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7 design tips for active learning spaces   

Here’s how an elementary school created a collaborative, comfortable and fun learning space.

4 min read


7 design tips for active learning spaces   

All photos by Wes Cottongim/Cumberland Trace Elementary School

As the principal of an elementary school, it was important to me to take a modern approach to our new school construction project. That meant designing a building that not only fit the academic needs of modern learners, teachers and administrators, but that was equipped with features that supported our school’s mission. 

Serving about 560 pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, we aimed for a progressive environment with contemporary, alternative seating and furniture options that would be conducive to our Kagan instructional approach. Focused on student engagement, Kagan works to get students involved with their learning, which can be easier without traditional desk-and-lectern classroom setups. 

With this in mind, I worked with the school’s dean of students/assistant principal and librarian; formed committees; and began gathering design ideas from a wide variety of stakeholders. This created a blueprint for other schools’ redesigns we wanted to share.

7 steps to ensure a successful project

  1. Form a core team and enlist the help of committees. Along with the core group, we also involved teachers and our financial department in the planning process to give everyone as much input and choice as possible. For example, we asked teachers to come in during their planning periods and share what they did or didn’t like about what was being proposed.
  2. Give students freedom with seating options. Working with MiEN, we came up with some modern, innovative, comfortable furniture options. Our soft seating options, for example, let teachers rearrange the rooms and make them their own, beyond what we designed them to be. The ottomans can be used to create a small group gathering spot, a student seat at a collaborative table or an alternative to a standard desk chair. Students can choose a floor pad and take a seat at the sushi tables. The tall tables provide students the choice to stand, and the rocker stools allow students the ability to focus on their learning rather than the need to move their bodies. The furniture is designed to work together cohesively. 
    Rocker stool for fidgety students
  3. Keep students in mind. The classrooms are outfitted with standing-height desks, tables, low tables and regular tables to address the diversity of learners. We advised teachers to be strategic about who they place where. A student who tends to fidget or move around a lot, for example, may do better at a tall standing desk than sitting on a loveseat. 
    Floor mats and low tables
  4. Create learning hubs. To support our STEM classes and promote better collaboration among students, we created two “learning hubs” in the school’s media center. The first of these meeting rooms is equipped with a table that a TV can be mounted to, love seats, tall tables (that back up to the love seats) and other furniture that encourages small-group learning. The second learning hub features four large, soft chairs that each have an attached small swivel desk for writing and other activities.
    Electronic-friendly learning hub
  5. Make room for special sessions. We do a lot of interventions and social and emotional learning groups. For example, a therapist who is working with a student can have complete privacy in the hub. 
  6. Think outside of the box. We use little “inlets” that sprout off of our hallways to accommodate small groups and one-on-one learning sessions. We’ve made the spaces conducive to this type of learning by installing small couches and tables.  
  7. Don’t forget the fun! We put a slide in our media center and use it throughout the week for fun rewards. I got a little pushback on this decision during the planning stages from someone who said, “Why do you need that?” I replied, “Well, why wouldn’t we need it?” It’s an elementary school, and it should be fun. 

We’ve had a lot of compliments on the whole project, and we’re very pleased with it. Our design partner contributed to its success, even putting all of the furniture together and installing it. When the school environment normalizes, we look forward to getting even more out of the great design strategies that we put in place in our new building. 

Wes Cottongim, Ed.D.,  is the principal at Cumberland Trace Elementary School in Bowling Green, Ky., who worked alongside MiEN to help design the active learning spaces in the school.


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