In the spirit of the Victorian educationalist Charlotte Mason, the team at Eton End prep in Datchet near Windsor is actively engaged in educational research and understanding the neuroscience behind learning and child development.
And we are one of the first schools in the South East of England and one of only a handful in the UK to unveil a radical new whole school re-design of our classroom layout, putting children’s needs firmly at the heart of the learning experience.
Our new “calm classrooms” are a complete change from traditional school classrooms. They have been designed and created by a team of professional child therapists, based on research which shows that children learn best in a calm, comfortable environment where they are not surrounded by noise, bright colours and harsh lighting.
The emphasis of the new design is on neutral colours, comfortable seating, ambient lighting and a feeling of space.
“Children learn best in a calm, comfortable environment where they are not surrounded by noise.”
The redesign has come about following an initial project in the nursery. In October 2022, we refitted the nursery and reception classes using beautifully crafted wooden furniture from Community Playthings.
This alone made a huge impact on the learning space, but it was also accompanied by stripping out the bright colours traditionally associated with early years spaces and replacing them with muted tones and soft furnishings.
As much as possible, the team used natural tones and rustic materials to create a calm learning environment. The impact on the children was immediate – they were calmer, engaged with their play and learning for more sustained periods. Plus, levels of conversation and interactions with the EYFS practitioners increased.
In the Reception classrooms, teachers noticed less fidgeting during carpet time and small group work. Interestingly, the children also started using quieter voices and while they were totally engrossed in their play and directed work, they were less frenetic in their endeavours.
“Few of us would set up our own work environment with a hard chair and limited personal space.”
This led me and the team to look more closely at the learning environments across the school and in particular the classroom set up and furnishings. We asked the key question “Does the traditional classroom environment offer the best opportunities for children in 2023 to learn and succeed?”
Research is telling educators at every turn that for children to take on new learning we need to reduce the cognitive load and give their brains a chance to forge new connections and to focus on the core learning in hand.
The cultural norm of brightly coloured display boards and prompts all around the rooms may be contributing to some of this cognitive and sensory overload. In addition to this, the traditional classroom with plastic chairs and rectangular tables is not particularly physically comfortable, especially when we consider children occupy them for up to 7 hours a day, 5 days a week.
Very few of us would consider setting up our own working spaces with a hard chair and limited personal space, yet the style of classrooms and the furniture inside has never really deviated from this model.
More children than ever are finding they need extra support in many areas of their lives, whether this manifests as anxiety, friendship struggles, or simply the pressure of doing well to make their parents proud. There is undoubtedly an increased level of need for emotional support in our schools from counsellors, ELSAs and the wider pastoral teams.
“Children will always achieve their best when they have a sense of emotional and psychological safety.”
What the science tells us is that when children are under emotional stress, something that can occur for many reasons from a difficult start to the day, lack of sleep or something more significant like a family breakdown or bereavement, their rational brains are unable to take on new learning or to regulate their feelings. Walking into a bright, busy classroom can amplify these feelings and impact on their ability to learn effectively.
Designed with a team of professional child therapists, the calm classrooms are decorated in neutral colours, with comfortable seating, ambient lighting and a feeling of space. Inclusive and supportive of mental health and wellbeing, work is celebrated in a unique way through scrapbooks or frames on the wall.
Round tables support collaboration and interaction, replicating the world outside the school building that we are preparing our children to enter. Classrooms all have an area where the children can relax, read, and self-regulate.
Children will always achieve their best when they have a sense of emotional and psychological safety as well as being physically comfortable. Our school classroom design and furnishings have not really changed much for centuries. It is time to stop, think about the world beyond the school gates and create environments which inspire and support pupils to develop the skills they need.
To find out more about Eton End School, visit http://www.etonend.org.uk/