanted something as differentiated for students as their lesson plans. Flexible seating - the ability to allow and provide multiple seating options for students - is encouraged by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), as it can help provide students with the ability to regulate intense emotions.
To best suit classroom learning, each piece of classroom furniture should be small enough for a teacher to move quickly. Most newer classroom furniture for middle and high schools has casters on the bottom, so it's easier to move. At Hamilton STEM, mounted objects, such as outdated slate chalkboards, were removed, allowing greater flexibility. Moveable TVs that can go anywhere were installed, complete with an interactive tablet students can use for a hands-on learning experience.
Tekiera Watters, P.E.A.K. (Positive Efforts for Advancement & Knowledge), Instructional Assistant at Hamilton STEM Academy, said having different furniture can help give students an equitable classroom experience.
“Stimming is a coping mechanism kids use when they are nervous, anxious, or uncomfortable,” Watters explains. “They are repetitive motions kids use when dealing with emotions. Things like tapping all fingers in a rhythmic pattern or rocking back or forth are examples of stimming. When students are stimming, flexible seats such as a floor rocker [or Choose to Move chair] provide them a safe way to keep calm and help them regulate themselves instead of using a dangerous way, and they get hurt or annoy their peers.”
Watters believes allowing children to self-regulate in a way that is acceptable in the classroom helps everyone focus and creates a better learning environment. Watters states that once a child uses the flexible seating and their nervous system calms down, the student will no longer be in a ‘flight or fight mode’ and can be more attentive and concentrate better in class. Hamilton STEM Academy has flexible seating options in every classroom to assist with this calming technique.
According to educational material provided on ODE’s website, flexible seating has many additional benefits, including giving students the power of choice, building a sense of community, fulfilling sensory needs, and increasing physical health.
Hamilton STEM’s flexible furniture does not stop with its chairs. For students who dislike being touched, bumping elbows multiple times while trying to write an essay is uncomfortable and could escalate quickly. To help provide personal space to those students, Hamilton STEM traded their traditional rectangular desks for hexagon-style desks, providing a separate space with more surface area. Students are no longer likely to accidentally touch someone directly next to them and can sit closer to their peers.
“There is less disruption about invading space,” Watters said. “When kids are learning more about themselves and who they are - their own defined space is something they crave, and the new desks provide it.”
A pull-out tote fits neatly under each desk, which slides out to fit on a big mailcart located at the front. These new totes keep students and teachers organized and hold students accountable and responsible for completing work. Knowing their belongings are safe in totes and individual cubbies keeps many students at ease and allows them to worry less throughout the day.
“We worked pretty closely with Hamilton STEM staff to come up with that layout of the built-in casework you see in the classrooms,” Stevenson said. “Staff were adamant that a closed door on cubbies would make students feel more secure about their items.”
It paid off because Hamilton STEM educators, like Watters, have noticed a big change in students normally worried and anxious about their personal belongings.
“We have a lot of curious minds that like tactile stimulation, but we have other students who are very particular about their things and do not want them touched,” Watters said. “Therefore, having a wall of cubbies helps to ease anxious students who are worried about their personal items. This allows students to be able to focus more on learning.”
Also helping students stay focused is a new classroom sound system, which is a welcome addition for students who may have difficulty hearing. The sound system produces even sound throughout the classroom no matter where a student is seated, allowing a teacher to sound the same anywhere in the classroom without raising their voice or project. Finishing touches such as color-coded hallway wings by grade level help learners of English as a Second Language (ESL).
Beyond Hamilton STEM, there have been many playground and cafeteria learning environment improvements in other buildings across the District.
“Most of the Pre-K programs wanted some kind of sensory play as part of their playgrounds,” Stevenson said. “There are three or four musical components we added as freestanding pieces next to those Pre-K sets. We added drums and chimes so they can have that sensory play experience in addition to typical playground play.”
Other elementary schools were provided with new playground equipment, emphasizing choice for their students. They received a variety of swings, slides, ropes for climbing, monkey bars, and different play types in one composite playground. Not only can the set support multiple types of students, but whatever type of play young students want to engage in, they can find on that set.
Choice was also at the forefront of the newly updated middle school cafeterias. Capital Improvements met with students in a student engagement session to get feedback on cafeteria furnishings.
Not only do students have new furnishings that one would see in such spaces as a restaurant or library, but they decided what goes in them. The hope is they feel more responsible for keeping it looking as new as it did on day one.
With staff and student feedback at the forefront, CCS is excited at the possibilities for creating future equitable learning spaces. Using schools like Hamilton STEM as a model, CCS can increase positive learning environments at all schools and improve the building experience for students and staff.