“Back to school”—a phrase that evokes fresh school supplies, new backpacks, and delighted parents—sounds a lot different this year, as millions of students across the country start classes from their homes. When the COVID-19 pandemic sent schools into virtual mode back in March, families scrambled to get up to speed on telecommuting technologies, carve out makeshift desk space in their homes, and keep kids and pets from making unplanned cameos in their remote work meetings.
Parents are understandably weary at the prospect of another semester with their dining rooms transformed into study halls, but architects and interior designers—many of whom are parents themselves—are here to help. AD spoke to experts with experience designing schools and other spaces for kids to see what ideas they have for making the most of remote learning this fall, and how you can implement them in your clients’ homes.
Maximize the space available
The first question designers need to ask is the most basic: Where is the best place to set up a temporary classroom? One key piece of advice from the experts is to account for flexibility. Architect Mark Sullivan, a partner at Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design, notes that a concept from 1990s office culture is surprisingly useful in this context: “hoteling,” which emerged with the advent of portable computers. The idea is that people can work from anywhere in their office, whether meeting with colleagues at a conference table or retreating to a quiet spot to concentrate. He has an at-home work station in a former home gym and playroom, and he can decamp somewhere else if his two kids want to tackle a messy art project there. The key is creating spaces that can adapt to the needs of the moment.
Ximena Rodriguez, a principal and the director of interior design at CetraRuddy, says the concept of “flex space” is helpful in thinking about how to transform a space that was designed for something else. She notes that in some apartment complexes she’s worked on, the building’s communal spaces have now been transformed into remote classrooms for resident kids. But, she says, “In many cases, families have a tougher task: transforming spaces that previously had a different use into a study space or a project area.” Designers can help by making sure the area is defined in some way. “It helps if kids, especially younger students, know that the spot is for reading and work, not video games,” Rodriguez says. “You might want to have the option of creating privacy and separations that keep children from their natural tendency to be social rather than immersed in remote learning.”
Kiki Dennis, a partner at Deborah Berke Partners, adds that when physical barriers aren’t an option, technological ones can help. “Space to spread out, between siblings or between working parents and kids, may or may not be possible, so a decent headset for those Zoom calls goes a long way.”
Allow for customization
Karri Bowen-Poole, a former teacher, and Denise Davies, an interior designer, are the cofounders of Smart D2 Playrooms, which specializes in crafting innovative play and educational spaces for kids. They both see value in bringing kids into the design process. “We always encourage parents to let their kids personalize a space, meaning letting the kids have a choice in the wall decor, colors, desk chair, etc. For example, find three desk chairs that you love, and then let your child choose one of them. This way, kids feel like they have a say in the decision-making process and that will make them happier and more comfortable in their room.” As a designer, taking the time to ask your clients’ children for their input—on a small decision such as chair style—can lead to greater satisfaction in the long run.
Embrace right-sized and kid-ready features
There’s a delicate balance between too much and not enough technology when it comes to remote learning in the 21st century. John Kirk, a partner at Cooper Robertson, which has designed numerous schools and universities, recommends relying on a classic architectural feature: walls. “One or more of the walls wants to be an active canvas for creativity: for writing on (and wiping clean) and working through problems and ideas. There are acrylic, plexiglass, and even write-able wallpapers on the market for this purpose.” He likes a self-healing synthetic corkboard by Forbo for the walls, which also makes a flooring tile called Marmoleum that can be arranged and cut into patterns, “like a large checker or chess board,” he says.
Tables and chairs on casters and a smart board or two can make a spare room feel dynamic and mimic the look and feel of a schoolroom. But don’t forget, depending on the age of your clients’ kids, they need to be the right size. Jason Cadorette, a senior associate at Cooper Robertson, notes that his family tried to make use of their dining room table and chairs at first, but they were simply too big. Kid-sized tables and chairs were a must.
Don’t skimp on light and sound
A key factor in the design of schools is actually something you can’t see: acoustics. Nearly all of the experts we spoke to brought up the importance of sound—or the lack thereof—in an educational setting. “Extraneous noise is the most distracting of all competing senses, especially for children who may have auditory processing disorders,” says Cooper Robertson’s Kirk. He says that adding curtains and soft furnishings to a home learning space can work wonders, and “accessories like pillows are good soldiers in the war against extraneous noise.”
Rodriguez and her colleague Theresa M. Genovese at CetraRuddy even created an acoustics guide with recommendations for materials and products that families can use to sound-proof a space. It covers everything from construction materials like noise-reducing drywall to decorative, upholstered Vänt panels, corkboards, and Acousti-Coat paint to help absorb noise.
Equally important to acoustics is light, says Cadorette of Cooper Robertson. Natural light helps students concentrate and learn better, which is why there are so many windows in school classrooms. “When designing schools, we take great care in specifying the correct lighting that has the appropriate levels to help students see clearer to help absorb information quickly,” Cadorette says. “Typically we use ‘warm’ lighting in intimate settings such as many spaces in the home. Studies show that in classroom environments higher temperature or ‘cooler’ lighting works better for tasks requiring focus.” He found higher-temperature-range light bulbs for his family’s at-home learning space—an easy solution that didn’t require any new fixtures.
Build in adventure time
While designers can find products and solutions to replicate the best qualities of a classroom in a home, they should also factor in areas for play, relaxation, and adventure. “I think one needs to remember that children of all ages do not just learn from sitting at a desk with a computer or paper and pencils,” says Genovese of CetraRuddy. “Creating spaces in the home where the children can engage in project-based activities which may be messy or include the outdoors and nature should be given consideration if space permits.”
Mike Aziz, a partner at Cooper Robertson, notes that he’s seen an uptick in requests for upgraded outdoor amenities since quarantine began, which is good news for children. “Kids are going to need a healthy dose of outdoor time to balance out the increased screen time,” he says. With all the well-documented benefits of playing outside, enhanced backyard space is one design adaptation from quarantine that families might want to keep around once in-person school is back in session.