St Charles Primary School is a one-form entry school in Salford with 216 children on role.
She told me: “It was … the most beautiful classroom that I had ever seen. I was so inspired.
“My doctorate is in art therapy, and I have always believed in a therapeutic approach to learning to support our most vulnerable learners. Since the pandemic, all our children have experienced trauma due to the lockdowns and parental stress, so the therapeutic classroom approach seemed really timely for us.”
When I visited the school to look at the space, I observed some common problems.
- Laminated posters and an excess of information: I noticed how overwhelming the room felt as you walked in. The windows and walls were covered in laminated pictures and prompts. This was a shame as the classroom had beautiful views that looked out on an orchard and a natural forest school. All this nature was hidden. The therapeutic classroom approach encourages you to really think about what is on your walls and to remove as much as possible. Many children already feel overwhelmed when they come into school, we don’t want the environment to contribute to that. I know many teachers spend a lot of time on displays, but the truth is that the children rarely look at them.
- The colours: The classroom was very bright and colourful, with red tables and chairs and blue blinds and carpet. These primary colours felt over-stimulating and obtrusive. Instead, creating a colour theme in the room gives a sense of order which will in turn help the children to feel calmer.
- The furniture arrangement: The classroom felt very small, with tables and chairs set out in rows. The storage cupboard was blocked by chairs as was the sink and the sofa. The children told us that it was hard to talk to one another because of this set-up.
I maintain that classroom furniture is a real issue – our plastic chairs and bright hard straight tables are not fit for purpose. So many children tell me that the chairs are uncomfortable and hurt their bottoms. Meanwhile, the classroom tables are an issue, forcing you to arrange the room in lines or box-style.
The therapeutic classroom encourages you to move away from the norm and source furniture more like you’d find at home. Why not create collaborative spaces that feel open and encourage children to use the room freely.
Before: The classroom at St Charles Primary School as it looked before the makeover
The design and vision
When designing the new space for St Charles, my main focus was that beautiful outdoor space. I felt it was important to bring the outdoors in and maximise the greenery that surrounded this classroom. This would really improve the children and staff’s wellbeing and contribute greatly to their ability to work well.
Introducing high bar tables at the windows would achieve this while also freeing up floor space, allowing easier movement around the room.
It was important to create a collaborative environment, so I introduced wooden dining tables to seat eight children at a time.
There was one small issue with this space, which was the carpet! The blue carpet couldn’t be changed and so I needed to include blue into the colour scheme. I would bring this in through soft furnishings and the final finishing touches.
The therapeutic classroom makeover
We met with Clare and remade the classroom space on a Saturday in July. We worked from 9am to 6:30pm, building the last bits of furniture, setting it out in the room and playing about with the configuration.
The finished room feels so much calmer! That beautiful view is pulled into the room and is complemented with some (fake) plants inside.
The room suddenly feels so much bigger with lots of space to move around and work together. Every therapeutic room includes a photo wall of the pupils, which this time we framed in an existing display board. This creates a sense of togetherness and belonging and is always a feature the children love.
You will notice there are no display boards. The children can access the information they need through laminated resource cards, tablets, or information books as and when they need it.
Every chair is upholstered which not only transforms the look of the space but also helps children feel comfortable and therefore engaged for longer.
The budget was tighter for this makeover as Clare had to raise the funds herself. I couldn’t include as many soft furnishings as I would like to have done to warm up the space, but the school can do this themselves over time.
The cost of the space was £2,500 including soft furnishings. Clare explained: “The makeover is really reasonable. When I think about how expensive ‘educational’ furniture is, the therapeutic furniture is similarly priced. Therapeutic furniture is durable and easy to clean. It makes the children feel at home, in school.”
After: The calmer therapeutic environment has led to a calmer and more purposeful classroom
Top tips from this design
- If you are stuck with a blue carpet, bring blue into the room through soft furnishings (like pillows) to help tie it all in.
- Maximise views by putting seating near windows and taking down laminated posters and prints.
- If you have small rooms, swap traditional school tables with dining tables to give yourself more space and create a sense of home.
A final word from the head
“The children have settled really well into their new classroom environment. The feeling in the classroom is calm and purposeful. Children who have been through trauma have had all their choices taken away from them, but the therapeutic classroom layout gives them their choices back, each and every lesson.
“They can choose where they want to sit – on the high stools facing the garden which reduces distraction, on the large dining tables which encourage collaboration, on the small round tables for group work, or on the low tables or floor cushions for independent work and quiet reading.
“This empowers the children to take ownership of their learning and choose the place that suits them the best for that particular lesson. The flexible seating means that the room feels much more spacious, and the neutral colour palette is calming.
“No displays means no distractions. It feels like a home from home. For some of our children who have a chaotic home life, this is a calming home environment experience for them.
“The children love the bar stools and raised seating; the seats are really comfortable, and the view of the garden is calming. They are less distracted than they were in their previous groupings. They also love the photo wall – it gives them ownership of the space.”
Note: Since writing this article the cost of a room has increased and we now source different furniture
This article was originally written for Head Teachers Update Magazine 5 September 2022