School design for positive cognitive development and wellbeing

Emotional wellbeing has risen to prominence in all aspects of everyday life. What was once seen as an afterthought, now, quite rightly, drives decision making and dictates the direction of progress. Schools have implemented numerous policies designed to carefully nurture the delicate emotional undertone running through its ethos, both in their pupils and staff, and a conscious effort is made to cater for positive cognitive development.

How big is the problem?

The World Health Organisation has conducted thorough research into the mental health of citizens around the world and arrived at some startling conclusions, throwing clearly into perspective the need for cognitive issues to be at the forefront of our mind.

WHO Mental Health Facts Summary:

Mental, neurological and substance use disorders make up 10% of the global burden of disease and 30% of non-fatal disease burden.

Around 1 in 5 of the world’s children and adolescents have a mental disorder.Depression is one of the leading causes of disability, affecting 264 million people

About half of mental disorders begin before the age of 14.

Almost 800 000 people die as a result of suicide every year; 1 person dies from suicide every 40 seconds. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in individuals aged 15-29 years.

The global economy loses about US$ 1 trillion per year in productivity due to depression and anxiety.

But how much more can be done? And where can real impact be best achieved?We take a look at the impact good design can have in supporting the other elements of a well-rounded strategy for promoting positive mental mindset. And in a post-COVID-19 environment, where schools are looking to redistribute their resources in the most effective manner possible, we highlight the massive impact that can be achieved through a few simple design changes. Can you hear yourself think? And are you thinking about the acoustics in your school?

Scientific research suggests that learning is seriously hindered by poor classroom acoustics. But it’s not just the quality of work that suffers, mental health and cognitive development can also take a bashing through ill-conceived acoustic design. A study by Frontiers in Psychology discovered that a poor acoustic environment can cause physical and mental discomfort, and also be responsible for moderate to severe mood swings. This in turn leads to raised stress levels and an increase in pupil tiredness, as well as reduced cognitive processing skills. It was also found that acoustic interference from external sources caused the children and staff to use louder voices, manifesting in a requirement to speak louder and resulting in auditory exhaustion for pupils and teaching staff.

Moving forward?

Before considering the options to improve wellbeing through design, it’s worth briefly exploring the type of noise that exists in the classroom.
We can break noise down into 5 main categories:Outside noises (cars, playground noise, sports matches)Internal noises (conversation within the room between pupils or teachers)Impact noise (general moving around the classroom, footsteps, doors, chairs, cupboards)Equipment noise (fans from projectors, the hum of lighting, computer background noise)Virtual noise (the noise experienced by participants joining the environment virtually, for example, how well do those on a videolink hear their teachers and classmates, and are there any acoustic barriers hindering interaction?)

We can now think about how to best acoustically insulate individual elements of the school building to reduce the impact of unwanted noises. Absorbent materials in wall and ceiling panels can be carefully chosen to reduce overhead and impact noise within the school. Objects designed to scatter sound can be introduced to absorb or eliminate excess echoing or intrusive impact noises. And porous substances on interior surfaces will dramatically minimise reverberations, aiding the process of speaking and listening for all in the classroom.Shining some light on the impact of lightingThe jury is still out on the scientific data surrounding pupil productivity under different lighting conditions. Whilst small scale studies have been undertaken, statistics to support an increase in individual attainment under different types of lighting are not conclusive, and in fact, the impact of different lighting is subjective to the different setting. What is clear is that for whatever reason, students are more comfortable under softer, more forgiving light, preferring to work under the softer hues of LED fittings than the glare of harsh fluorescent tubes. Even if as suggested by scientific research that the impact of different lighting only delivers psychological benefits, then this should be motivation enough to place classroom lighting at the forefront of any design consideration.Get outsideThe impact of appropriately allocated outdoor spaces is perhaps best summarised by the American Academy of Paediatrics (2014) who state that:“(Outdoor play) represents an essential respite from rigorous cognitive tasks.

It affords atime to rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialise. (Outdoor play) also helps young children to develop social skills required for wellbeing that are otherwise not acquired in the more structured classroom environment. After a break, children and young people are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively.”These findings are probably not a surprise to the majority of educational practitioners, but the real challenge is integrating this attitude and approach to everyday lessons. Classrooms and learning spaces should be geared towards getting outside, and lessons shouldn’t be restricted to the constraints of the classroom walls. Consider large open doors that remove the classroom walls and  allow for learning to spill into the environment. Install places to read and write outdoors and keep timetables fluid. The payoff is an improvement in all-round cognitive development and happy, healthier children.

Space to chat

It’s good to talk. And whilst the old mantra suggests that children should be seen and not heard, a silent child is actually a bit of a worry. Providing spaces where the conversation can flow is an integral part of effective school design. In this instance, an undesignated space can be as useful as one that has been assigned a specific purpose. Small areas that students can take ownership of are perfect for stimulating interaction, the perfect opportunity to informally address issues relating to emotional wellbeing. Don’t dismiss the ether. Intelligent school design should cater for online platforms and virtual arenas.

The continued emergence of online learning has seen school boundaries blur even further. And this presents the perfect opportunity to get things right from the outset. Schools should be carefully planning how their virtual environments are navigated and plan for specific spaces designed to improve positive cognitive development. Just as in the school playground, children need to experience moments of release. The virtual school environment should be no different. Online school designers should work to the same set of criteria as their bricks and mortar compatriots. And in order to promote positive mental wellbeing, a place should exist where children can express issues in a safe, seemingly unregulated situation

Speak to one of the Envoplan team to discuss how you can incorporate style and substance in your school setting, keeping your staff and students happy and healthy at all times.

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