Monday, October 29, 2012

Furniture: you can have too much of a good thing

Recently a university researcher spent a couple of days in a learning hub with year 2-4 students. “Did you realize…”, he said afterwards, “..that at any one time, a third of students are sat on the floor?”

It was an interesting observation- the children weren’t sat there through necessity, it was through choice. It suited the learning they were doing at the time. Over the next few days I went through the hub at different times of the day and would certainly agree with the observation.

In the past I’d taught in a classroom of thirty students- with thirty desks, thirty chairs, half a dozen desktop computers on a bench down the side- each with a stool, a teaching station where there were always half a dozen children or so, some low kneeler benches that a few students were always drawn to as well as a small couch in the reading corner. When I think about it now I consider I had seats for well over forty children. No wonder perhaps, that at times, moving around the space was challenging. The trick therefore is not to simply replace existing furniture with a similar amount of new furniture. The empty space is important- it becomes space for learning and space for flow.

Suppliers are putting a lot of thought into designing for flexible and innovative learning environments. They are considering contemporary pedagogies and the styles of furniture that best facilitate learning. When looking at what’s on offer though it’s important to think about specific learning experiences and what you need in order for them to succeed- before deciding what type of furniture is going to be most suitable. What type of activity will the students be engaged in? How many students will be working in the particular learning setting, and for how long? What access will they need to technology and resources? What relationship do you want to encourage between students and the teacher in this setting?

When you start to work through this exercise it quickly becomes apparent that you don’t need tables and chairs for all. And where you do they may well be of different shapes, sizes and heights. When we purchased a couple of new tables for our older learners recently they requested tall tables, about 900mm, that they could both stand at and sit at high stools. Surprisingly, the five year olds asked for tall tables too. Who’d have thought?

Putting time into selecting the right furniture for the space is important- and it can take a while. But it’s time well spent. As Hodder suggests, “procuring furniture for school is not a simple task, and there is no ‘one- size-fits-all’ solution.” She makes some good recommendations:

·      “Think about the different roles involved in project development and who is involved: getting the right furniture is a collaborative process, not a one-off decision, and should involve conversations with stakeholders and users.
·      Build-in, or double up, on spaces and furniture elements – steps which double as seats, corridors with niches for private study.
·      Do consider how the furniture you choose might support or embed certain pedagogy, including enabling creative use of spaces and imaginative play, or encouraging different types of group working or communication.
·      Don’t just assume the right furniture is out there – in some cases the best results will be achieved by creating something new to fit your school’s particular needs.
·      Equally, don’t feel you have to start from scratch - be inspired by examples from case studies, both within the education sector and further afield.”

One resource that has been really useful has been the Learning Furniture workshop video. It’s been a useful tool to work through, especially the first time furnishing a new space. It’s available from CEFPI.

I know when we furnished new spaces a couple of years ago there was a mindfulness to creating spaces that weren’t too cluttered with furniture- an intentional under-furnishing if you like. We wanted them to be spaces that were easy to move around. Better to begin with not enough furniture than too much. You can always buy more if you need to.


Holder, A. Furniture for Schools. Retrieved from

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