The therapeutic classroom is a growing concept at the moment, but my dream is that this will be come the new expected standard for UK classrooms.
This is not about becoming the latest fad, but it is about creating a new normal, raising standards and offering a better learning environment for children across the board.
The recurring problem of chairs
As regular readers will know, I have been working with Shevington Vale Primary School in Wigan to create a therapeutic classroom for their year 3 students. In preparing for the project, I interviewed some of the pupils and most of them told me how uncomfortable the chairs were – this was a recurring issue.
Many of them talked about the hole in the back of the chair and how it could hurt their backs. Some said they sit on their knees to “stop their bums hurting”, others said they put their jumper on their seats.
Just think about this for a moment. I remember the gap in the chair hurting my back too and that was 28 years ago! It is ridiculous that we have allowed this to continue for decades.
With all the awareness around wellbeing now, surely we can agree that plastic chairs need to be a thing of the past. If we expect children to sit for long periods of time, we must give them something comfortable to sit on!
An environment conducive to learning
The issue is wider than chairs of course, and it is time we re-evaluate the purpose and design of classrooms and whether they meet the needs of children today.
Does a bright room with wildly different colours on the backboards, or with washing lines strung across holding seemingly thousands of pieces of work help to reduce stress levels? Does this approach cultivate a feeling of calm and help children to access their rational thinking brains? Or does it perpetuate a sense of anxiety, heighten stress levels, and contribute to disengagement?
Do the tables and chairs help children feel comfortable and promote concentration? Or are they uncomfortable, causing children to swing on their chairs, sit on their knees and fidget?
Does the lighting help to create a sense of peace and quiet, improving concentration and reducing noise levels? Or does it contribute to feelings of overwhelm, making children feel unable to settle and hyperactive.
Does the room itself create a sense of safety and security, communicating through its design that it is somewhere they can trust and feel at home?
We must not forget how powerful a space can be and the impact that has on our internal state. Ask yourself, if you had to write an essay right now, would you choose your classroom to do the work in?
Reinventing Classrooms: A film of the Shevington Vale transformation has been created featuring testimony from the school staff and more information on the project
A sense of belonging and warmth
Then there is the wider consideration for children who are struggling with adversity in their lives. School might be their only security and consistency, they might not have warm, comfortable homes to live in. The classroom is the perfect place to create this sense of home and belonging and might be the only place they get to experience a nurturing environment.
I know so many of you agree with me because we have had so much interest in our therapeutic classroom approach over the last few months. Lots of you have been inspired by the way we have reinvented the year 3 space at Shevington Vale and many of you have reached out about your own classroom spaces! The vision has inspired change among many, but there is one question on everyone’s lips…
How much does it cost?
When I began designing the therapeutic classroom, I wanted to make sure it was affordable and realistic for every primary. Every school pays for the tables, chairs, and equipment in an average classroom at some point, and I wanted to ensure our design was possible for similar or less than the average spend.
It’s not about spending millions, it is about making better, informed choices and not making decisions based on the “norm”.
That said, I acknowledge that most of you won’t have a brand-new classroom to kit out but will be redesigning existing rooms. This means there will be a requirement to remove old furniture and replace it with new furniture – perhaps a bit at a time.
So let’s get down to basics. Based on my own research and calculations, the cost of furnishing a standard classroom is around £3,500 to £4,000. This covers tables, chairs, trays, a teacher’s desk, bookshelves etc. Our therapeutic classroom at Shevington Vale cost us around £2,500. That includes tables, chairs and bookshelves, throws, pillows, lamps, and the soft furnishings.
If you are prepared to spend the time searching out the furniture and fittings you want rather than turning to the standard education catalogues then the cost of a therapeutic classroom could be a lot cheaper.
Taking a little more time and being purposeful about the environment we create doesn’t have to cost the world. It might cost you more time, but it is worth it when you see the outcomes it can have for the children in your care.
Following the great response I have seen to the work at Shevington Vale, I am looking for schools to take part in our Reinventing Classrooms project, under which I will be working to transform more classrooms. The aim will be to showcase how this approach can work with different types of school, year groups and for children with different needs. Do contact me if you are interested (see further information).
An update from headteacher, Andy Houghton
The screws are loose. We’ve hit our first snag. One set of bar stools are struggling to stand up to the challenges faced by furniture in a classroom environment.
It must be hard being a year 3 classroom chair, but you have to feel sorry for the luxury linen high stool – they didn’t choose this life…
As the comfort and security of being in a classroom begins to sink in, the routines and expectations can wane. Retraining and reminders of how to use the room have come back in daily through discussion to ensure that we respect our environment.
It is not a problem that is unique to this room and indeed it has shown us that the room has slotted into being a “normal classroom” with ease. Even with the fantastic positives we have found the classroom has still succumb to the difficulties faced by all schools (the difference perhaps being that there is a genuine love for the room with some of the children even asking if they can “take one of the stools home for their dad to fix”).
Just like every school, we have had to adapt to life under Covid. The room has stood up through all of it. It has survived the stream of supply teachers that have passed through its doors (all stopping to take photographs!). It has adapted to small numbers of pupils, reverted back to full capacity, and provided the comforting areas for pupils to sit when not feeling themselves.
Like all schools, a safe space to work and learn has been even more essential this year and our new room has become the hub of our school in many ways – setting the standard for all our other classrooms and showing that accent chairs and academia can go hand-in-hand with wellbeing.
Note: This was our first ever therapeutic classroom and as with all new things, we learnt many lessons about the types of furniture we put in the space. The impact of the room is what we expected, but our biggest challenge was finding furniture that stood the test of time. Things have evolved so much since this first therapeutic classroom and we are now working with some amazing suppliers and are even creating our own range of furniture! See our most recent articles for more information!
This article was originally written for Head Teachers Update Magazine
14 March 2022
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