Designing school spaces for wellbeing and learning

By Judy Bruce

Thoughtful design can impact positively on wellbeing. A growing number of ākonga are anxious and disengaged at school, and this is especially true for ākonga as they transition from primary to secondary schools. How might design of school spaces enhance wellbeing and learning?

The majority of schools in New Zealand have been or will undergo significant building projects, and subsequent change. However, little is really known about school design and links to wellbeing and learning, both nationally and internationally. 

In this article we seek to learn more about this through an exploration of recently published research in the book, School Spaces for Student Wellbeing and Learning: Insights from Research and Practice (Eds.Hilary Hughes, Jill Franz, Jill Willis). The aim of this book was to raise awareness of the relationships between learning spaces and ākonga wellbeing.

Wellbeing, learning and engagement are inextricably linked. Wellbeing and engagement in school are of upmost concern to us as educators in this challenging season. In particular, we know that the time of transition for ākonga moving from primary to secondary school settings is especially challenging for many. If young people don’t transition well, consequent wellbeing issues that arise can negatively impact on attendance, engagement and learning outcomes.

In this article we highlight one of the chapters from the book, School Spaces for Student Wellbeing and Learning: Insights from Research and Practice. The chapter explores school space, student transition and ākonga wellbeing. It is hoped that by understanding what is important for ākonga transitioning from primary to secondary spaces, we might be better able to design schools that foster wellbeing and learning. 

Through a qualitative case study in schools, it was found that Year 7 students attending secondary school prefer: 

– their designated home area where they feel supported and they also want the opportunity to explore the school safely

– need fresh air and outdoor spaces to run and play

– gravitate towards informal spaces, such as handball courts and gardens

– use the library for relaxation and quiet time alone or with friends, and

– feel intimidated and unsafe among older students in interstitial spaces, such as pathways and stairwells, and in crowded areas. 

Image by: Unsplash Spikeball

Linking specific aspects of wellbeing to design, it was found that: 

For social and emotional wellbeing: create spaces where ākonga can hang out with and feel safe around friends and have fun; where ākonga feel happy and relaxed. Create spaces where ākonga can be active and playful in different ways, including: playing games, running around, handball, dancing and singing, skipping, chalk drawing and having lunch. 

For psychological wellbeing and safety: create private, quiet spaces where ākonga can be by themselves; spaces that are familiar; and spaces where ākonga feel safe and able to walk, sit and play freely away from intimidating older ākonga, and are protected from traffic, with supportive kaiako nearby.

For physical wellbeing and comfort: create spaces with  comfortable furnished spaces, good ventilation and temperature control; large, spacious, open rooms that are bright and colourful. Create classrooms that offer a pleasant view and fresh air; big outdoor spaces that offer trees and wind, and seating areas shaded by greenery. 

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Kaiako and school leaders in the study were surprised at some of the things ākonga said. This highlights the need to include ākonga voice and agency in contributing to school design. What do ākonga in your kura say about spaces that contribute to a sense of wellbeing and support learning? Using “KALM”, what do they want to ‘keep’, ‘add’, ‘lose’, and to have ‘more’ of? 

If you would like to learn more about key findings from this book, see if it is available in a NZ library or check it out online. School Spaces for Student Wellbeing and Learning: Insights from Research and Practice(Eds., Hilary Hughes, Jill Franz, Jill Willis)