By Leslie Harris O’Hanlon

When elementary school teacher Erin Klein sat in one of her students’ desks last year, she noticed a few things about her classroom space.

For one, the room itself was long and narrow, and the space was awkward. Large, clunky student desks crowded the classroom. And the desks themselves got in the way of students being able to comfortably work together. Even though Klein had the desks in groups of four, her second-grade students were far from each other because the compartments in the desks for student supplies were large, forcing the kids to communicate and work together over a vast span of desk space.

“The desks didn’t allow for much collaboration or comfort,” said Klein, who teaches at an independent elementary school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

What she wanted was a classroom where students could move around freely, sit comfortably, and work together. The more she thought about it, the more she knew she wanted her classroom to have a similar feel as the children’s section in Barnes & Noble or a creative play space in a museum.

“So I decided that the desks were in our way,” she said. “I said, why not get rid of the desks.”

That thought led her to start the process of redesigning her room last school year to make it a more inviting space for her students.  She continues to work on this project throughout the summer in preparation for the start of the new school year.

Research supports the link between classroom space and student learning, Klein said, including work done by Susan Kovalik at The Center for Effective Learning. Just as stores, spas, restaurants, and other businesses spend so much money and time researching ways to make their environments appealing for customers to linger in those spaces, Klein believes teachers should be thoughtful about designing their classroom space.

But there’s one important factor to consider: Get input from your customers — the students.

“So often we know what we want, but not necessarily what the kids would like. So student voice is really important,” she said. “As a teacher, you are one person. The students are 20 to 30 people using the space. They are the ones the classroom is for.”

What her students wanted, she said, was a space they could leave out their games, puzzles and projects if they were in the middle of working on them, but had to move to another activity. They didn’t want to have to put everything away, if they were going to come back to their projects later.  Also, they wanted different chairs to sit in while reading.

“They love comfy places to sit. That was their biggest thing,” Klein said. “This past year, I put in a rocking chair and an ottoman that rocked as well.”


Erin Klein created a comfortable reading nook for her students.
Erin Klein created a comfortable reading nook for her students.” credit=”

Klein started her classroom redesign project last school year by pushing all of her desks against the sides of the room, creating an open space for her students, which lent itself well for students being productive.

“When writing, we grabbed clip boards and spread out on the floor or lay next to each other,” she said. “The students could walk around the room. They could go to the computer, or grab an iPad. The children were getting up and moving freely to get the work done.”

For this upcoming school year, Klein will ditch the desks. But this doesn’t mean her students won’t have surfaces on which to work. Instead of desks, she bought a breakfast nook, similar to what they offer in restaurants. The nook tucks into a corner of her classroom and provides a place where students can work together, she said. Klein also bought two round tables to go on the outside perimeters of her classroom.  In addition, she brought in a small, square table that fits two people, and is good for partner work.

Klein is also revamping her classroom library.  It’s common for elementary school teachers to keep their classroom library books in tubs, similar to plastic shoe boxes, Klein said.

“There’s nothing visually appealing about going to a tub and digging out books,” she said.

So she bought a media cabinet for DVDs that will allow her to showcase many of her books with the front covers fully showing. She plans to rotate books through her library as well, focusing on different authors, genres and series. In addition, she has stuffed animals, lamps, stools and rugs in the reading space to make it a cozy nook and feel like a living room.

“The space lends itself well to having conversations about books,” she said.

She also tries to keep most of the items on her wall eye level with her students, and she changes what’s on her walls to reflect the content the kids are studying.

“If the same stuff stays up all year it loses its meaning,” she said.

She brought in items from home to liven up her classroom, including picture frames, live plants and wooden bookshelves that her parents no longer needed. In addition, Klein talks a lot about the colors in her class. They should be neutral and soothing rather than busy and bright with patterns or polka dots everywhere.

“When you go to a salon or a spa there are green plants, a water feature and the colors are all neutral,” she said. “It’s a soothing environment. For children the content of what you are teaching needs to be stimulating, not necessarily the environment.”


Last year, her students liked the changes she made to the classroom.

“I noticed that the kids’ behavior improved, and I asked them, why do you think that is?” Klein said. “They said, ‘well you know when your mom brings you to a nice restaurant and you can’t run around? It’s the same in here. When we come in here, it’s not like McDonald’s. It’s like a nice restaurant.’”

Her students even got into the habit of removing the rocks from their shoes that they picked up from recess when coming into the classroom.

Redesigning spaces was already in Klein’s DNA: she was just a few credits shy of earning her bachelor’s degree in interior design before deciding to switch to education after her daughter was born. So she started all over again, earning a degree in education and then going on to earn a Master’s degree in education as well.

Redesigning spaces doesn’t have to be a complicated venture, though. Teachers can start by simply de-cluttering their room and bringing in real plants. Nor does it have to be expensive.  Klein finds low-cost decorations in Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain store. She also wrote a grant and received money from her school to purchase round tables and a breakfast nook. And she frequents garage sales looking for good finds she can spruce up and use in her classroom.

“It’s easy to pick up a few lamps from a garage sale and get a can of spray paint to make them look nice,” she said.






  • Desiree Samson

    This is a great article! When you work in a cubicle or in an office, they tell you to get up every hour and stretch your legs, maybe get some fresh air. When we are confined to the desk, sometimes our brain wants to shut down. It’s the same in a classroom setting. The open space, the flexibility, the idea of teaching a class outside, shakes things up, shifts things around, and gives the students an opportunity to do and see things differently!

  • Andrea Hernandez

    I would really love to see more photos- especially some of the book display area.

  • Andrea Hernandez

    I wanted to also add a post I wrote about classroom design to this great list: http://edtechworkshop.blogspot.com/2013/06/conscious-classroom-design.html

    I’m working on my classroom design right now (wondering about how to organize the books, though) and plan to share photos when finished.

  • sbuhner

    Google feng shui for the classroom. There are many resources available for redesigning spaces to encourage learning. -SB

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  • Jake

    The important question to be asked is, “Did her classroom setting improve student learning”?

    • HELPTeachingReading

      My experience says that improved behavior leads to improved learning. And if you create a space where kids are comfortable and WANT to visit, they are more likely to be receptive to what you are attempting to teach them.

  • Tim Bedley

    This is an inspiring article. Erin is an awesome educator and I love her ideas. I did some pretty radical stuff for my students’ learning space as well. The transformation began about 7 years ago. I blogged about it. http://timbedley.com/blog13/?p=215

    • tbarseghian

      Wow, amazing! Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Jenny Letempt

    Love this article! Also the reading space is a great idea. It looks very comfy and homey for the kids to read in! Very neat!

  • guest173

    We love using clipboards for homework. Too bad more schools aren’t as innovative.

  • Jen

    Agree, we’ve been carrying out workshops in schools and introducing children to play with companion dolls. A big doll can often act as a companion and give a child confidence if they are sometimes lonely at school.

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  • Webwitch tc61

    Love the idea. I tried it out some years ago in a team teaching environment but I neglected to bring the parents in on what I was doing and why. Caused a bit of drama and a backlash. I think bringing parents in to the conversation early is a good idea because you can build and ensure a high degree of support from the group who could be your best champions for change

  • Bmom

    My daughter’s first grade teacher pulled the chairs out of the classroom a few years ago with dramatic results. Behavior improved. Attention improved. Self-directed learning improved. The lack of chairs was a major draw for me when eyeing the teacher prospects coming into this year. So glad we got this teacher and this learning space. Oh, and my daughter went from dreading school to loving it in a matter of weeks. She’s also improved academically, rather dramatically, in these first six weeks. Credit the space or credit the teacher who was open minded enough to create the space. It’s working for us.

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  • Bill Ferguson

    I simply moved the desks to the walls. That gave us a great amount of floor space to work on and left a place for those who needed their own space to work. They were sitting everywhere! Under desks, on desks, sprawled on the floor, under their coats at the back of the room. It was fascinating to watch.

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  • Heike Larson

    Sounds kind of like a Montessori elementary classroom! In the mixed-age Montessori environment for ages 6-9, there are no desks at all. There are child-sized tables of different sizes, work rugs, lap tables, bean bags for reading.

    Children are free to choose where to work–on the floor, alone at a small table, in a group around a larger table. They are free to get up and move, to find comfortable positions, to work alone or in pairs or in groups. This autonomy and movement really works well for young children!

    Check out some photos for classroom decorating ideas here: http://leportschools.com/grades-1-3/gallery/

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  • Debby

    Gosh, this sounds like a Montessori elementary classroom. The environment for students actively promotes collaboration and independence.

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  • MikeSadofsky

    Ditch the desks; the classroom; the curriculum; the age segregation; the autocratic governance; and maybe you’ll end up with something like Sudbury Valley School where all kids reach their potential.

  • April

    Interesting. When I was a kid, we always had to sit at our desks. I came out well, always one of the top students. Later in life, I almost always got the jobs I wanted and performed very well. My creativity was never shut down in that “old school” environment, I ended up being a professional artist (illustrator and fine arts). Though my elementary teachers (or even my parents) may have not foster my creativity per se, I was highly creative regardless of the environment. There is a saying in my country: “if you are a parrot, you are green since you were born.” I worked at an elementary in the US for a few years, they were trying to implement something similar. It worked well for some kids, but for others it was their chance to be even more lazy (I saw it with my own eyes).

  • Laura

    How refreshing! Working in a very traditional school with very traditional teachers, this would blow their minds. “How do you give a quiz or a test?” would be the first question that I get asked. Speaks volumes.

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