#Cultivating Effective Learning Spaces

How can we #cultivate effective learning spaces to start the new school year?

After my first attempt one year ago at using a theme to guide my classroom design (see previous post Dare to Ditch Desks) I decided to build on my previous learning and incorporate a more purposeful design approach based on ideas from the book From Campfire to the Holodeck. In this book the author David Thornburg describes three main features that boost student engagement, encourage student-led learning and enhances the use of technology in the classroom:

CAVES: This is a space where students can reflect independently, journal or read. It allows students to process what they’ve learned and allows students private quiet time.

WATERING HOLES: This is the social space where students collaborate, share thinking and can work in small groups. Watering holes foster relationships in the classroom and encourage students to expand their friendship circles through mixed grouping opportunities.

CAMPFIRES: This space is used for whole class gatherings for morning meetings, storytelling, celebrations and presentations by experts. It stands as a ritual for bringing the entire classroom community together in one friendly space.

I’m hoping that the open space will allow for more dynamic and kinesthetic learning opportunities for students. An excerpt I read from Kim Hurdhorst’s post reminded me of the importance of movement and play when forming neural connections in new learning:

Chan & Petrie (1998) also believed that the brain learns better in well designed school environments. They believed that an artistic environment is vital for learning. This is based on the premise that optimal learning happens when brains are challenged. One way to do this in a non threatening way is to learn and practice using the visual and performing arts. This way of learning helps learners build expression and memory. This allows the brain to rewire itself to make the connections necessary to secure deeper learning and understanding. Combined with modern day architectural design and visually pleasing aspects, it will challenge the brain and help develop brain growth. They also believed that creating spaces for activity will help in the growth of mental functions. When a learner is given the opportunities to spin, crawl, roll, rock turn, jump or swing for example, it is engaging and strengthens the brain because it brings more oxygen to the brain resulting in better functioning brain transmitters. [khurdhorst]

Her post about Brain Based Learning Architecture further details the research behind alternative classroom designs, and focuses on Thornburg’s approach to these three spaces.

My Learning Space Explained:

Below I will detail some reasons why my space has been organised in this specific way to start the year:

2017-18 Class Panorama

Classroom Panorama

Class Library & Reading ‘Cave’:


I moved my desk to the back of the classroom so the first thing students saw when they walked in was the class library. I reduced the number of books on display so that students would be encouraged to browse through the small selection rather than feel overwhelmed with choice. We are fortunate to have hundreds of books available in each classroom, however last year I noticed some reluctant readers were more hesitant to explore new genres due to the abundance of their preferred genre. I will be adding some floor cushions to make the space more ‘cosy’ and private for students too.

Window Desks for Independent Reflection

Window Desks

By far the most popular working spaces last year were the window seats. I experimented with only 2 desks facing out and this year moved the space around so there were at 3 (seating up to 6 students) with the possibility of using the ‘standup bookshelf’ and bookshelves itself to seat/stand another 3 students (see below).


There are 7 stools in the classroom which can easily be moved for more window seating at the bookshelves.

Ditching Desks & Blue Chairs

There are 23 students in my class but only 16 blue school chairs and 8 desks. I purposely removed two desks this year to allow more flow and brought in a circular ‘cafe style’ table where up to 3 students can sit. There will be no assigned seating for now as I would like to foster a sense that each space is shared and available to everyone depending on their preferred learning styles. I also know that removing the 1 desk & chair per child will encourage me to adapt and broaden my teaching practice to move beyond ‘desk work’ activities. For example, some of the tasks may include using the soft seating social areas for collaboration and discussion or use of iPads rather than independent writing/laptop tasks at desks.

Updated Makerspace & Whiteboard Tables


This year I wanted to improve my Makerspace area so students have access to more materials and surfaces for creation, brainstorming and building. In the wooden bookshelves I’ve added 3 boxes of K’Nex and building materials so during our 10 mins transition time each day students can build and be creative. All the shared resources for colouring, designing and crafting are also dispersed across the 6 shelves at the back. Students also have access to 2 ‘WhiteBoard’ tables for brainstorming and planning anything they are creating in that area.


This year I decided to continue gifting one plant per child to start the year with a ‘Growth’ mindset and also to match our class theme of #Cultivate. I kept the same quotes I used previously as it’s a helpful start of the year activity for students to group together based on the quotes and then create a shared class poster about growth mindsets and cultivating learning.

Shared copy of Google Doc plant quotes & welcome message available here.

Screen Shot 2017-08-19 at 12.52.00 PM

UPDATE: September 5 2017

Here are the collaborative posters made by the students in the first week of school to shape our learning for the year; students crafted the posters and presented their understanding of the quotes to the class.


7 thoughts on “#Cultivating Effective Learning Spaces

  1. I have been waiting for this post! I love how reflective you are. Your post last year and the reasoning behind your choices was solid and inspiring. Your commitment to change came out of your own paycheck so it was something you were literally very invested in so I was wondering how that would look this year. You didn’t disappoint! I love that you have repurposed the furniture and expanded on ideas that flourished last year. I also love that you were quick to see where things could be improved. The hashtag for the year – love it. I was wondering if this would be the same this year or not. I still haven’t picked mine but am tossing up between #release and #reflect. And #curate or #leap. I will keep you posted! I hope that your environment continues to be a collaborator in your teaching practice with you. I am in a learning space unlike anything I have ever worked in and I just love it. I appreciate your research and your link to play and learning and environment. I am still a strong advocate for the “less is more” school of thought. Thanks for the insight into your room. I hope you and your kids have a fabulous year! x

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  3. I really appreciate this post, thank you. I have been on a similar journey of cultivating my learning space. I really appreciate the research you shared. The cave, campfire, and watering holes and the plants will definitely stick with me and my practice.

  4. This is wonderful! I like the three categories you use for space – Caves, watering holes and campfires.A really great way to support students in understanding what types of spaces support what type of learning/ inquiry! Great work, makes me want to empty and restart my class all over again!

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