Designing Schools: Planning Inclusive Learning Spaces

By Judy Bruce

Designing schools to be inclusive is an ongoing and evolving process that extends beyond the initial design of a kura or school. There are many ways that kura or schools can continually address diversity and inclusion in their physical spaces, and ensure their spaces are safe and welcoming for ākonga from all walks of life.

Typically, physical spaces would be determined through the education brief process. The education brief outlines the many aspects of a school that influence its physical design aspects and is required for new builds, as well as expansions and redevelopments of existing schools. With changes to physical facilities, schools can use the education brief to outline how diverse ākonga are included in elements of the physical design.

Schools should not, however, limit themselves to only considering physical elements during redevelopment periods, and should continually observe ways of improving design elements and resources that add to the school’s culture of inclusion. In this article, I’ll briefly describe some design elements that schools can consider to purposefully plan for inclusion. Larger design elements might require master planning processes, such as the education brief, but other, smaller elements, can be considered through everyday practice.


Neurodiversity includes neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and specific learning disorders such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia. Accommodating neurodiverse learners in physical spaces can require some adjustments. In master planning cycles kura and schools may consider things such as dedicated sensory spaces to help ākonga regulate their sensory input, and breakout rooms that can be used for quiet work and de-escalation. I have also worked with schools where ad hoc spaces have been created, for example, a blocked off corner of a classroom with sensory toys or a designated quiet de-escalation zone with soft furnishings. Classroom teachers can work directly with ākonga and their whānau to determine how the space can be configured to facilitate better learning.

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Those with Autism Spectrum Disorder may require elements of the learning environment to be fixed and predictable, which can be difficult to achieve in flexible learning spaces that frequently shift and change. Modern school designs with flexible, large open learning areas can be difficult spaces to navigate for those with sensory needs, as they may receive unmanageable amounts of input. Schools may plan for a degree of ‘predictable flexibility’ so that spaces allow for different configurations while keeping several physical elements fixed, such as seating and instructor position.

Schools can also consider the furniture and resources they provide. Having a variety of seating options including bean bags and group and individual seating capabilities allows for different student needs and situations. You could consider the inclusion of sensory and fidget toys in some spaces. Some specialist teachers I have spoken with have stated that sometimes a learner needs something sensory like this for them to continue with their work, otherwise they may continue disrupting others. Some have also recommended the inclusion of a variety of pencil/pen grips and stationery, so that ākonga have a variety of tools that may assist their learning. 

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Creating a safe and inclusive environment for LGBTQIA+ ākonga can be reflected in the physical design of spaces. This includes things such as gender-neutral bathrooms and changing rooms, and private spaces for gender-diverse ākonga. Ideally, planning this occurs when schools complete an education brief, but existing areas may be made gender-neutral, such as utilising an existing private bathroom for those who require additional privacy and safety.

It’s important to note that schools should proactively plan for inclusion. Rather than waiting for a student to come out as LGBTQIA+, schools should provide inclusive spaces that signal their dedication to diversity and make it a safe place for ākonga to come out and be their authentic selves when they are ready. Schools may already have LGBTQIA+ ākonga who do not feel safe to come out publicly, and by failing to proactively address inclusion and diversity, these ākonga will not be empowered to express themselves authentically at school.

A school’s dedication to the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ ākonga can be expressed through various supporting resources, signage, and iconography. This doesn’t necessarily mean putting rainbows in every room, but kura and schools can potentially change the cis- and hetero-normative language on display, include spaces that can be used for LGBTQIA+ support and social groups, and proudly display the work of LGBTQIA+ ākonga that expresses them. This can also be normalised through teacher examples and language. For example, in a mathematics word question, the pronoun of the protagonist could be non-binary. Instead of ‘Bob had ten apples and he gave six…’, try ‘Kennedy had ten apples and they gave six’. 


Physical design elements are more straightforward for catering to ākonga with various disabilities and additional needs. This includes things like ramps and handrails, automatic doors, wide thoroughfares, unimpeded learning spaces, and assistive technology.

For some specific disabilities, several necessary resources can make a large difference to ākonga. For example, deaf/hard of hearing ākonga require audio aids, speech to text technology, visual alarm and bell systems, adequate soundproofing and acoustics throughout learning spaces, large print and clear signage, etc.

Blind and vision impaired ākonga require tactile and Braille signage and materials, accessible facilities, unimpeded learning areas, adequate lighting including natural light and adjustable overhead lighting, specialised technology such as screen readers and Braille displays, accessible playground equipment, and tactile and exploration areas for sensory exploration. 


One of the most important things a kura or school can do to be inclusive of diverse ākonga is to ask, and listen to them and their whānau. One philosophy that has helped me has been ‘People are the experts of their own identity’. By engaging with their school communities, schools may pool knowledge and expertise to ensure that they are designed to meet those diverse needs. This can be done both formally and informally, and I recommend a combination of both to capture as much voice as possible. This could include surveys as well as school gate conversations.

There are a lot of things to consider to ensure schools are proactively designed to be inclusive, but there’s some help along the way. When writing an education brief, I recommend making use of a navigator and available resources. I also recommend engaging the community around this process of how school facilities can be improved and how schools can cater to the unique needs of their tamariki. 


Dr Gabrielle Wall is an experienced school design navigator and Tārai Kura Ringa Whao. If you would like further support with inclusive school design, contact us at