COVID-19 Classrooms: How to Expand Your Space Without Construction

COVID-19 Classrooms: How to Expand Your Space Without Construction

In this blog, Sandra Duncan, EdD, and architect Lauren Magee, provide practical and helpful strategies for educators seeking ways to safely distance children in the COVID classroom.

For a closer look at the classroom layouts below, click each image to expand.

The unexpected journey of COVID-19 has presented many challenges about how to physically distance children within the early childhood classroom. There are literally no roadmaps to follow and certainly lots of speed bumps and detours along the way. One of the biggest challenges is how to set up and establish physical distancing while still maintaining some sense of community and normality for young children. The biggest problem facing teachers is the availability of space. Most classrooms are relatively small so there isn't the luxury of extra square footage. And, there probably isn't the budget and definitely not the time for adding space onto the classroom's footprint. The purpose of this blog is to offer strategies for reclaiming square footage from underutilized areas in the classroom and to offer ideas for room expansion without the cost of construction simply by using the square footage that is already available.

There is really no perfect solution to physical distancing in the early childhood classroom. First, we are asking for the impossible from kids: to stay far away from their friends. Young children are naturally sociable and inherently want to play with others. So, to ask them to "stay away" from their classmates is almost inhumane. For young children, 3 to 6 feet is a long, long way and, to further complicate the issue, their understanding of measurements is extremely limited. They really have no idea what 3 or 6 feet means.

One really wonders what the future impact of physical distancing will have on the social and emotional development of young children. What will the COVID-19 generation grow up to be like and how far-reaching will this monumental event affect their lives?

 Figure 1

Secondly, physical distancing in an average-size classroom is almost impossible. There really is no perfect idea (or even a sliver of being perfect) when it comes to physically separating children in a typical classroom space. Let's do the math: With the requirement of an average 35 square feet per child in a traditional classroom designed for 20 children, the total amount of available square feet is 700. In a 700 square foot classroom, the 6' physical distancing rule for these 20 children takes up over 565 square feet. That leaves practically no room (only 135 square feet) for furniture, equipment, and learning materials. (Fig. 1)

Design Mistake #1: Grid-like Layout

A common design mistake is arranging the classrooms in a grid-like fashion, which means that equal-sized centers are arranged around the classroom's perimeter or along the walls. This grid-type arrangement is done without consideration of the center's popularity or the amount of furniture needed to equip the area. The result of this type of arrangement is a classroom that is unbalanced with high levels of cabinet-heavy centers in some parts of the classroom and low levels of density in other areas of the room. In addition to the imbalance of the room's furniture, there is also an inequitable use of the furniture because children gravitate to some centers more than others. Take a look at this classroom design. Because the block area and dramatic play center are located together (see top right corner of diagram) and since these are popular centers, 50% of the children could end up in one quadrant of the classroom resulting in unacceptable crowded conditions in a COVID-19 classroom. (Fig. 2)

Solution: Break Free From the Grid!

Although the grid is a useful organizational tool because it provides equal space to all the individual interest areas, this type of design actually isn't equitable. All learning centers should not be of equal size. Some areas require more space because of the type of center and how children play within the confines of that space. Different spaces require different kinds of equipment and the amount of storage needed for the area. The first strategy for breaking free from the grid is to analyze the popularity of the center and the amount of storage required for the center. From these pieces of information, determine just the right size for each center. Rather than gridding the classroom's furniture around the outside perimeter, consider using an organic layout strategy. An organic design is a layout that allows the learning centers to break free from the traditional gridded constraints by (1) opening the face of the center so the front of it is free from shelving units; (2) repositioning popular centers in opposite corners; and, (3) reclaiming space, which will result in more opportunities to create distancing between children.

 Figure 2 and 3

Design Mistake #2: Single-Purpose Walkways

Too much space is often dedicated to single-purpose walkways, which eats up valuable floor space that children could otherwise use. Although clear walkways are necessary for safety and egress, they can inadvertently limit the floor space. In this diagram, notice the (1) green areas that are representing walkways in front of the cubbies, (2) through the middle of the room, and (3) the two pathways to the restrooms. All this walkway eats up 210 square feet of floor space that could be better used by children. (Fig. 3)

Solution: Reclaim Space from Walkways

Reclaim space from walkways and fuse this square footage into children's play areas. In the illustration above, for example, the floor area in front of the cubbies is presently used only at arrival and dismissal times or perhaps when children retrieve their jackets to go outside. By reorienting adjacent learning centers, children can utilize this same floor area throughout the entire day.

Design Mistake #3: Too Many Cabinets

It's tempting to use cabinets to enclose the learning center spaces. This often results in excessive reliance on large pieces of furniture in an already crowded classroom. Another consequence of too many cabinets is that children's easy access to the learning centers is limited, and, therefore, popular centers can quickly become densely populated with children. (Fig. 4)

 Figure 4

Solution: Remove Furniture

Reclaim space, improve flow, and increase usable floor area by moving or removing furniture. In the illustration above, each white storage shelf occupies 5 square feet of floor space. Simply by removing three of these shelves, you could get back 15 square feet of floor space that can be for children's use. If you're worried about not having enough storage space because of getting rid of shelving units, try incorporating medium-sized wipeable baskets and bins. These sized bins are easy to move so teachers have the flexibility to space children out around the classroom.

What Will This Look Like In My Classroom?

The purpose of this blog was to demonstrate strategies for physically distancing children in the COVID-19 classroom. The illustrations below demonstrate how children clump together in a traditional classroom configuration compared to a COVID designed classroom. The spreading out of children in the COVID designed classroom is obvious. In the "Before" density diagram, more than 50% of the children are concentrated in the most popular centers located in the top part of the room. In the "After" Density Diagram, the children are inherently spread out and are utilizing the entire square footage of the classroom.

 Figure 5 and 6

All early childhood classrooms are facing a similar dilemma of how to gain more classroom space without the budget or time to do remodel. The solutions presented here are quick, inexpensive, and easy-to-accomplish. Don't call the construction contractor or architect. Rather, try using these ideas and strategies with your COVID-19 classroom!

 Figure 7 and 8

About the Authors

Sandra Duncan, EdD

With over 45 years of experience and a doctorate in education, Dr. Sandra Duncan has a wide and varied background in early care and education. She has extensive experience in working with young children and parents, teaching at the university level, designing professional development programs for practitioners, and authoring several teacher resource books including Through a Child's Eyes, Rethinking the Classroom Landscape, Inspiring Spaces for Young Children, and Rating Observation Scale for Inspiring Environments (ROSIE). Most recently, Dr. Duncan brought her years of theory and best practices to the early childhood classroom in the form of the Sense of Place furniture collection—an exclusive to the Kaplan portfolio of furniture offerings.

Lauren Magee

Lauren Magee is the Director of Architecture and Environmental Design at Guidecraft, and design principal at LK Magee Architecture + Design. Her years of professional experience as an executive-level architect, her role as an associate professor of architecture at Drexel University and Illinois Institute of Technology, her recent tenure as an elected school board member, and her current work with students and teachers at all levels combine to enrich her inspired approach in the design of learning environments.

Link to Original Article

Creating Nature-based Classrooms Webinar – Presented by Sandra Duncan and Jody Martin

When you think of the aesthetics of an early education classroom, what do you see?

Consider how this makes you feel. Are you calm or are your senses overwhelmed with all the colors? Can you find a comfortable spot to relax? Most likely, if you don’t feel comfortable, little ones will also feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed in this type of environment. This is a familiar aesthetic for teachers, but not necessarily the right one. Early childhood experts are beginning to look at new ways to break this antiquated classroom setup by designing beautiful classroom environments filled with nature and natural objects.

“Traditionally accepted notions of what early childhood classrooms should be have persisted because, until recently, they haven’t been challenged.”

Natural, recognizable spaces welcome children and allow them to relax and deeply experience the moment without unfamiliar distractions. A child who is calm, at peace and centered will be able to experience and remember information better than a child who is constantly distracted, uncomfortable and forced into focus.

Beautiful, realistic elements are vital for creating a classroom space that promotes positive cognitive learning. In this thoughtful webinar session, Creating Nature-based Classrooms: Breaking the Aesthetic Code of Early Childhood Environments, Sandra Duncan and Jody Martin encourage teachers to break the traditional aesthetic code by bringing the outside in and creating nature-based experiences for young children to enhance their learning potential.

Click here for a full recording of the webinar.

About the Presenters:

With almost 50 years of experience in the early care and education field, Dr. Sandra Duncan has extensive experiences in publishing curricula and teacher resources, playing with young children, training early childhood professionals, teaching at the university level, designing professional development programs, working with parents and CDA candidates and authoring articles and books.



Jody Martin has 34 years of extensive and diverse experience in the early childhood field. She taught preschool, directed a child care center, and worked at the corporate off1ces of two national child care companies. She is presently the Professional Learning Content Manager for Frog Street Press. Jody has authored several courses for online training companies, written several articles for early childhood publications and authored several books.


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How to Bring Back Your Life’s Rhythms: Importance of Hideaways for Kids

For the past few months, the common thread of COVID-19 has changed all our lives. Through this change, we’ve discovered many things about our children, work, and ourselves.  Admittedly, the learning curve has been sharp and steep. We’ve learned about working remotely, becoming our children’s teachers and transforming living rooms into classrooms, and keeping our loved ones close even though they are many miles away. Perhaps, we have also learned to let go of the small stuff and have come to realize that leaving the dirty dishes in the sink, having cereal for dinner, or not making the bed once in a while won’t necessarily result in complete family disaster. Yet, undoubtedly there have been a few times that may feel like we want to crawl under our bed covers and hide out. The same is true for children.

Even before COVID-19, there has always been an acknowledgment and understanding of children’s need to seek refuge from a grown-up society. Who doesn’t remember making the kitchen table into a tent? Who doesn’t recall finding refuge under a bed? Who hasn’t found the perfect hiding place behind the clothes in a closet? Who doesn’t revel in a secret hideaway known only to you? For young children, there is importance in hiding out, of finding a place that is just the right size, of making the hideout all their own, or of discovering a secret world removed from adults and bothersome siblings.

Young children need places to hide away, play in solitude, and discover themselves. It is through this discovery of self that additional discoveries emerge such as respect for space as well as respect for others. Most importantly, however, these hideaway spaces give children a feeling of safety and security in these times of uncertainty. There are many kinds of hideaways including under the bed, behind a bush, or in a closet.  There’s also forts, playhouses, castles, treehouses, and makeshift dens. One idea for creating simple hideaways for young children is with tents.

Tent Hideaways. Children have the uncanny ability to find hideaways in the most improbable spaces—at least to the adult. This innate ability may be because of their height, which is low to the ground allowing children to see the world from a different perspective. It may be because of their small size, which allows them to squeeze into tiny spaces inaccessible by adults. No matter what, they instinctively seek out hideaways. There are many types of tents that make great hideaways such as pop-ups, teepees, and camping tents. But, the greatest, most spectacular tent is made from a blanket or bed sheet and any ole’ place your child can find. All you have to do is supply the fabric and your child will supply the engineering and the imagination.

What a child wants to do most of all is to make a world in which to find a place to discover a self. Edith Cobb (1969)


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How to Bring Back Your Life’s Rhythms: Balancing Screen Time with Art Time

There’s no doubt about it; the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed education and how we teach children. With the ever increasing reality that many schools will be resorting to full or partial e-learning at home, everyone is faced with new challenges. But, perhaps the greatest—and potentially most detrimental—challenges are happening with the very youngest children and the negative impact increased screen time can have on their social, emotional, and cognitive growth.

Young children learn best through:

Screen Time Negatively Impacts Child Development

So, given these best practices for young children’s learning, where does e-learning fit in?  It doesn’t. In fact, a research study conducted by National Institutes of Health in 2018 found

children who spend more than two hours a day on screen-time activities scored lower on language and thinking tests and some children with more than seven hours a day of screen time experienced thinning of the brain’s cortex, the area of the brain related to critical thinking and reasoning.  

Research has shown that young children learn best, not through pen and pencil or computer activities, but through imaginative and creative play. There is also undeniable evidence indicating young children who experience large amounts of screen time may show significant decreases in focus and attention. As important, something known as Dynamic Systems Theory positively links the development of big body movement to the development of children’s cognition. All this evidence points to fact that very young children learn less from the screen and more from physically active, real life experiences. But what’s a parent supposed to do if the school is requiring their children to sit in front of the computer during school hours?

One solution is to limit screen time to only school hours (except for perhaps special viewing times on weekends). If school is out, then the household screens like iPads, television, and computers should be powered down. Once the screens are turned off, children’s (supposed) boredom will set in unless you wisely plan for off-screen times with meaningful and engaging hands-on learning experiences. One idea is to create a place where the entire family can engage in creative art experiences.

Art Time Positively Impacts Child Development

There is a strong connection between children’s engagement with creative arts (i.e., drawing, painting, dancing, writing) and later success in life. Researchers at Michigan State University found children who had frequent exposure and opportunities to experience a wide variety of arts and crafts were more likely to become inventors, innovators, and experts in science and technology.

Other benefits of art for young children include:

Some ideas to get you started:

#1:  Designate & Name the Space

Find a space to designate as an artmaking area where all family members can imagine and create. The physical space should be out-of-the-way and in an area that it doesn’t matter if there are ongoing projects or small messes. It could be located in the garage, basement, outdoors on the porch, or under a tree. Naming the designated area, such as Imagination Station, is helpful for giving importance and value to the new territory within the home or in the backyard.

#2:  Organize the Stuff

The most important element of an artmaking area is stuff like crafting supplies, construction materials, and loose parts from nature such as seashells, pinecones, and sticks,  and containers for storing all the stuff.

Be creative with finding containers for the artmaking area.  Old flower pots or wicker baskets, for example, work great to store materials. Containers don’t have to match and be made out of the same material. All they really have to do is hold the stuff.

Tips for storage:

#3 Work Surfaces are Important. Flat surfaces are needed for creating family art. Farm tables are perfect for art projects because of their size, but if you do not have enough room to accommodate such a large piece of furniture, you can construct a simple table out of cinderblocks and a piece of plywood or attach 4 legs to a door to make a quick, very affordable table. If space is an issue, consider creating a table by hanging a shelf on the wall.

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How to Bring Back Your Life’s Rhythms: Captain of the Ship

There’s no doubt about it; we are living in a new norm in which the unpredictability of COVID-19 has left us with a mounting sense of uncertainty about financial security and family health and safety. Familiar household rhythms have been disrupted and it is challenging to steer the family ship. Rather than go down with the sinking ship, what can we do to help survive the rough waters? One idea is to occasionally give young children the chance to be the captain of the ship.

Sense of Control is Important for Young Children’s Healthy Development.

Adults dictate almost every aspect of young children’s lives, leaving them with very little control.  Parents make decisions for their children about which clothes to wear, when to wake up in the morning and go to bed at night, and what they eat—as well as how much to eat: Eat three more bites of broccoli or there’s no chocolate cake for dessert. Teachers control where children sit, which book to take out of their desks, and what pages to read. Now, with today’s uncertainty of COVID-19, there is even more control being exerted over children’s lives with rules about physical distancing and wearing masks.

Although there’s good reasons behind wanting to control young children’s lives (i.e., safety, well-being, physical health), research studies have found there may be equally good reasons for relinquishing some control. Young children who are under constant control from adults have little opportunity to practice important life skills, to make mistakes and learn from them, or to figure out solutions to problems. They never have the opportunity to be the captain of the ship. So, how do you let a preschooler be at the ship’s helm? Here are two easy-to-implement ideas for giving young captains a little control over their home living quarters.

#1: The Perfectness of Hideaways

Did you ever read the storybook, Baby Sister for Frances? Frances was upset because her newborn sister was getting all the family’s attention, so she packed up a suitcase and ran away—underneath the dining room table. It was a perfect hiding space for Frances because she assumed her parents would not know where she was secretly hidden. From a child’s viewpoint, hideaways are simply marvelous. Small hideaways are just the right size for a child but too small for adults and off-limits for siblings. A hideaway can be made from a large cardboard box or a card table and blanket. One strategy for creating a child’s hideaway is transforming a closet by simply removing the doors and suspending a shower curtain from a tension rod. Place a small area rug on the floor and allow the young captain to control the rest of the new territory’s decorating and furnishing decisions. Regardless of the type of structure, the results are a place your child can not only control but a great place to hide away from those who are ultimately in control—Just like Frances!

#2: The Wonder of Empty Space

Young children live in environments planned and controlled by adults.  In most of these environments, there are few unclaimed spots. In early childhood classrooms, every square inch is filled with equipment, furniture, and learning materials. It is pretty much the same in the home. Children have little control over any part of their school or home environments and are rarely asked how to utilize, decorate, or design these spaces. One strategy for handing over the helm to young captains is to completely empty an undesignated space either in the home or outdoor space. This area could be tucked away behind a bush in the yard, an underutilized and odd-shaped alcove or enclosed porch in the house, dead space under the stairs, spot in the attic or garage, or perhaps an unused section of the basement.  Do not give instructions to your child or share expectations of what to do with the empty space.  Just provide it, and (within reason) give your child control. Sit back and watch how the space transforms the empty space into a place of their own.

Tips for the Captain’s Crew & First Mates

The most important feature for any young captain is to be able to control the environment without any interference from the crew or first mates.  So, it is important for the adult to find places in the home that are (1) safe (outlets covered, for example) and easy-to-monitor; (2) out-of-the-way and not congested with people or furniture; (3) spots where you don’t mind if the paint on the wall gets dinged; (4) areas that will not interfere too dramatically with normal household events; (5) section of the home where a certain amount of noise can be tolerated; and, (6) areas where it won’t matter if things get a little messy. And, the most important element for the captain: No adults allowed!

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