This report was prepared for the school community of Alphington Primary School at the conclusion of a project to transform the learning and physical environment of two adjoining Prep Grade classrooms in 2002.

Preparatory Classrooms - Physical Environment

School exterior



In July 2002 a small team (1) of educators and a designer came together to evaluate two Preparatory classrooms with a view to introducing new teaching and learning practices and a supportive physical environment.

The school community had been discussing a number of approaches and educational philosophies* in relation to the school’s existing ‘Extending & Challenging Children Program’, a Charter Policy of the school for the past 3 years. The Principal and some teachers visited a number of Melbourne schools to see their innovative programs and physical environments.

An all day in-service session for staff and parents explored the theory and practice of the schools of Reggio Emilia (2), Italy. Several teachers visited an exhibition (3) of works by the children of these schools - one teacher referred to the detailed transcriptions of children’s discussions in the exhibition which revealed the depth of young children’s interests and insights.

At the initial meeting, the Principal and teachers expressed their objectives for the ‘Action Research Project’ (4). Primarily, their hope was to give children more autonomy, more control over their own learning. They wanted to listen to children’s ideas and to collaborate with them in the development of on-going projects. The ‘Early Years Literacy Program’ was to be retained but the feeling was expressed that generally the emphasis on teacher control and text-based learning in the traditional curriculum limits children’s experiences and expression. It was agreed that the existing daily ‘Integrated Studies’ sessions would be enriched with the addition of: small group discussion, expressive media, construction and role play. And that the physical environment would be modified to support these new activities.

*Howard Gardiner’s ‘Multiple Intelligences’, De Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ and Bloom’s ‘Taxonomy’.

The children would then be able to use a wide variety of media in the development of on-going projects - without waiting for weekly access to specialist areas. The teachers also wished to document and display the processes and products of children’s on-going projects.

The two Preparatory teachers were keen to work together – to share ideas and to support one another. Both teachers had a group of approximately 20 five and six year old children in separate, but adjoining classrooms. They were also interested to try combining both groups of children and possibly opening up the two rooms together. Before any changes were made, the existing teaching and learning program and physical environment of both classrooms was documented (video, notes and floor plans).

Each morning the children were divided into ‘ability groups’ for the ‘Early Years Literacy Program’. There were also regular weekly classes – Perceptual Motor Program, Italian, Art and Music – in separate specialist rooms. In the afternoons all children were involved in an ‘Integrated Studies Program’ in their home class-room. Generally, teachers refer to detailed guides – Curriculum Standards Framework - supplied by the Department of Education for ‘Integrated Studies’ topics – and how they may be developed.

The plan of the rooms was typical – they were part of a string of similar rooms opening off a narrow corridor. Each room was eight metres square, of solid masonry construction with high ceilings and large windows onto the corridor and to the outdoor playground. A wall of sliding panels divided the two Prep. rooms.

Traditional classroom layout


Both rooms were full of years of accumulated furniture - much of it inappropriate – all of it ad hoc. Every surface, including walls, windows, doors and suspended from the ceiling, was cluttered with children’s works and multi-coloured displays. The floor was covered with threadbare carpet. School bags hung from rows of hooks along one wall. Five different sizes of moulded plastic chairs were used with tables - all of one height!

Cluttered rooms prior to refurbishment

But the high ceilings and white walls of the old building together with light from the tall multi-paned windows gave a generous feel to the space.

When the designer first met with the children they were curious to know why she was there. It was explained that we planned to make changes to the classroom. The children made no comment about this possibility. It seemed the children did not ‘register’ their environment (5). They did however talk at length about their outdoor playground, and when asked about places they liked gave detailed descriptions of favourite environments: holiday venues, churches with stained glass windows, circuses (in elaborate detail) and their own bedrooms. When asked what they would like in a ‘new’ room they asked for more computers (6) – and more computers. But, after several discussions one little girl suddenly sparked …”I know…what we want is some circus, some play-ground and some (class)room in here!”

The existing arrangement of furniture, largely tables and chairs (7), supported the traditional educational goals of a teacher-controlled and text-based curriculum – with all children doing the same thing at the same time. The introduction of new activity types - group discussions, painting, modelling, block building, light and shadow play - into the traditional environment proved difficult. Both rooms contained sinks and benches but the fully-carpeted floor limited wet and messy activities. Over a period of several weeks small changes were introduced – tables were moved to accommodate different groupings of children and floor space cleared for building construction. Some new items of equipment were introduced including an overhead projector, life-size human anatomical model and timber building blocks (8). The two latter items were found in the school - but were not being used.

Children and anatomical model

Teacher and ‘Brain’ group

Because both teachers were attempting to develop a wide range of activity areas within each room the space available to each activity was inadequate and the whole environment overcrowded. After a short time the teachers were becoming tired and stressed. It was agreed that a more radical change to the physical environment was needed. The possibility of combining all the Prep. children into one group in the total area of the two rooms would enable more space to be given to each activity area.

Initial layout - diverse settings in each classroom

Extensive discussion about desirable experiences for the children – social and learning – led to agreement about the scope of ‘activity settings’ to be developed.

The opportunity for diverse experiences involved development of several ‘activity settings’ within the room – so that children did not have to wait for access to separate, specialist facilities once a week. Each activity type had special requirements for furniture and equipment, services - power, water, computer connections, lighting etc. Each was a particular kind of experience – wet and messy, active large group, small group discussion or individual quiet and concentrating.

Environments for experiential learning are complex and busy spaces. They are necessarily full of stuff, lots of activity and lots of participants. Design of the physical environment (9) should therefore be restrained and calm - background to the ‘colour and movement’ of the children and their activities. Another reason for avoiding strong design statements is that this is a shared working, living, learning environment which ‘belongs’ to all the participants – children and adults. Everyone needs to feel comfortable - an amiable social environment in which learning takes place.

The areas or ‘settings’ in the new room were designed to be discrete and defined, to provide cues about how they may be used. ‘Boundaries’ around each setting helped to establish a sense of place and enclosure for the children. Some boundaries were ‘strong’ e.g. tall shelving, to help avoid distraction from neighbouring activities. (This did not cut across the need for adult visual supervision). Another important design consideration was the definition of clear pathways between the areas to facilitate flow from one area to another. Careful consideration was given to the arrangement of each setting and its location within the room.

The re-furbishment was considered to be experimental and was therefore carried out with minimal expenditure. The designer prepared a detailed floor plan to confirm the team’s decisions and to guide those setting up the new space.

1. The two rooms were opened up into one
2. The rooms were de-cluttered
- all redundant furniture was removed,
- walls cleared and covered with white surfaces
- visual clutter removed
3. New activity settings created for:
- Relaxing and reading
a settee, bookshelves and cushions were placed near large windows - together with a potted fern, this area was also used for gatherings of the whole group
- Small group discussion
a large circular table and stools in a quiet corner for discussions and guided reading
- Construction
a large unobstructed floor area for constructions was enclosed with open block storage shelves and mirrors
- Wet, messy – painting, collage, clay, wire etc.
tables near the sink were arranged for one, two or a large group of children to work together - two were covered with heavy duty plastic for clay modelling
- Light and shadow play
a mobile screen was covered with white paper as a projection screen for use with an overhead projector, a small light box was also introduced
- Role-play – initially a ‘shop’
a set of open shelves and a counter top formed a simple ‘shop’ for role play
- Computers
each room had 4 computers, they were re-arranged to provide more working bench space
4. Materials made easily accessible to children
- tall open shelving was placed close to points of use for storage/display of tools, materials, children’s works and resource items
- bulk storage - an existing small storeroom was cleared of old metal cabinets and new white adjustable shelving installed for teachers’ references and supplies of bulk materials
5. New display for children’s works – to ‘make learning visible’
- blackboards were replaced with white display boards
- children’s work was carefully selected and displayed on the white walls and on open shelves next to interesting objects – shells, bones, magnifying lens, mirrors and an aquarium
6. Softness
- Plants and vases of fresh flowers softened the environment and provided a welcome at the entry to the room.

Final layout - diverse settings in combined space of 2 classrooms

When the children saw the room for the first time their initial reaction was cautious and curious. Several asked if they could go into the ‘other room’, to which the teachers replied ‘It’s all our room now’. Many parents and staff expressed surprise at the spaciousness of the room – though there were still adequate numbers of tables for all the children for (table-based) traditional literacy and numeracy activities. Adults and children flowed with ease to and around each activity area.

The children were invited to comment about their new environment – did they have any concerns or things they would like to change? Many expressed pleasure, particularly about the settee and the ‘shop’. When asked to express their feelings further, children made many detailed responses including drawings of the shop and models of the settee, together with notes of thanks to those who had made the changes.

At the start of the morning and afternoon sessions all children and both teachers gathered together for roll taking and general discussion. Traditionally teachers sit on adult height chairs which raise them well above the small children sitting at their feet on the floor. As part of the changed environment the teachers sat together on low stools with children gathered around on the floor and on the large settee. This, more democratic, arrangement enabled greater eye contact between all the participants. (Some children still complained about having to sit for too long on the hard floor).

The new arrangement – a team of teachers with one group of children – meant that the children saw the teachers talking, planning, collaborating - and laughing together. The two teachers had a consistent approach to teaching and learning and in the way they interacted with all the children. Altogether a strong cohesion seemed to grow within the group – a ‘community of learners’.

In the mornings children worked in their designated literacy and numeracy ability groups. The overall larger group size meant that there were more children in the lowest and highest ability groups for the Early Years programs. (Previously there was only one child at each end of the ability range). In the afternoons they pursued on-going projects in small groups or worked/played in an area of their choice. Teachers kept a record of children’s choices.

The teachers welcomed the spaciousness of the enlarged room and the facilities to support an increased range of experiences for the children. An emergency teacher commented that “the room enabled the children to flow naturally from one area to another”.

General view of refurbished room

The children were active and autonomous participants in their own learning. As one of the teacher’s said “The children worked independently, without any fuss – it was the new environment that made that possible.” The teachers also found that the informality of the afternoon program gave them opportunities to get know each child as an individual, and as a participant in small discussion groups. Documentation of children’s projects (10) (transcripts of discussions, drawings, paintings etc) were displayed on walls and shelves for children to reflect and re-visit – and for parents, staff and visitors to see ‘traces’ of the children’s experiences and growing understandings.

Staff and parents queried aspects of the changes. On seeing the new space, the Principal expressed concern about the potential for excessive noise in the large open space. When questioned about this at the end of the year, she said that, from her observations, noise had not been a problem – perhaps because the children were dispersed throughout the space and engaged in a variety of activities. Cleaning – daily vacuuming of floor and rubbish removal was by contract cleaners. Table tops were only cleaned at the end of the week. Daily maintenance of the environment – as in pre-schools – is not considered to be part of the primary teacher’s role.

At an information night, soon after the change, concerns were raised by some parents about shy children being unable to cope in the large group. Teachers observed at the end of the year that the shy children had not appeared to be overwhelmed - on the contrary they grew in confidence - though that may have been a consequence of maturity.

Parents, teachers (including student and emergency teachers) commented about the children’s changed behaviour and attitudes. Some parents commented that their children, who had previously lacked confidence or been fearful about their reading and writing ability, gained new confidence. It was felt this may have been due to increased opportunities to explore and experience success with a variety of expressive media. The children were aware, from many comments that their achievements were respected and enjoyed. Some parents commented that their children had renewed their interest in ‘making and doing’ activities at home.

‘Shop’ play

Block construction area

During a project about Toys, Brains and Dreaming, which lasted several weeks, one little boy asked if he could borrow a ‘fold-out’ anatomy book. He was a very active and exuberant child but had previously shown little interest in ‘academic’ or ‘bookish’ learning. That night he shared the book with his mother and together they photocopied some special pages for him to keep. On many occasions a child would be engaged in a playful, open ended experience - painting, drawing, constructing - and would stop to seek adult help to add words and thoughts to their creation. On one occasion a little girl had been exploring colours with cellophane paper on a small light box. She then carefully composed the same colours on a white page and commented that they looked like coloured windows. She asked for help to add the words ‘window’, ‘glass’, ‘delicate’ and ‘by others’ – because others were also making windows.

Three children who were particularly fond of reading and writing spent many sessions collaborating on the writing of a lengthy book.

The children seemed hungry to explore new materials and skills – at first playfully, and then with increasing concentration and purpose. The children quickly came to understand that the experiences would always be available – they did not need to rush – they could return when they wanted. At the start of the afternoon session they readily chose an activity to pursue and became deeply engaged. After one term in the new environment the teachers commented that a number of the boys, who previously gave first choice to interaction with the computers, often gave preference to other experiences, particularly construction. Children quickly learnt what was available, where it was kept, and with a little encouragement from the teachers they would efficiently clean and replace items at the end of a session.

The group of children had strong social skills – often expressing empathy and consideration for others in the group. They were also very articulate and enjoyed using language. The group included one child with special needs. He sometimes worked alongside one other child but more often seemed engrossed in an inner world. In the new environment he could be seen interacting vigorously with a small group of children. (This was particularly commented on by an emergency teacher who had worked with the group a number of times before the change).

Small group discussion

Children’s drawings of brains and dreams

In addition to many positive comments throughout the project, parents expressed their gratitude to both teachers with a variety of gifts:– a lunch, bunches of flowers, donation towards new equipment, a voucher for a massage. Perhaps the effort involved in making a radical change to the physical environment is more obvious to parents than where innovations occur only to the pedagogical program!

Mary Featherston 2003

1.The Team
The Preparatory Children
Principal, Vi Carter
Teachers, Sally Marsh & Kelly Lees
Designer, Mary Featherston, specialises in the design of responsive learning environments for children.

2. Reggio Emilia is a small town in the N of Italy. It has given its name to an educational project that has been evolving in the community since the end of World War II. There are now some 40 schools for children 0-3, and 3-6 years in Reggio Emilia. The theory and practice of these schools has inspired educators all over the world. Through detailed observation and documentation of children, the Reggio educators believe that: children bring a great deal to every experience, that learning occurs when children are active participants in their own learnng, and that learning occurs in the company of others – social constructivism. Family and community involvement is highly valued. The physical environment is given a vital role as ‘teacher’ in itself.

3. ‘The One Hundred Languages of Children’ Exhibition presents the theory and practice of the Reggio Emilia schools including examples of the amazing works of the children. Various editions of the exhibition have travelled all over the world over the past twenty years. It was presented in the Melbourne Museum in 1994 & 2001.

4. Action Research Project
In June 2002, Mary Featherston approached the Principal, Vi Carter, with a proposal for a research project: ‘A collaborative Project to Design, Implement and Evaluate a New Physical Environment for Learning’. Approval was granted by the Principal and by the Victorian Department of Education.

5. The children did not register their environment
This finding is similar to that noted in a PhD thesis by an Australian architectural researcher, Dr Kenn Fisher. He found that Year 11 students had no relationship to the physical environment of their classrooms.

In 1967, a UK newspaper ran a competition to find the opinions of students about their school buildings – they universally wished for more interesting environments where they could learn actively and ‘not have school bells’.

7. Tables and chairs – the preparatory rooms included moulded polypropylene chairs in five different sizes and colours. Yet the tables were all the same height. (For ergonomic fit, a seated child’s feet should rest completely on the floor and their forearms should be level with the table top). To accommodate children with such a wide range of heights – and where children move between a variety of work settings in the room - it is desirable to use seats and work tops to suit the smaller children.

8. Life-size torso – the take-apart torso model was found in a storeroom on a high shelf covered with dust. Timber building blocks were discovered in a deep box under a lot of old newspapers and magazines.

9.Design of the physical environment
Every physical environment is ‘designed’, that is, it is the result of people’s decisions. Every element of every environment: the built space, the furniture and the loose items are the result of a selection/design process.

Design is sometimes seen as decoration - or purely visual – such as – drapes of fabric in a primary classroom or multi-coloured borders around display boards. These are decorative layers which have little to do with function – in fact they add further clutter to an already busy environment. This may be the only design intervention that a teacher – with very limited budget - is able to make to cover the harsh sterility of an institutional classroom. Teachers generally have little say over their environment. Environments may also result from design by default for example a children’s environment furnished with donated, un-functional, hand-me-down furniture.

But generally when we refer to design, we mean design as a result of a deliberate process where the physical components are consciously selected and arranged for a particular purpose, for example an intimate, candle-lit dining room contrasted with an intimidating, harshly lit interrogation room. In both cases the physical/tangible environment affects both our physical well-being and our feelings. The environment also provides ‘cues’ about how to behave – what is possible, or not permitted. We all, from an early age, learn to ‘read’ these cues.

The design of the classroom has a long history, and has remained substantially the same for nearly 200 years. A large square room designed to contain a teacher (rarely more than one) and a group of students. Students sit at desks/tables arranged to face the teacher and blackboard. This design reflects a view of education in which the adult/teacher transmits a body of fixed knowledge to a large group of passive students. In order to control the flow of information all the students must be engaged in the same activity at the same time. The duration of the session is limited – generally lasting about 40 minutes –then everyone moves on to the next time-tabled class.

Design of the environment for the Alphington project was to support collaborative teaching and learning. Children were to be active and autonomous participants in the learning process. Opportunities were to be provided for children to express their ideas in a wide variety of media and their ability to engage in ongoing projects was to be nurtured during unbroken sessions – approx. 2 ½ hours each day.

10. Childrens’ Projects
The children were involved in a number of projects – some of which continued over several weeks, they included:
Toys, Brains & Dreams
Venus Fly Traps
How do emails work?
What do plants need?
How to make paper people stand up?
Flower drawings
Transparent colour mixing

Child’s drawing of new settee