Millions of students are heading back to class this month and next. Stores are crowded with school supplies for the K-12 crowd and dorm room gear for college students. You don’t see a ton of items in the big box aisles for making your home more back-to-school ready, but a good setup plays a role in how successful students — including the career professional seeking advanced degrees and industry certifications — will be this term. What does it take to set up a study and homework zone in your home? And where should you locate it?
If you’re pursuing or maintaining a professional credential, it’s likely that your study area will be in your home office. (Ideally, it’s set up to be ergonomic and movement-friendly, especially if you’re adding hours to your workday.) It’s also likely that you don’t have a separate home office for each member of your household, especially your youngest learners. They have space and technology needs too.
“A portable computer such as a laptop is ideal,” suggests learning technology consultant and Columbia University professor Nabeel Ahmad. “For younger elementary school students (K-2), a laptop with a touchscreen is especially useful as kids take a while to become used to a keyboard and mouse,” he adds. Ahmad also recommends opting for spill-resistant keyboards that avoid replacement costs. Computers should have USB drives to transfer files from home to school and back, he notes, and a digital stylus or pen is a useful tool for younger students beginning to interact with technology.
“A wireless keyboard and mouse are important for high schoolers to have flexibility, since they often work away from a desk or table,” Ahmad advises. A keyboard tray is helpful for freeing up workspace when they do sit in a designated spot.
For the career or college student, “A bigger screen tends to be better for video calls and having multiple applications open at once,” Ahmad points out. Fast internet networks are also increasingly important, he notes, particularly for households with multiple Internet users likely to be online at the same time.
Study activities may roam around the house, from bedroom to kitchen counter to dining table, but where possible, it’s ideal to have a dedicated room. Figuring out where to put it is the first step, and that depends on how much space is available, comments Houston-based interior designer Mary Patton. “That helps us decide where to put the designated homework station.” Her ideal is the student’s bedroom, she says, but if there isn’t room there, she and the client get creative. Must haves include “a clean, quiet space with an area of organized supplies and a pin board to display art or special homework, etc.” The planning process involves both parents and child, the designer notes.
Distraction-free is a key criterion for older students, comments Tim Seldin, president of The Montessori Foundation and author of How to Raise an Amazing Child. Good lighting is also essential, he adds. “Nothing is better than natural daylight, but most important is that the room be well lit.” Layered lighting with task lamps and ambient, room light help avoid eye strain.
Lighting also plays a role in online education. “For video calls, be sure to have good lighting and a distraction-free background,” Ahmad advises. “Try to avoid settings that are backlit, such as sitting in front of a window. And aim to be in a place where nobody can walk behind you.”
Older students often need more room, Patton shares. If there’s room, she suggests a home office type setup. If that’s not possible because of space constraints, a converted closet can be repurposed into a mini office, ideal for a high school, home-based college or adult education student.
Regardless of location, “Be sure each person has the ‘tools’ they will need: A computer, book, notepad, pencil, etc.” Seldin recommends. He envisions an optimal common room for “family learning time,” with one person reading, another doing computer research, a third working on measurements, etc.. This gives parents the opportunity to monitor their kids’ online use, musing that the older ones are sometimes socializing instead of studying when behind closed doors.
Organizing for Success
Organization can help both students and parents. “In the evenings, encourage your children to put homework and books into their backpacks as they complete a piece of work or when family study time is over so they are packed for the morning,” Seldin suggests. “If your children take lunch to school, they can prepare it the night before, either with your assistance or on their own. Your children can also set out the clothing they will need for school and after-school activities.”
Having a family landing zone near your home’s main entrance can hold backpacks ready to go out the door. Lunch bags can sit on a designated refrigerator shelf. Valet hooks next to clothing closets can hold the next school day outfit. All of these approaches can help make getting to school on time simpler in the morning. These concepts can work at all ages, Seldin says.
Clutter is the enemy of academic success. Get rid of it, Patton instructs, and she means this for the household, not just the student. “Clutter is distracting for everyone!” the designer declares. “You want your home to feel like a serene safe space.” That’s especially helpful at test and deadline times.
The Montessori approach is designed to look at the whole child and his or her environment, which includes well-organized spaces for dining, relaxing, socializing and chores. “Create a sense of order, so children know where their socks and underclothing go, how their playroom is organized, where games and books are stored, etc.” Seldin says.
School projects may involve messy work with paint or glue, especially in the younger grades. This can involve your home’s basement, kitchen, utility room or a garage. “You have to think outside of the box when you live in a small apartment or home,” the Montessori educator comments. This may require putting down a protective plastic covering on table, desk, chair or floor.
“The pandemic was a unique experience,” Seldin says. “Every family learned how to use online communication and learning platforms at a level they probably never imagined before.” Some kids got Zoom fatigue, he recalls. Others blossomed in the online learning environment and some families will keep their kids in the online learning setting even as others return to physical classrooms.
One change Patton shares is the videoconference effect. “Having space for computer monitors is mandatory now, as well as creating a nice background for Zoom calls. Since the pandemic I have done many Zoom rooms for clients. Even though it is a weird world we live in, this is an opportunity to have fun and be creative.” Why not? There are going to be some long months until winter break.