I used to teach in a small school in downtown Ottawa that was about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. There were many activities planned for the celebration, and one of them was a tour of the school explaining how and why it was designed the way it was a century ago. I will never forget hearing about how glorious the original kindergarten room was, with its high ceilings, vast bay window and enormous mantelpiece over the fireplace. Apparently, there was even a big chandelier hanging in the middle of the room, “To make it feel like home.” Today, the chandelier is gone but the bay window is still there, the ceilings have dropped and the mantel was covered over long ago with drywall and plaster – guess that could feel a bit like some homes nowadays, too.
The idea that a classroom should feel cosy rather than sterile has come back to me as I teach kindergarten in a 50 year old school. We are lucky to be on a corner, with lots of windows, but the classroom is undeniably square, with painted concrete block walls, a dropped, acoustic-tiled ceiling, and fluorescent lights. When I say square, I mean that everything is at right angles – windows, walls, bulletin boards, etc. Nary a wavy line to be found. That was the way you would have found our classroom until last month, when my ECE colleague and I talked about changing things up to be a little more of a Reggio-Emilia inspired classroom with more natural,organic materials (cosy) and fewer brightly coloured, plastic ones (sterile). With a few changes to the way we set things up and to the materials we use, we feel that the energy of the room is now more calming and welcoming.
There aren’t a lot of changes we can make, but here are few that we tried. For starters, the concrete block walls in the classroom are painted a dull yellow in high gloss paint. The bulletin boards are also painted in a brighter high gloss, and the cupboard doors are a kaleidoscope of blue, purple, green, and yellow – waaaaay too many colours! To tame them down and calm the eyes, we covered the bulletin boards with large rolls of brown paper. To frame the bulletin board, we stapled scrunched up green tissue paper. The effect? With the irregular framing of green tissue paper combined with the brown, earthy colour of the bulletin board, the corner of the classroom has been calmed. The door to the classroom is directly opposite and it makes walking into the classroom much more appealing than the bright, mismatched colours that were there before, and the yellow walls are hardly noticeable any more.
Another thing we did was bring the outside into our room. We have a huge tree branch that I had intercepted from the custodian as he was hauling it towards the dumpster in the fall after a storm had snapped it off a tree in the yard. Hanging it horizontally from the ceiling was not possible due to health and safety regulations, so I stuck the bottom of the branch inside a rigid poster tube, and then attached the tube with plenty of duct tape to the side of a filing cabinet beside my desk. It is now one of the first things you see when you walk in the room. The students decorate it whenever they get in the mood and so it is constantly changing. Dead or alive, trees in the classroom are great. Period.
Another little “make it feel like home” touch we added was a set of white cotton curtains hung to frame the giant white board/projector screen that dominates one wall. Now the curtains cut off the corners of the big rectangular screen and make it look more like a movie theatre screen. Feels a little special. We’ve also talked about bringing in some table lamps to place at some of our centres but we lack enough room along the walls where electrical outlets are located, so we rely instead on the lovely sunshine that streams in from the considerable window space. The natural light is perfect for the plants we’ve got growing on the window ledge. Some live and some die due to a lack of water, or over-watering (depending on whose responsibility it is that week) but there is no doubt that they add another continuously changing organic presence to the room and soften its manufactured aspects. We’ve got kitchen herbs which inevitably get picked and eaten (chives, basil, mint, lemon balm), as well as a chrysanthemum we rescued at the end of autumn from our planter in the school yard, and a sweet potato vine which is growing quite happily in a clear glass vase where we can watch the roots reach down towards the water.
The final touch we add only on the coldest days when it is just not possible to have outdoor learning is projecting the fireplace channel on the whiteboard when the students arrive in the morning. It is a big fire and the gentle crackling sound offers a distraction from the fact that our routine has been changed and we are spending the morning indoors. Most definitely makes the whole room feel cosy and homey. The classroom may not be anything like the home my students return to at the end of the day but we can still try to make it feel as hospitable as possible, a little like their home-away-from home.