Classroom design - the architect’s guide to improving students’ ownership of classrooms

Giving young school children a sense of ownership of "their" classroom promotes a sense of self-worth and responsibility and has also been shown to improve academic performance.

The last big expansion in school building across Europe occurred in the 1970s, and most of these schools are now in need of renovation. Since these schools were built, many studies have been conducted into how the physical environment of schools – and specifically the design of classrooms – affects student learning.

One such study was the HEAD Project (2015)¹. It comprised detailed surveys of 153 classrooms from 27 different schools across the UK. It showed that the physical design of the classroom can affect children's learning progress by up to 16% and recommends improvements to classroom design such as more natural daylight, better ventilation and improved acoustics.

The HEAD Project also studied the effect of the SIN design principles – stimulation, individualisation and naturalness – on children's learning.

It found that one quarter of the aforementioned variation in learning progress was due to individualisation (or the lack thereof) of classrooms. In other words, children's academic performance improved markedly in classrooms where they felt a sense of ownership and where the classroom itself had the flexibility to cater for different learning modes.

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Fostering ownership in the classroom

Physiological and psychological research indicate that personalisation of space is an important factor in the formation of an individual's identity and sense of self-worth. Several studies have also found that intimate and personalised spaces are better for absorbing, memorising and recalling information.

Classrooms where children can display their own projects, artwork, etc., have also been found to promote greater participation and involvement in the learning process.

In the Clever Classrooms report, the summary report for the HEAD Project, a range of factors are outlined as important in helping children identify with "their" classroom. The report's recommendations include:

  • The classroom should have a distinctive room design or characteristics that make it instantly familiar to children.
  • The classroom should include opportunities for children's work to be displayed on walls and on dedicated display tables.
  • The classroom should include personalised elements such as name-labelled coat pegs, lockers or drawers for each pupil.
  • Desks and chairs should be comfortable, interesting and ergonomic to the children's ages and sizes.

Creating flexibility

All classrooms require some degree of flexibility to cater for different modes of learning.

Recommendations include:

  • Clearly defined breakout zones or breakout rooms.
  • Varied floor plans to create a variety of activity areas for younger pupils. For older pupils, squarer and larger rooms are more effective.
  • Providing adequate and accessible storage.
  • Large, accessible wall areas for the flexible display of information and students' work.
  • Different learning zones for play-based learning for younger children, with clear through-routes between zones.
  • Flexible arrangement of desks and furniture.

Children spend more time at school than in any other place, except their homes. On average, children spend around 200 days per year in school, and 70% of that time is spent inside classrooms. Giving them ownership of "their" classrooms and providing them with flexible learning environments should be integral to all school design, today and in the future.


  1. Clever Classrooms (2015), Summary report of the HEAD project, University of Salford, Manchester