Thursday, 29 June 2017

DESIGNING EDUCATIONAL SPACES

BY DR. SWATI POPAT VATS - President Podar Education Network, President Early Childhood Association







‘We live in a new world where education, neuro science and classroom instruction are joined.’(Dr Stephen Rushton 2012, Exchange). And so in this new world it is important to design educational spaces to help education become truly the development of the mind, body, and soul. It is important to break the monotonous image of a traditional school and bring in a more contemporary and scientific image of an educational environment. It is time to fold away the ‘box’ that we call classrooms and unfold new age classrooms that are breathing classrooms, with ‘sensible material, comfortable seating and have an infusion of color inspirations and motivational designs.
Isn’t it sad that we expect our students to be creative thinkers but the environments that they are cooped up in for study are a far cry from being creative? One of the biggest influences on the child’s thought process is the typology of his/her immediate surroundings. Thus the architecture and interior design of a school plays a crucial role in developing and defining a child’s concepts. Brain expert Jensen writes, ‘brain – friendly learning environments strengthen neural connections and aid long- term memory, planning and motivation. To be brain – friendly, they need to be places that are comfortable and aesthetically engaging.’
It is time to create brain friendly classrooms if we want to inspire, motivate, and nurture the brain development of our students, so how do we create such brain spaces? Attention, Processing, Memory, and Retention are the foundation of all brain development and so these brain classrooms must address the enhancement of these processes.
So here are some general design thoughts in the renovation of educational spaces-

Colors in our environment affect our emotions and behavior - and possibly cognition – Colors Also Stimulate Alertness and Memory. Colors enhance brain functions
·         Yellow, beige and  off-white are optimal for learning
·         Red, orange, and yellow spark energy and creativity.
It’s time to move from white, grey, and brown in our classrooms to more effective colors that can enhance brain functions

Smell- try going to a school toilet especially after break time and your olfactory system will break down. Now think of the classrooms that are adjacent to the toilets! Also due to lack of space most schools make their kids eat snacks in the classroom and so after snack time the classroom is a ‘smell zone’ with all kinds of strong smells assailing your delicate sense of smell. According to Pam Schiller and Jensen, olfaction – the neuroscience of smell – also influences our moods and levels of anxiety and fear, and even hunger and depression. Olfactory research, Schiller and Jensen both suggest that peppermint, basil, lemon, cinnamon, and rosemary enhance mental alertness while lavender, chamomile, and orange and rose calm nerves and encourage relaxation. Unpleasant odors, on the other hand are known to inhibit learning.
So it’s time to fix air fresheners or automatic aroma diffusers  in our classrooms and toilets. It’s not just fashion; it’s the need of the brain.

Temperature- the new terminology is temperature-controlled classrooms.  This is important as an optimal temperature is essential in the learning environment. According  to  Ornstein  (1991)”a rise  of  only  1 or 2 degrees C in  brain temperature above normal is  enough to  disturb brain  functions.
Important to keep the classroom around 25 to 27 degrees and this can be done by putting curtains when the sun is too harsh and having cross ventilation in the classroom.

Acoustics or sounds are important too. What does this means for the classroom? The brain processes about 20,000 bits of auditory stimuli every second. Nearly  every  sound  in the  range  of 20 to 15,000 cycles per  second  is  fair  game   for  processing. If kids have to strain to hear the teacher above the other noise variables then attention and concentration suffers. And so does reading! Hearing  what  we  want   students  to  hear  in the  classroom  is  one  of the  most significant  variables in  predicting  reading  performance. Research says that Noise may have physiological implications. Noise can effect children by increasing their  blood pressure and heart rates, and elevate stress levels – all these factors are not at all conducive for learning and brain development
The walls need to be made strong and the structure such that sound travels in the classroom without the teacher having to raise her voice and external sound interferences from the next class or corridor can be minimized.

Light- Natural light is very important for a healthy school. Ultraviolet light activates the synthesis of vitamin D, which aids in the absorption of essential minerals such as calcium, and hence it is important that our students are exposed to as much natural light as possible. Fluorescent lights have been shown to increase cortisol levels, a change likely to suppress the immune system. Low light makes close work difficult on the eyes and nervous system. This leads to attention and concentration issues and even behavior issues.
Keep the sun cycle in mind while designing classrooms so that harsh sunlight does not make closed classrooms mandatory. But instead light sunlight would keep the classrooms bright and breathing.

Oxygen- what do brain’s require? They require oxygen. Oxygen helps keep the blood flow to the brain active thus resulting in less drowsy kids and more alert and focused kids. Indoor plants are a good source of oxygen and they also help filter the air of toxins and increase oxygenation. Jensen suggests that each learning environment should include four to eight plants. This will also connect kids to nature and teach them about nurturing nature.
Schoolrooms should include as much cross- ventilation as possible to keep the oxygen flowing.

Hallways/corridors- Neuroscientists theorize that ‘the   brain is  biased for  high contrast  and novelty; 90% of  the  brain‘s sensory  input  is  from visual sources. The brain has an immediate and primitive response to symbols, icons, and other simple images’. Students transit from class, lab, outdoor etc and in these transitions they use hallways, corridors etc. these are the most ignored in a traditional school set up. Grey, dingy with ‘framed notice boards that bore’, these hallways or corridors should instead be a ‘repository of information, activity and social interaction’.
Flat surfaces on doors and partitions can be painted with paint and have the means to attach children’s drawings and work allowing the students to influence their environment and create displays they can be proud of. 

Furniture- how high should the student’s chair be? How high should the desk be? What distance should the chair be from the desk? Should there be a footrest for students? How high should the backrest of the chair be? Should the chair/bench that student’s use be a hard surface or a soft surface? These are the questions that should be answered before designing the furniture in classrooms. Children spend more than 6 to 7 hours in school on that furniture and it affects their spine, their posture and incorrect furniture can lead to health issues like back pain, swollen feet, headaches etc. Well, think 90-90- 90. Ninety degrees of hip flexion, ninety degrees of knee flexion, and feet flat on floor with ankles at a ninety-degree angle. The desk surface should be at about 2-3 inches above their elbow (measure when elbow is bent down along the side of their body) and their shoulders should be relaxed." - Kidz Occupational Therapy, The Ergonomics of a Child's Work Space.
Flexible seating-
Also with space constraints in schools, flexibility of design and multiple use are vital elements in furniture design. And yes brain research says that the brain is social and the brain learns best with other brains. Co-operative learning is one of the nine strategies that raise student achievement (Marzano, Pickering, and Pollack 2001) so it’s time to do away with the regimented single desk seating and bring in-group seating.  
Many global schools are now responding to a research project of James Levine, M.D., and Ph.D, of the Mayo Clinic, that explored the question ‘Do children really need to sit at desks to learn?’ The prototype ‘school of the future’ that he designed, inspired teachers to experiment with using children standing up at workstations in the classrooms or bouncing on stability balls instead of chairs. Dr Levine believes that the most significant advance comes from giving the children the chance to move at school. ‘Children are so amazing. They actually love to learn, we just have to let them move naturally.’
So its time to explore Flexible Seating in classrooms. Flexible seating is simply offering students multiple choices of where and how to sit in the classroom. students can be offered choices of pillows, cushioned stools, beanbag type chairs, or the carpet to sit on.
Outdoor area-
One does not need expensive and fancy climbing structures, they are found in parks too. How about a creative outdoors play area made completely with discarded tyres? One can get discarded tyres of all sizes, first disinfect them and then get them painted and spread them in the  shapes of dragon, snake, the Olympic symbol etc. in the outdoor and children can have good physical fun with creeping, crawling, balancing, all these are midline crossing activities that are good for left and right brain co-ordination

Safety and inclusiveness-
Don’t forget safety aspects while designing schools, the following are a must –
a.     safety strip on doors so that kids fingers don’t get jammed
b.    safety cover strips on all sharp edges of pillars, walls etc.
c.     open plug points to be covered
d.    see through windows on doors so that one can see inside the classroom, this adds a design on the door and also helps when a child is locked by mistake in a room.
And the most important aspect of a good school is inclusiveness so ensure that you have ramps incorporated in the staircase for those that need wheelchair assistance.

The brain is an organ that is shaped through its interaction with the environment and so if the brain is the organ dedicated to learning and memory then educators need to design brain compatible educational spaces and do away with those that are brain antagonistic. It’s time to renovate educational spaces and make them brain friendly. After all positive emotions make happy students .  

Sunday, 18 June 2017

If D.A.P is important then why are our schools unaware about it?

This blog is written by President Early Childhood Association Dr. Swati Popat Vats


N.C.E.R.T and N.C.T.E do talk about D.A.P (Developmentally appropriate Practice/ Curriculum)  and promote it on their websites and seminars but yet the emphasis is strongly on rigorous academics and rote learning and drill activity in preschools as preschools in most states of India are viewed as a preparatory and introductory stage for primary school. So the emphasis is on ensuring that the child is able to write sentences, do addition and subtraction (some schools even teach 5 year olds multiplication and division) answer general knowledge questions and come out with flying colours in formal interview sessions!

I think the problem is when we refer to these years as preschool or pre primary- so the lopsided emphasis is that it is a school that is before the primary school, so naturally it is meant to prepare a child for primary school! Whereas actually the kindergarten years are to prepare a child for life, living and learning. Sadly we only prepare them for learning and that too the incorrect kind!

How can this scenario change? what I am about to suggest may cause a storm and open a hornet’s nest but if a debate on this can be sparked and lead to change in the kindergarten years, then I don’t mind opening the proverbial Pandora’s box-

1.                  Tie up pre primary with the primary syllabus, which means instead of the primary especially the standard one dictating to the kindergarten about what each child should be able to do before stepping into standard one, it should be the other way around, let the kindergarten give the primary school, where to start from.
2.                  Kindergarten and even primary curriculum usually do not feature in the curriculum definitions of educational boards, but I think if educational boards joined in by specifying what should and should not be taught to primary and kindergarten years then schools would be ‘able to’ implement D.A.P. easily and effectively.
3.                  D.A.P can serve as that proverbial bridge that will take the child smoothly from ‘pre primary’ to primary and beyond.
4.                  We also need to give a better status to kindergarten, as they are functioning with underpaid adults who lack professional and specialized educational qualifications.
5.                  Teachers need to be better qualified so that they will be able to understand their role instead of functioning as ‘powerless’ people just implementing and inflicting incorrect practices on little children.
6.                  (The more time young children spend in poor quality settings the lower they score on measures of cognitive and social skills(n.a.e.y.c early child care research network 2000,2003)
7.                  Involve doctors and other professionals in driving home the message.
8.                  Talk to schools about maturation, and experience
9.                  Prepare parents and children for the primary school transition.
10.              More purposeful advocacy for kindergarten must talk about its strengths and potential research based contributions to children.
11.              Kindergarten movement needs a clarity of purpose otherwise there is huge risk of this movement being swept aside or blown off its course by the storms of change raging in educational establishments.
12.              Let the change in educational norms, methods and goals begin with kindergarten  - Kindergarten Is Too Important Not To Protect And Nurture So, Lets Protect Kindergarten And Childhood With D.A.P.(naeyc)
13.              Why do we still stick to the 4 line books for pre primary when the goal is to make the child write on single lines? Three lines will serve the purpose better. Then why put the children through the process of unlearning and learning?
14.              Why cursive writing for pre schoolers? First teach them print and the move to cursive writing in the primary years. When 99% of reading that he is  exposed to is in print? After all to write he must first read and he reads in print
                                         
Some more points to ponder…….

Frankly speaking children require five skills in life that is the core of education, the five skills are –
1.   Physical Skills
2.   Communicative Skills
3.   Social Skills
4.   Emotional Skills
5.   Intellectual Skills
                                                               
When parents and schools only stress on the learning of the 3 R’s or academics, only the 5th skill is being developed, so what about the other 4 skills will they not be important in life? They are extremely important and maybe this misplaced focus on only one skill is the real reason why this generation is not as adaptive, emotionally strong and able to relate, unlearn and learn in their life work.


It’s high time we educate parents on how schools should educate their kids! 

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Select school stationery with care.

This blog is written by President Early Childhood Education Dr. Swati Popat Vats
Be it crayons, pencils, felt pens, play dough, paints or scissors it is very essential to select those that not only fit in your budget but more importantly are child friendly and safe. Young children are susceptible to toxins in paints or lead poisoning through cheap paints and plastics. This can lead to allergies, asthma, and severe problems like attention disorders and behaviour issues due to high content of lead.

While selecting crayons-

·         For very young toddlers select those that are thick and round and fit in the palm as young toddlers use the ‘Palmer’ grip to hold a crayon.
·         Then the child can progress to thick crayons, also called Jumbo crayons.
·         As the child slowly masters the skill of colouring you can now give 3 sided crayons, so that it automatically teaches the child the right way to hold the crayon and this will later help him in holding a pencil.
·         Crayons should be such that they do not break easily, as this can be frustrating for the child.
·         Children tend to put everything in their mouth and may even bite it and swallow-so always select crayons made from food grade colours and avoid those made from textile dyes-as these are dangerous for children when swallowed.
·         The wrapper should be of the same colour as the tip as this helps your child select the colour all by himself and hence develops independence and self esteem.
·         After colouring the colour should not stain the other pages.
·         When colouring the child should be able to get an even flow and not a patchy print.

While selecting scissors-

It is very important to give cutting with scissors as a pre-writing activity as the same three fingers that are used in holding a pencil are used for holding the scissor and hence this helps develop them.
·         The concept of scissoring is to develop the ‘writing fingers’ (thumb, fore finger and middle finger) so the finger holes should be such that they can comfortably accommodate the thumb on one side and both the fore and middle finger in the other.
·         It should be sharp enough for cutting and blunt enough not to hurt the child.
·         Try rubbing the blades on your palms to check if they hurt.
·         It should not twist or get stuck while using as this frustrates the child.

While selecting a felt pen-

·         Do not go on the size or thickness of the pen, check the length of the inside ink holder.
·         It should use food grade ink so that it is safe even if children put it in their mouth.
·         The cap should be ventilated as this will help the child breathe in case he swallows it.
·         The tip should be comfortable-not too short or too thin.
·         The ink should be such that it can be washed off easily from the child’s hands.

While choosing pencils-

·         Check the cantering of the lead-it should be exactly in the centre or else the pencil point will keep breaking while writing and while sharpening.
·         So avoid those pencils where the back of the pencil is covered with paint. The back of the pencil should be showing the lead point.
·         Go more for utility rather than its colour or price.
·         Safe lead or non lead pencils are the best.

While choosing an eraser-
·         Avoid those with aromas as many kids may be allergic to them. Some cheap varieties have strong aromas.
·         ‘Dust free’ erasers are best for young kids.
·         Ensure that the eraser does not smudge or leave dark marks every time the child uses it.
·         The eraser should be the right size for the young fingers to hold and move.
·         The eraser quality should be such that with the slightest of movement across the paper it should be able to erase, so that kids do not need to put pressure.

While choosing play dough/clay-
·         The play clay should be soft and malleable for young fingers.
·         It should not have any sticky oil etc on its surface.
·         When kids use it there should be no residue on their fingers.
·         It should not stain or bleed colours.
·         It should be soft so that it does not crack or dry up when stored.
·         It should be of a high grade so that it does not catch fungus when stored.
·         It should be non toxic for kids. Check for lead content.

While choosing paints-
·         Avoid paints that give a strong chemical smell.
·         Paints that leave stains on the fingers are of low grade quality, best avoided.
·         Buy larger containers so that it lasts longer.
·         Paints should be non toxic, check for lead content.

Let us keep the above in mind and keep our schools and children safe.