School Buildings Matter: For Education, For Health, For Communities

February 11, 2011

by Mark Bishop, Vice President of Policy and Communications

Every once in a while I like to remind myself to skim through The Third Teacher. It’s a wonderful collection of bite-sized ideas that focus on the importance of the school building in teaching and learning. The idea is that environment where students spend their days — the classrooms, the hallways, the schoolyards — plays a key role in shaping their education. Each idea is little more than a short sentence in length, but each is rich in how it highlights the need to ensure that physical spaces support rather than hinder quality education. The ideas range from health and sustainability to play and nutrition.

Cherish Children’s Spaces – It's a natural impulse to nurture our young – let that impulse extend to the places where young people learn.

What we know is that not all schools are cherished. It’s not uncommon for financial constraints to put pressure on schools to postpone maintenance and cut back on maintenance that would normally be considered essential. Need an example? Check out some of the poignant photos submitted by students in last year’s Through Your Lens contest. (The 2011 contest is now open — more about that later.)

Think Small – When identifying hazards in the learning environment, remember that children are more physically vulnerable than adults.

This is true for everything from furniture to chemical exposures: children are affected more significantly than adults. Not only are they smaller, but they also eat, drink and breathe more in proportion to their body size. They also have habits (like playing on the floor or putting their heads down on the desk) that increase their close contact with the physical environment. That’s why it’s even more important that the environment support their health and learning.

Form Follows Function – It seems obvious but is often forgotten: Teaching and learning should shape the building, not vice versa.

A recent EPA publication highlighted that a healthy school environment goes beyond health and safety, but can actually improve academic performance.

School buildings really matter. I’ve had the opportunity to visit many schools, both beautiful and challenged. Again, if you need examples of either, take a moment to look at the photos from Through Your Lens. You’ll see buildings that support learning in beautiful and creative ways; you’ll also see photos of buildings that put health — and learning — at risk.

Take a moment to think about the school you — or your children, or your students, or the children in your city’s different communities — attend. What do you see? Does the space support health? Is it conducive to learning? Does it promote community and engagement? Does it pose risks to health or have features that detract from education? What unmet needs can be addressed?

Take a moment to share what you see. As I mentioned, we’re now hosting our second Through Your Lens photo contest with our partners at Critical Exposure and the 21st Century School Fund. Through Your Lens shows the world what students, teachers and many others see at school every day: the inspiring elements and the elements that need to change.

Learn more and share your photos at www.ThroughYourLens.org.

By sharing photos and stories of what they see every day at school, students, teachers and community members will provide us all with an honest window into today’s school buildings and help us move closer to ensuring that all our nation’s students have the chance to learn every day in spaces that truly support their education.