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  • Lauren Magee

Can Design be a Mitigation Strategy?

Since March 2020, our lives have been dominated by Covid: our patterns of work, school, play, socializing and even our daily routines have been impacted. Each of these categories is essential to the human experience, and so ingrained in our expectations of life, that even now, 10 months into this global crisis, we are still collectively coping with these changes.

Safe school re-opening continues to be a widely-debated topic among parents, politicians, communities, and across social media platforms. As we’ve learned, mitigation strategies are essential during this time in order for life in and out of schools to return to a new normal: mask-wearing, hand-washing, air filtration and purification, fresh air circulation, social distancing, and enhanced cleaning protocols are among those strategies that have been publicly discussed.

However, for the most part, we haven’t seen schools embrace design as a mitigation strategy and this feels like a missed opportunity. We’ve seen desk spacing increased, clear plastic barriers employed, and taped-off squares on the floor to constrain movement. Children are often not using lockers or cubbies, and are not sharing supplies. They are travelling one-way down corridors and all are facing front in the classroom. In K-12 classrooms, we've met the challenges of the pandemic with increased measures of control and constraints.

In contrast, in early childhood classrooms, where children are not expected to sit in chairs at desks all day, and teachers are not dependent upon screen-based instruction, we’ve found opportunities for flexibility and creativity through design. While these learning environments are intended for ages three to five years, they are intentionally designed to support individual growth and development that is valuable at all age and ability levels: independence, curiosity, exploration, open-ended questioning, movement, engagement, individuality and community.

When we look at a traditional early childhood classroom layout, it is typically very compartmentalized. This keeps the materials separated by topic, and is a method of controlling children’s movement within the classroom – it’s easy to count how many children are within one of the centers, and to monitor who is where. But it’s no wonder schools are reluctant to reopen under these circumstances, with this quantity of children, because the way children naturally work and play isn’t compatible with the mitigation strategies needed during Covid. Children are notoriously bad at social distancing and so some areas become packed with children, while others are sparse, and a teacher could (and does) spend all day separating children from one another to maintain distance.

The image above reflects a typical classroom layout with learning centers labeled. The green cross indicates the floor area that is utilized for circulation - for getting to and from the doors, the restrooms and between learning centers. Think of these as the "hallways" of the classroom and, like in our own homes, hallways are "single-purpose spaces" that don't contribute to a feeling of spaciousness in the zones where they'd be most welcome (a kitchen, a living room, or the block area or dramatic play area in the classroom, for example). In addition, by using furniture to enclose learning centers, we are artificially confining children - represented by yellow dots in the plan - in those spaces and preventing movement and the necessary physical distancing to mitigate the passing of germs. So, what's the solution?

In the redesigned classroom shown in the image above, we have used design to open the classroom up. Instead of lining the walls with storage shelves, and instead of using furniture to contain children, we are using it to promote what children do best: MOVE! This classroom encourages children to spread out throughout learning centers AND throughout the classroom. Learning centers are still well-defined by the materials and furniture without the need to create walls and dividers. Removing the storage shelves from the sides of the learning centers means that those "hallways" from the last plan - the areas of circulation - do double-duty by being used for work and play by children throughout the day. This effectively adds square footage to our classroom without actual expanding the footprint.

Using design doesn't eliminate the need for other mitigation strategies. But, it is one more tool at our disposal to make the return-to-school process more manageable. And, it does this by removing constraints, instead of adding them. #preschool #earlychildhoodeducation #architecture #environmentaldesign #covid19

Note: this design was originally created in collaboration with Dr. Sandra Duncan for a presentation with Kaplan Early Learning Company.

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