Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2008

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Exceptional Children
Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

The Great Indoors: Classrooms that Inspire Learning
Learning blossoms when the outdoors comes in as part of a sensory-friendly classroom.

By Ellen Notbohm with Veda Nomura

As parents of children with learning differences, one of the first things we learn is how little we actually know about learning. The typical classroom is too frequently a place of frustration, anxiety, and other unseen obstacles to learning.

Our family was beyond fortunate that, shortly after our son was identified with autism, we fell in with an occupational therapist (OT) who was on an odyssey of her own-- discovering a fascinating new set of tricks that refocused the manner in which she approached classroom education, with remarkable results.

Veda Nomura was an OT with 25 years' worth of working with children to her credit. While working toward a master's degree, she enrolled in a class on learning environments and the Reggio Emilia approach to preschool education. (See the related sidebar.) Inherent in this approach is the belief that environment deeply affects children's ability to tap their own individual learning resources. In effect, the "learning triangle" has three partners: child, teacher, and environment.

"Environment can be very powerful," Nomura explains. "Think about a grocery store. The environment is manipulated to draw you into the store. The floral department and the bakery are near the entrance, so when you walk in you are greeted with beautiful sights and delicious smells.

"Once in, every item is strategically placed. The items you need most often, such as milk or eggs, are at the back of the store. There is no direct route to get to these items, so as you maneuver through the aisles you are tempted by hundreds more products, catchy end cap displays, maybe even samples. It ends with the ubiquitous candy and gum placed at eye (and kid) level near the checkout counters. It's all carefully designed to encourage spending.

"Lobby spaces also send a message. Next time you walk into a building of any kind, note how you feel and what was done to make you feel welcomed or not. You will notice many things. Try this: When you come in a school's main entrance, forget for a minute that you know you are in a school. Look around. Does this entry area let you know anything about its occupants and their activities? Do you feel welcomed? Is it playful (one of my personal criteria)?"

Nomura's course project was an exercise in manipulating an educational environment: overhauling a classroom from the ground up. The classroom was a self-contained Early Childhood Special Education classroom housed in a former nursing home. Overall, it was a depressing place where rooms, corridors, and entryways were anything but kid-friendly and did nothing to enhance socialization. People working there were always complaining about it: the smells, the lighting, and the ventilation actually made some people physically sick.

The classroom itself had once been two rooms. A wall had been removed, creating a long, narrow 15x50' space with two doors. This layout encouraged the children to zoom up and down the middle of the room with little awareness of the activities and stations that were located along the perimeter of the classroom. The lure of two escape hatches was just too tempting to resist. Kids were constantly running in one door and out the other. Worse, the room had the cold, institutional feel of a building designed not for people, but for ease of maintenance.

The children in the class had many behavioral and sensory challenges. Nomura relates how she "wanted the children, teachers, and assistants to participate in the planning and creation of their new space, since they would all be sharing it. The teacher questioned the children about what a special place might be like for them, from a sensory perspective. What sounds make you happy? What smells do you like? The children drew pictures, and the teacher took notes as they described their favorite places.

"I do this exercise whenever I suggest the redesign of a classroom. I ask the staff and children to draw a favorite memory from childhood. The results are amazingly consistent: most of the time, favorite memories occur outdoors-- parks, playgrounds, the beach, the snow, the farm, the zoo. We talk about the rich experience of the environment, then we brainstorm about what it would mean to bring the outside in. It could be having live plants in the room, having a small fountain with its soothing background noise, using pebbles and pinecones for math manipulatives, making leaf mobiles, fish prints, or wood frames for their artwork, embellished with twigs, seeds, or shells. You'll be able to think of many ways to bring the outdoors in."

Just how much change can be brought to a classroom depends upon both funding and volunteer help. Many changes can be affected relatively inexpensively. Here's how to start:

Take everything out of the room and off the walls. Measure the room, then use graph paper to draw out the room, marking windows, doors, counters, etc. Before placing furniture and materials back in the room, play with different arrangements on paper. Consider each item: Is it purposeful or is it just decorative? Look at the room from the child's perspective. What do they see from their angle?

Reduce clutter! We teachers and therapists are collectors of books, supplies, and thematic materials that we always plan to use "some day." For many special-needs children, clutter can be very disorganizing. Many are very visually oriented and move toward something visually interesting, even if the teacher wants their attention elsewhere at that moment.

Position materials so they are easily accessible to where they are used: Store the paint and pencils where the kids paint and draw. When materials are stored in a logical manner, it doesn't matter whether the cupboards are open or closed. In fact, it seems to help students organize themselves independently if they see where materials are kept and learn they are only used in this space.

Clutter reduction applies to walls too. Start with a neutral color as a background. Then have meaningful information on the walls and only meaningful information. This brings students' attention to what is important, even when their eyes and attention may be wandering. Examples of meaningful information: visual schedules rotated daily, spelling words rotated weekly, framed photos of the children, and displays of their artwork rotated monthly. In this manner, information is kept minimal but pertinent. Everything their eyes fall on is both useful and presented in a manner that decreases distraction by being visually consistent.

Do away with cute decorations and anything that doesn't say something personal about the special kids in the class. Nomura tells teachers, "If you were to walk into this space in the evening, there should be echoes of your students present."

Think about the flow of the classroom. Think of zigzags or diagonals when planning classroom play spaces. Nomura suspected her project classroom, with the two doors and the running corridor down the middle, was not being utilized fully. A simple exercise proved this.

"I drew a map," she says, "then used different colored pens to track the activities of several children as they moved about the room over a 20-minute period. Sure enough, they tended to return to and cluster around several familiar places while large areas of the room went unnoticed and unused. We brought the room into full use by moving activity centers away from the walls and regrouping them so children could share materials and do more than one thing at each station. Try science things next to art materials, or a writing center next to the manipulative play area. This helps activity flow uninterrupted and decreases distraction."

Plan several areas in the classroom where two or three students can play. This will encourage students who may have some difficulty with social interaction to practice social communication skills in a less stressful environment.

Mix natural materials from the environment with other classroom materials. As mentioned earlier, bringing the outdoors inside is powerful. For example, hang a panel of sheer fabric with many pockets containing differently textured natural materials (seeds, pods, pebbles, moss, leaves) to encourage tactile exploration. Go on a color hunt outside, seeing how many white things children can find, or how many green or brown. Bring them in and create a poster or collage display.

Nomura's pièce de résistance was finding a large curly willow branch that had fallen in a friend's yard. "We suspended it from the ceiling in the classroom with screw eyes and fishing line," she says, "creating not only delightful ambience but also a backdrop for other natural embellishments the kids brought in--an abandoned bird's nest, pressed hanging leaves."

Think vertically. Nomura's most successful adaptation was including a small loft in the classroom. "Looking at the world from a different perspective is a potent experience," she says. The loft became many things--a quiet area where children read books and played board games, a castle, a jungle tree house. The space beneath the loft became a hiding place, dress up place, kitchen, "mouse house." The children could look down at everything happening in the room, or look up from the floor level and see what was happening in the loft. Placing a nonbreakable mirror on the ceiling under the loft also encouraged the children to look at their world from a different angle.

Commercial packages for lofts are available at several thousand dollars each, but a carpenter friend and parent volunteers can bring the cost down into the hundreds. The loft was about eight feet square and accommodated three or four children at a time. This encouraged interaction among smaller groups of students.

Safety is a huge factor with a loft, however. Nomura made sure it was very stable and mounted safely to corner walls. Strict rules for usage were posted by the ladder.

And while you're thinking vertically, have at least one activity center in your room where the children stand to do their work.

Wide, low risers that are about one foot high and two feet deep and built in sections in various lengths, are another wonderful addition to a classroom. Children can lie down on them to read a book, build blocks on them, sit on them to listen to a story, or use them to give a performance. Some students with sensory imbalances are fearful about movement, especially when their feet are off the floor. Risers offer the experience of being up higher and getting a different perspective, while removing the fear factor of climbing a play structure. Because they are basically just carpet-covered plywood, risers are relatively easy to build, perhaps even from leftover or donated materials.

Create softness in the room. Many classrooms have a hard feel--plastic toys, plastic and metal furniture, severe fluorescent lighting. This can also create a harsh auditory environment--clanging cabinets, scraping chairs, echoing spaces. Softening both the visual and auditory elements of the room can be as simple as creating a canopy of fabric to hang over a gathering area or a quiet play space. Inexpensive fabrics such as cheesecloth can be used. Having a comfortable couch in the classroom is a wonderful way to encourage several students to look at books or relax together.

Check with your principal, however. You may need to treat fabric with a fireproofing solution before hanging it in your room.

Overhead fluorescent lighting, so prevalent in many schools, contributes a lot of harshness to a classroom. The buzzing, glaring, pulsating nature of the light is a major problem for many children. Wherever possible, change out typical fluorescent tubes for the newer natural light tubes; arrange so that light reflects up rather than down. Turn off half the lighting in the room, and use as much natural light as possible to compensate, or add incandescent floor or desk lamps.

Add olfactory, proprioceptive, and other sensory experiences to the classroom with common kitchen appliances. Our teacher brought in a bread machine once a month and made bread for the class. He used a Crockpot to heat apple cider and kept it brewing all day. Whole spices ground with a mortar and pestle provided multisensory experiences. An air popper is great visual, auditory, and olfactory fun for a generation of children raised on microwave popcorn.

Outside Nomura's project classroom, many other changes began to happen in that building. The entry was revamped to make it parent- and kid-welcoming. An art gallery featured artwork from each classroom on a monthly rotating basis. The children were very proud to see their work displayed, and parents and staff previously unacquainted got to know each other through the photo displays.

Nomura's project was a resounding success. "It's exciting to see children respond to positive changes in their learning environment. So many of my students loved their new classroom, it wasn't long before I was receiving requests from other special-needs teachers wanting to revamp their space."

One little boy called the loft "my heaven." He used it initially to escape the pressures of the classroom for short periods. Gradually, as he became more comfortable, he used it less frequently as an escape and increasingly as a place to play with other children.

Another child enjoyed the light box--a large box with a light inside and a translucent panel on the top; you place objects on top of it and watch how the light goes through them. This student was willing to explore and touch a variety of objects that previously held no interest, because he was intrigued by the light filtering through them. Yet another boy, fascinated with the risers in the classroom, would experiment with different building materials and could look at his structures from different angles.

And one student loved looking at the reflection of objects in mirrors that were placed in unusual locations--under the loft and horizontally on the floor next to the block area. He would explore and move various objects to see what happened in the mirror.

"The transformation of my project classroom, and the changes it engendered for students and staff, were truly gratifying," Nomura says. "And although I work with special-needs classrooms, I'd like to see attention to learning environments emphasized for all students. Sensory adaptations have benefit for all children. The beauty of the Reggio Emilia thought process is that it enhances any classroom learning situation."

Two-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of the award-winning Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew and the newly released The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled. She is a columnist for Autism Asperger's Digest and Children's Voice, and a contributor to numerous publications and websites around the world. To contact Ellen or explore her work, visit www.ellennotbohm.com.

Veda Nomura, MS, OTR/L, an occupational therapist with Portland (Oregon) Public Schools, has 32 years experience working with children, birth to high school. In recent years she has focused on developing training for education teams and schools addressing the sensory needs of students with autistic spectrum disorder and the importance of creating positive, supportive learning environments for them. She can be reached at vnomura2@pps.k12.or.us.

This article was adapted from "The Great Indoors" by Veda Nomura, as told to Ellen Notbohm, Autism Asperger's Digest, July 2005. © 2005, 2007 Ellen Notbohm.



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