Designing for Healthy and Functional Learning Spaces

Designing for Healthy and Functional Learning Spaces

Author: Dr. Christina Counts

As the 2019-2020 school year wraps up remotely for schools all over the country, district leaders and educators are turning their attention to the fall 2020 semester and what it will look like when students return to the classroom. Schools and districts are focused on creating healthy but functional learning spaces, with students and learning at the center of the conversation. While no one knows quite yet what classrooms and learning will look like in the fall, many school leaders are brainstorming possibilities for the upcoming school year.

In order to ensure safe and healthy spaces throughout schools, leaders are focusing on learning space design with an emphasis on furniture function, flexibility, and cleanability. As schools begin to plan what their classrooms and common spaces are going to look like come fall, here are three considerations that they’re making to ensure healthy and functional learning spaces for students, faculty, and staff:

Flexibility of Function

One of the biggest benefits of learning in a physical classroom is the potential for collaboration between students. With health safety in mind, it’s important that learning spaces are designed to allow students to keep a safe distance, while also being able to connect and collaborate in the valuable ways only classroom learning can provide. Multi-use furniture pieces can facilitate highly functional classrooms and common spaces where students can work at a safe distance from others. Having two separate learning spaces––one designed for independent work and another designed with collaboration in mind––might be the most flexible way to ensure healthy and highly functional learning spaces in the fall.

classroom design

Pre-Covid Flexible Layout

Collaboration and collaborative design does not have to diminish in order to maintain social distancing. Flexible furniture can be reconfigured to support direct instruction and lecture style instructional delivery with the CDC recommend 6ft. social distancing. Shifting the layouts of desks and furniture allows for students to still have eye contact and contribute to class discussion. Flexible furniture provides the functionality to prevent the old school cemetery effect of rows of desks and students staring at the back of their peers’ heads. Mobile furniture can be utilized in common spaces outside the classroom to support additional learning spaces.  Collaborative groups can still have conversations in small groups and actively work together using online collaborative tools such as Google docs while maintaining healthy distance. 

learning space design

Post-Covid Flexible Layout

functional learning space

Post-Covid Lecture/Discussion Layout

functional classroom design

Post-Covid Lecture/Discussion Layout


A huge consideration being taken while planning classroom learning for the fall is how to encourage safe social distancing in learning spaces that are still efficient and effective. Implementing simple measures such as reimagining movement throughout schools can create safe, distanced pathways that still serve students and faculty. Many schools are also planning for reduced capacity in classrooms, and some are even considering staggered schedules to minimize daily capacity in schools overall. Efficiently using all areas, such as Common spaces, can additionally provide additional instructional spaces to reduce the number of students in a given space. With fewer students in the classroom, students can keep a safe distance without being forced to change how they learn, ensuring efficient classroom learning time even if students are only in the classroom for staggered half-days or alternating days of the week. 

Health and Cleanliness

To promote health and wellness among students, faculty, and staff, one of the most critical considerations for the upcoming school year is how to keep learning spaces clean and disinfected. Surface materials play an important role in cleanability, with vinyl, laminate, and performance fabrics being some of the most durable and easy-to-clean materials for high-touch learning spaces. Healthy learning spaces can also be maintained by separating collaborative and individual work areas, allowing for cleaning and disinfection of one area while students are using the other. Further ideas to minimize the spread of germs without overwhelming janitorial staff include implementing furniture with fewer touch points, such as armless chairs and bringing mobile whiteboards for privacy screens or room dividers into learning spaces.

Without knowing exactly what the future holds, it’s still possible to take the proper precautions to prepare for healthy and functional learning spaces in the fall semester that continue to support collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. Stacking, nesting, mobile, & cleanability are the essential considerations for future ready learning spaces.  Taking these considerations will make it possible for students and educators to focus on what’s most important in the classroom––academics and building relationships with their peers––rather than stress out about their safety and health. Schools will be different, but with the right learning space design and health safety plan, students, faculty, and staff can maintain a positive and enriching school experience in the year to come. 

learning space expertDr. Christina Counts, VP of Strategy and Development for MiEN Environments, is a proven leader with a successful background in transforming learning spaces to modern engaging learning environments.  Dr. Counts has worked in education for over 17 years with experience as a classroom teacher, district instructional leader, school administrator, and digital and innovative learning designer. In her most recent position, Christina leads a team of professionals that support schools making the transition to a flexible, collaborative, & student-centered learning space.  She holds a doctorate in K-12 Educational Leadership, National Board certified, and Google & Apple certified. Dr. Counts envisions a learning space in which educators are empowered to transform education through design, technology and innovative instructional pedagogy to create learners ready for any future!