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September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Design Matters: How School Environment Affects Children

The architecture and design of a school can help create a supportive, respectful environment for learning.

Last week, a former student, now a college freshman, stopped by school to visit his 2nd grade sister's classroom. As we chatted briefly in the hallway about how the school looked smaller to him now, I asked if he knew which was Connie's classroom. He smiled knowingly, pointed down the main hallway, and said, "The room with the yellow door—how could I forget?" His smile reminded me that he, too, had been in that same classroom as a 2nd grader. It also reminded me how important it is at that young age to be saved from peer embarrassment by being able to recognize, with confidence, which classroom door to enter each morning.
This simple idea—painting the doors in primary colors so that students feel secure in remembering their classroom location—illustrates what a school building can communicate to students. The organization of space has a profound effect on learning. Students feel better connected to a building that anticipates their needs and respects them as individuals.

Respectful Space

We might intuitively suppose that the layout of schools and classrooms affects student learning. In recent years, educators, architects, and researchers have found that the design of classrooms also influences students' behavior. In a paper delivered at the 1990 First National Invitational Conference for Architects and Educators, James Banning, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, quoted Winston Churchill: "We shape our buildings and they shape us" (p. 20). The belief that the physical environment has an impact on students' behavior is clearly grounded in empirical evidence and is not just "folklore," Banning concluded.
The look and feel of a school matter to children and are deeply connected to their attitudes and behavior. Children's self-esteem, sense of belonging, and ambivalent needs both for control over their world and for boundaries to guide that control can be shaped through the thoughtful design of the school and classroom environments. When children experience a school obviously designed with their needs in mind, they notice it and demonstrate a more natural disposition toward respectful behavior and a willingness to contribute to the classroom community. I am lucky to be principal of just this kind of school.

Crow Island School

Now 58 years old, Crow Island School in Winnetka,Illinois, has been widely recognized for its architecture. Designed by Finnish architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen and the Chicago firm of Perkins and Will, Crow Island School won the American Institute of Architects' prestigious 25 Year Award in 1971. In 1990, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated Crow Island a national landmark. From the school's beginnings, our planners saw childhood as a period of life in which learning, and the joy it affords, is a central goal. This thoughtfully designed environment has succeeded in responding to the changing educational needs of successive generations of children. But the fundamental design philosophy, child development as a personal quest, has remained over time.
Specific features of the Crow Island design promote respectful behavior, enhance learning, and honor children. The lower than usual classroom ceilings create an intimate space suitable for small children. Two windowed walls in every classroom invite the outdoors inside. Each classroom has an exterior door leading to a courtyard, so students may observe their plantings or simply rest for a moment. Classrooms are L-shaped and include adjacent workrooms to facilitate large block designs, science centers, and ongoing projects or to serve as a technology center in the intermediate-level classrooms. And for more than 50 years, teachers have stapled students' work right into the classroom walls of ponderosa pine.
Wide hallways give students personal space to move about the building throughout the day. Skylights bring additional natural light into the hallways, which students can use as work areas when needed. For example, while 1st graders are painting large murals in the hallways, other classes have sufficient space to pass through.
Finally, public areas are designed to foster a sense of community, cooperation, and comfort throughout the building. The auditorium, amphitheater, and resource center develop a homey environment for students to collaborate or to work alone. The resource center lofts, the built-in window seats in the classrooms, and the classroom workrooms create an atmosphere of comfort and excitement for learning.

Everything Within Reach

In fall 1990, the celebration of Crow Island's 50th anniversary provided a unique opportunity to collect adults' reflections on their experiences as students in this innovative building. More than 400 alumni responded to a questionnaire asking them to offer memories of their time at Crow Island. With striking repetition, these former students recalled vignettes that highlight the importance of physical space and its connection to their early school memories.
A former student recalled, for example, "The light switches were at my level and the auditorium had benches, starting with the little ones in front. . . . Everything was within my reach." Another remembered, "The seats in the auditorium fit me. My feet could touch the floor, and this is important when you feel small." They appreciated the scaled-down design, the openness of two walls of windows, and the convenience of a bathroom in every classroom. One alum noted, "The huge windows and the wooded view stimulated imagination and creativity. . . . I first learned to ask 'how' and 'why' at Crow Island School, and I'm still doing it." Another former student recalled that he "liked not having to raise my hand and walk down a hallway when I had to go to the bathroom."
Crow Island School also has three separate age-level playgrounds so that students feel safe in their play area and have the confidence to take risks in acquiring new skills, without the intrusion of an older and possibly less sympathetic student. A former student remembered that on the playground "kids were my size and I felt safe."

Building Imagination

These alumni recollections show that the architects and educators who collaborated in the building design succeeded in communicating important values to children. The designers' primary goal was to convey respect to those who use the building. The school's scaled-down design—its shortened front steps and lowered light switches and door handles, for example—gives students a feeling of autonomy. The actual site of the building, adjacent to a wooded area, stimulates their imagination. And the designation of workroom space invites student experimentation.
Issues of space, accessibility, innovative design, and thoughtful planning continue to be valued at Crow Island School as we look ahead to our students' education for years to come. Recently, we added outdoor benches and worktables to many classroom courtyards, where students and teachers can gather just outside their classroom door.
As school enrollments grow, educators will need to reorganize current school spaces and plan future school buildings. School leaders must be deliberate and thoughtful in considering the effects of space on learning. By focusing on the enduring qualities of childhood, we can create buildings that respond to a larger vision of school and its place in the community.
End Notes

1 Banning, J. (1990). The connection between learning and the learning environment. In E. Hebert & A. Meek (Eds.), Children learning and school design: A first national invitational conference for architects and educators. Winnetka, Ill.: Winnetka Public Schools.

Elizabeth A. Hebert has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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