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The power of fun classroom design

Engaging learning spaces start with one simple question: “What do kids love?” Carmelo Piazza explains how creative spaces aid students.

6 min read

EducationVoice of the Educator

classroom at brooklyn preschool of science / carmelo piazza

Brooklyn Preschool of Science/Carmelo Piazza

Even before I had my own schools, I was focused on classroom design. When I was teaching in the New York Public Schools, kids loved coming into my room because it was full of animals and plants. Some schools won’t even allow you to paint classrooms, and others force teachers to lay out their furniture according to a map, but my principals always gave me the freedom to be creative. Of course, it helped that I was awarded grants to pay for my ideas. 

carmelo piazza

In 2004, when my wife and I decided to open our first hands-on learning center, one simple question guided our classroom design choices: “What do kids love?” 

Here are some of the answers to that question that I have learned over the years.

Building community with animals 

Kids have a fascination with animals. When I taught in public schools, my room was maybe 600 square feet, but it had tables along the walls so the entire room was wrapped with animals: chinchillas, chameleons, king snakes, red-footed tortoises and others. 

It might seem crazy for a busy teacher to take on the upkeep of all these animals, but I didn’t really have to. Kids not only wanted to come to my class when they had science, they wanted to come before the school day even started to feed the animals. We had a feeding group that got kids excited — and their parents, too. I always had parents bringing in leftover veggies to feed to the tortoises or coming in to change the bedding. Having these animals helped me turn my classroom into a community.

When the holidays came around, I never had to worry about what to do with all these animals. For families that never wanted an animal, this was an amazing opportunity for them to borrow the bunnies or the chinchillas and then bring them back when school started again.

Teaching kids to have empathy for animals is a beautiful way to continue social-emotional learning at home. At our Brooklyn Preschool of Science, a farmer brought in fertilized eggs for our chick incubation. Every weekend, so many parents wanted to take the chicks home.

Another great reason animals are an essential part of my classroom design: When a preschooler is “having a moment,” what can teachers do? If they know that that student loves bunnies, they can say to this child, “Look, buddy, I know you want your mom right now, but why don’t we get a carrot and feed the bunny?” It works all the time as a means of redirecting energy.

Walls of plants, magnets or cardboard tubes

As a science teacher, I don’t give animals all the attention. When I opened my own schools, we built living walls (see the back wall on the photo above), which became great motivators for our students. Imagine a kid planting a pumpkin seed in a pot, then labeling that pot and plugging it into the wall. 

As time goes by, they take their pot out of the wall and measure how tall their plant is. They’re learning math skills, and watching their plant gives them a hands-on connection to life sciences. Plants are much more than decor.

Another way to transform walls into magical spaces is converting them into interactive areas. I buy stainless steel slabs that we put onto the wall so students can stick magnets to them. But you don’t necessarily have to buy anything to create an interactive wall. You can use cardboard tubes, masking tape and cardstock to create tracks, and then give the kids a ping pong ball and challenge them to keep it moving on the wall for 10 straight seconds. I have preschoolers who sit there and work on this for an hour. It’s amazing to see that magic happen.

Classroom design with spaces for redirection

While some kids will be engaged by the interactive wall, there are always kids who need to have their energies redirected. I think it’s important to have spaces in the room where kids can be alone. 

My schools have these really beautiful wooden cubes that we call relaxation cubes. They have openings in the front, and kids crawl in. Some have mirrors on the inside; others have interactive walls. I saw one on the market that has artificial grass and flower decals inside to create an indoor space that looks like an outdoor space.

 If a student is angry, a teacher can say, “I know that you’re really upset right now, but would you like a minute to just go into the cube and have a relaxation moment? We can talk when you’re feeling a little better.”

We put all sorts of relaxing things in the cubes, whether it’s a basket of books or something more hands-on, like sensory balls or a bucket of slime.

Our cubes come from this amazing company called Lakeshore Furniture. When I open up a school, I tend to choose high-end furniture because I believe it’s made better and will last longer. But smart and engaging classroom design isn’t about what you can buy. You can easily make a relaxation cube by taking half of a refrigerator box and hanging a couple of pieces of cloth across the front. It’s more about the thought behind it and how the teachers use it than the object itself.

From the beginning of my teaching career, I wanted to create a room that made kids excited to be there — not only because they loved science but because the physical space was so enticing. In one of my rooms, we had dinosaur heads hanging on the wall. Sometimes I would see a student sitting there staring at a dinosaur. They might have looked like they weren’t paying attention, but I knew they were daydreaming about that dinosaur, and that just having it in the room made them want to learn more.

Carmelo Piazza is the executive director/educational director of Brooklyn Preschool of Science. He can be reached via email.