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Design for Success: 5 Tips & Tricks to Effective Elementary Classroom Design

That powerhouse classroom, you know the one: desks lined in neat rows, learning stations orderly, posters and student work nicely displayed. You can feel the knowledge seeping into your brain by simply stepping into the classroom. It’s no accident.

Effective classroom design isn’t just about being orderly; it’s about creating an environment that maximizes the learning experience. We spoke to three veteran K–5 teachers and gathered their top five tips for great classroom design.

1. Define Spaces

Careful design helps students focus on the activity at hand instead of becoming distracted. Evaluate your needs throughout the day and make sure the different classroom areas and sizes make sense. “There should be space for small groups to work together, for the whole group to work together and for an individual to work alone,” says Jeff Kurtz, third-grade teacher at Black Diamond Elementary School in Black Diamond, WA.

Lack of careful planning can create a maze of ineffective, hard-to-reach spaces. Use layout to clearly define which activities should take place where. Consider furniture that sets the tone for the learning area: tables and chairs for small group collaboration, bookshelves and bean bag chairs for the classroom library, and so on.

“For young children, I find a rug designated for certain activities is helpful,” says Kathryn Satterfield, second-grade teacher at Chapin Elementary School in Chapin, SC. “When we gather for a read-aloud, I call the students to our ‘magic carpet.’ It excites them.” You can also use rugs to designate high-activity areas for indoor playtime.

2. Remember Your Audience

Children see the world from an entirely different perspective — literally. That’s why Kurtz suggests getting input from the kids about where to locate frequently used supplies, and then considering that when setting up stations, especially for arts and crafts. “The more things they can access on their own, the less they need to rely on the teacher to help them,” says Kurtz.

Look for organizers made of durable, easy-to-clean materials, and use shelving and tables that are easy for kids to reach.

3. Make It Functional

Determine your focal points when setting up desks and other work areas. Big focal points like SMART Boards or whiteboards should be positioned so they’re viewable by all the students at once. Make sure a small group workspace isn’t distracting to the individual space next to it.

“One year I put our group meeting space right next to the shelves full of books,” recalls Kurtz. “It looked cute, but the kids would often look at the books instead of paying attention to me.”

4. Take Advantage of Blank Walls

What’s better than a blank canvas to build a roadmap for learning? Four blank canvases — that’s what! Invest in posters and pocket charts to act as billboards for the different subjects and students’ own work.

Satterfield suggests posters that cover topics like time charts, money charts, writing rules, Roman numerals, skip-counting, etc. Kurtz likes to post models and samples of students’ work. “This highlights the fact that it’s their room, too,” he says. “And it reinforces that what they do is important.”

5. Use a Theme

Before heading out on a shopping spree, create a theme for your classroom décor. You can even incorporate that theme into your overall lesson planning whenever possible. “Having a classroom theme helps create a fun learning environment that makes students excited to come to school,” explains Mindy Zaidman, special educator at Public School 251Q in Queens, NY. “This year I had the classroom theme of a safari. The borders were animal print, and I have a tree of ‘treemendous work.’”

You can even have your class vote for a slogan that goes with your theme. It’s fun, and a great morale builder, too! Zaidman’s class slogan: “We are on a safari for success!”

When creating a classroom optimized for learning, remember the old adage “form follows function.” Use these tips to create an engaging and educational environment that will inspire students.

The daughter and granddaughter of teachers, Carolyn Evans saw early on that the education profession required unwavering dedication and countless hours of work. She currently serves on the School Improvement Council for Chapin Elementary and volunteers regularly. Follow Carolyn on Google+.

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