Learning Environments

Cheap (Yet Valuable) Learning Space Redesign

Rethink classroom and campus spaces, recycle and upcycle materials, tap student ingenuity, attract charitable donors — and remake and revitalize your school without breaking the bank.

August 5, 2016
© Edutopia

Editor’s note: Eric Sheninger co-authored this post with Thomas C. Murray, Director of Innovation for Future Ready Schools in Washington, DC.

When school leaders hear the phrase "learning space redesign," many immediately envision dollar signs and downplay any possibilities because of limited budgets. However, this doesn’t have to be the case, as learning space redesign doesn’t have to be costly. A few gallons of paint, taking the time to declutter, a few yard sales, and thinking creatively can provide the needed fresh look, flexibility, and tools to complete a learning space redesign. As such, school leaders should start by thinking creatively, not costly.

As educators consider redesign, especially in older, traditional spaces, starting with a school library, foyer, or classroom reading nook can lay the groundwork for a new mindset of what’s feasible in meeting the needs of modern learners. Today’s educators have become adept at creating incredible spaces and resources on very limited budgets by thinking differently. So how can we create workable spaces for kids without breaking the bank?

Observe and Invent

1. Transform Unused or Under-Utilized Spaces

Start by reviewing every square foot of unused or under-utilized space on the school campus or inside your classroom. Brainstorm instructional needs that could be better taught in a creative space, and consider unconventional ideas. Ask your staff or colleagues to think creatively and envision what could be possible and what it would take to increase instructional opportunities. From small closets to hallways to the auditorium’s backstage, is every square foot being put to maximum use? How can traditionally unused or under-utilized spaces become hubs for innovation?

2. Engage the Community: Ask for Donations

Dealing with a limited budget but driven by a desire to create learning opportunities for students to make, create, and design, Samantha Edwards, a digital media specialist at Fogelsville Elementary in Pennsylvania’s Parkland School District, knew that she needed to transform her traditional library space. She approached Principal Tim Chorones and Assistant Superintendent Tracy Smith with her ideas, and they pushed her to innovate and take risks to create authentic opportunities for all of her students. Edwards went on to articulate her desire to the parents in her community about wanting to transform the library space to one that focused on higher-order design, problem solving, and literacy. Stemming from conversations she had with her students, Edwards held a "Lego Drive" appealing to parents by asking if they were "tired of stepping on Legos at home" or "ready to clean out a closet to help their child’s school." By appealing to the full community of this Title 1 school in Pennsylvania, Edwards was able to create a dynamic makerspace, much of which was donated by families at the school.

By engaging school families and encouraging students to think creatively about the possibilities, redesign became possible through the donations of time, a few gallons of paint, and used supplies found in the homes of her community. One parent with carpentry skills stepped up to create design tables, while many others donated used computers, Legos, and similar design-oriented toys, ultimately all of which found new life in this transformed space. Edwards’ low-budget makerspace pilot caught the attention of the regional PBS station as well as the local education foundation, leading to a $50,000 grant to replicate the learner-centered experiences in the district’s other elementary schools. How can your community support a needed redesign?

3. Leverage the Outdoors

With a fixed amount of square footage inside the school walls, some schools have extended learning opportunities into their outdoor spaces. At Walter Bracken STEAM Academy Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada, students built raised-bed gardens from concrete block and pavers, while using recycled PVC and tires. With the successful redesign of previously unused spaces, the school is looking at ways to build a track on their athletic field while simultaneously saving water (a critical issue in a desert community). How can you leverage outdoor space?

4. Find a Hack!

Educators are hacking traditional ideas, creating visually appealing, multi-functional resources for very low cost and often sharing them on collaborative spaces such as Pinterest. One example of a creative hack can be seen in device charging and storage. With charging carts often costing more than $1,000 while taking up valuable classroom space, some educators have turned to using dish racks and power strips to save money and space. Design hacks also encourage students to creatively problem solve these types of issues. A quick internet search for classroom hacks will turn up many great ideas. What problems can you solve through a creative hack?

5. Empower Students to Design and Create

Many times, we adults rack our brains to find solutions and never pause to ask those whom we challenge to problem solve daily -- the students. Many of today’s learners, especially those in vocational education classes, have incredible real-world trade skills. From automotive and cosmetology to carpentry and electronics, many young people have the ability to design and create needed resources. Can we shift these students’ traditional coursework to problem solve in their home schools? It would build community and school culture while empowering students to problem solve real world issues. What problems are your students solving through their own design abilities?

A Wider View

Still unable to find the needed supplies and materials for a redesign? Start small, but think big! Some of the aforementioned ideas will immediately be written off by those stuck in traditional settings that frown upon anything outside the box. We encourage educators to work with their administrative teams, parent and community organizations, and their local school board to think differently about how, when, and where design materials come from. Some additional ideas include:

6. Shop Local and Used

Try connecting with the local Goodwill or Salvation Army to give second-hand materials new life. Form relationships with local managers and explain what, as a school, you’re looking for and the student experiences that you’re trying to design. They might just put you on their speed dial list!

7. Purchase Seasonally

For significant savings, develop relationships with local colleges and universities and offer to purchase used college furniture during graduation week as students leave for the summer. During this time of year, students often want to get rid of their belongings and are happy to sell them at low cost or even donate them to the local school district. Also connect with big box stores such as Home Depot, Lowes, and Target, and ask them to let you know when seasonal merchandise hits the clearance aisle. Many of these stores take great pride in supporting local schools and community.

8. Crowdsource Your Needs

Sites such as DonorsChoose, GoFundMe, and Classwish connect teachers with people willing to help fund school projects. Staff and students can share their online campaign with the world to raise money for the project. One must be in the space to benefit from it.

No Single "Right Way"

Whether designing a new building, renovating an old one, or updating even a few square feet of space, we should make every effort to create conditions where student-centered learning can flourish. It’s imperative to understand that each space is inhabited by various teachers with a very specific -- and different -- group of students. As such, there’s no one "right way" to design a space. Each space, whether old or new, large or small, traditional or modern, should be designed to maximize a personal approach to student learning.

Have you redesigned a learning space at your school? Please tell us about it in the comments section of this post.

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