Quality design has a long-term impact on a child’s life – Considering the future is important in the design of learning environments

Lekolar is the Nordic market leader in furniture, learning aids, toys and interior design items for schools and daycare centres. Its development director Mikko Kyrö, former headmaster, and interior architect Stiina Kiuru tell us about designing functional learning environments and the importance of including educational principles in the process.

The curricula for schools and daycare centres are the basis of all learning environment design. The principles of basic education created by the Finnish National Board of Education were implemented for the lower grades of the comprehensive school in August 2016. Their implementation for the upper grades is an ongoing process.

According to Lekolar development director Mikko Kyrö, the latest curricula include sought-after changes in teaching and learning from an educational point of view.

“School premises must serve other than just the basic setting: the teacher teaching before the class and the pupils sitting down and listening quietly,” Kyrö says.

Interior architect from the same company Stiina Kiuru agrees. She believes that varying environments encourage varying action: a stage-like space can encourage children to perform and express themselves.

“The design of learning environments increasingly emphasizes their adaptability to different situations and learners. It is possible to learn mathematics by climbing or throwing a ball,” Kiuru says.

There is also proof that working in varying positions makes us more healthy. Kiuru explains that this can be achieved with adjustable desks that allow working while standing up and by designing the premises so that furniture is easy to move from one place to another. This often leads to people “owning” the space, which helps maintain it in a good condition for a longer time.

At Lekolar, the designers think it’s important to engage users in the design because users are often able to best envision the space and its use.

“The design of a learning space very often starts when a daycare centre or school is creating its curriculum, and the designers hope to cooperate with the users at this stage. At best, they can still impact the building or a part of it. Lekolar does more than just bring in the furniture: we offer a larger service where the users play a major role,” Kyrö explains.

Lekolarin oppimisympäristö

The trend is to serve several user groups in one building, for example to house a school, a daycare centre, a library, a family support centre and a community college all in one place, so the design of these premises must consider adapting them to different purposes while inspiring their users.

Lekolar has a model classroom in Moisio in Turku and in Pitkäkangas in Oulu, and both of these rooms feature interiors that adhere to the curriculum. Via the classrooms, the company is able to obtain fresh information about what works and what doesn’t, and which are the pupils’ favourite learning spots. Lekolar is a Nordic company and the market leader of educational items and furniture for schools and daycare centres in the Nordic countries.

Quality design has a long-term impact on a child’s life

Design education and inspiring learning environments widen pupils’ perception of aesthetics and improve their spatial cognition. The design of a product can have physiological impact, so it is very important to design to the scale of the child.

“Quality design refers to more than appearance, meaning safety, health and accessibility, and functional design allows everyone to participate. Successful design allows children to imagine more wildly and freely how to use the space and the environment,” Kiuru explains.

“As school and daycare premises open up, there is a growing need for peaceful nooks that allow concentrating on a specific task. Grown-ups may not be able discover everything that kids can,” Kiuru notes. Needs change over time, however, and in present classrooms it’s necessary to plan a sufficient number of electrical outlets and charging stations to store school devices overnight.

Wireless networks are another thing that needs to be taken into consideration when designing learning environments. For example in Vantaa, each pupil receives a device from school, and therefore the room requires a mobile charging station. Newer technologies, such as programming, robotics and artificial intelligence, are entering design. There are no longer any clear distinctions between different school subjects.

Kyrö believes that learning starts as soon as the user enters the space. Dividers add adaptability to an open space and may prove to be essential in designing a cafeteria, for example. There is no reason for a cafeteria to be unoccupied outside lunch hours, which means 80 percent of the time.  

Certain values come to focus when designing products for children. In Lekolar’s home country of Sweden it is normal to produce environmentally friendly and sustainable items.

“These products help create healthy and safe environments where contaminants are out of the question. It is also important to us that with each product we know its sources and that it fulfils our specific criteria,” Kyrö says.

“Lekolar’s own standards are tight compared to the EU standards, which is crucial in a project involving small children. The learning environment design process focuses on the future, and the solutions we invent are constantly being tested,” Kiuru adds.

It’s necessary for the company to scan the needs of schools and improve the products based on the design each time that the Board of Education updates its curriculum.  

“Children learn more in an attractive environment, and they learn faster when they are having fun. This often leads to increasing curiosity regarding both the subject matter and the environment. Lekolar strives to support kids’ natural curiosity,” Kiuru says.

Lekolarin suunnittelema luokkahuone

Daily life generates the best experiences

One of the great advantages of Lekolar’s design process is its staff.

“Lekolar employs interior designers, educators, former kindergarten teachers and others who have worked in the educational sector. Therefore the company has a deep understanding of the daily needs of pupils and schools,” Kyrö says.

Mikko Kyrö himself came to be Lekolar’s development director after working as a headmaster. His former school had to be renovated, which included renewing the furniture and the learning environment. During this renewal Kyrö had to study the subject, and to his surprise, he became passionate about it. He is also interested in programming and robotics and wants to introduce them to schools.

“Like Stiina said, in this work we need to look into the future and offer solutions that will be functional in the years to come so that they support children’s learning. The possibility to learn in different situations and environments and feeling comfortable are important for this target group. I think it’s wonderful to be able to implement all this,” Kyrö concludes.

Stiina Kiuru ended up at Lekolar via a more complicated route. As a child, Kiuru wanted to become a teacher, but later she got interested in design and studied interior architecture at the Helsinki School of Design and Architecture. She continued her graduate studies at Aalto University’s International Design Business Management school, and after graduation she worked for a long time as a designer in a creative agency. At Lekolar, Kiuru is able to combine her design expertise with her interest in education and schooling.

“My current work kind of closes the circle because I’m closely involved in both areas. I feel that as a designer I’m able to do meaningful work because schools often purchase for many years in advance. The choices we make carry a lot of weight with them.” Kiuru thinks her work is rewarding and motivating.

Lekolar’s roots are in Sweden, in BRIO AB, a company founded in 1884. In 1971, BRIO’s Lek & Lär unit developed into a separate company, Lekolar AB. The company started operations in Finland in 1921 and became a member of the Nordic Lekolar group in 1999.