Safety, self-expression and a sense of calm: Designing for student wellbeing

With Australian students spending around 11,000 hours in a classroom over their schooling years, educational design is moving beyond function to support the holistic wellbeing of students and staff. We spoke with Blix Architecture’s Georgina Blix and Koskela’s Sasha Titchkosky about the built environment’s role in helping students feel comfortable, healthy and happy.

Perched on a hill overlooking Curl Curl Beach in Sydney’s Northern Beaches sits Stewart House. This not-for-profit organisation offers a free, 12-day emotional and physical wellbeing program attended by 1,600 public school students each year. As well as being a safe haven to play and learn, Stewart House provides students with essential medical, dental and optical screenings and treatments.

“Most of these children come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and it can be an intimidating experience to be away from home,” says Georgina Blix of Blix Architecture, a design studio focused on wellbeing.

Assisting lead researcher Dr Rebecca McLaughlin at Sydney University, Georgina contributed to research that demonstrated how Stewart House’s design is able to elicit positive emotions and alleviate anxiety with – of all things – a cinema room. “Many of the students haven’t even been to the cinema before,” Georgina says. “The destination of a cinema ignites their imagination and gives children something to look forward to, which helps people feel a sense of excitement and hope on the campus.”

Just as businesses are rethinking working environments to boost inspiration, satisfaction and performance... learning environments are being designed with the wellbeing of students and teachers in mind - Sasha Titchkosky

That’s what designing for educational wellbeing is all about. “Just as businesses are rethinking working environments to boost inspiration, satisfaction and performance, as well as attract talent back into the office, learning environments are being designed with the wellbeing of students and teachers in mind,” says Koskela co-founder Sasha Titchkosky.

As Anne Johnstone, Chair of the Positive Education Schools Association (PESA), states, “Research shows that learning and wellbeing are inextricably linked – good wellbeing supports good learning outcomes and higher levels of achievement; while enriching and empowering learning experiences contribute in turn to our ability to thrive.”

Designing for wellbeing aims to embed scientific elements of wellbeing into design practice. “It’s about building a bridge between the field of positive psychology and the built environment, and how designers can apply those learnings in the spaces we create,” Georgina says.

Meeting basic health needs is a given, but designing for wellbeing goes far beyond that. “It’s about so much more than just fresh air or daylight,” Georgina says. “Wellbeing outcomes are unique to each project, and depend on the needs of the people using the space. It might be about designing for connections, positive emotions or a sense of meaning. Or creating spaces that allow students to reach a state of flow, to take time out, or achieve specific goals.”

Designing for individual wellbeing is the opposite of the one-size-fits-all approach that has pervaded the schooling system for decades, if not centuries. It’s why, when most of us imagine a classroom, we see (probably uncomfortable) desks and chairs facing a whiteboard. This rigidity can stifle creativity, comfort and connection. “How do you really innovate and get kids engaged in problem solving if they're just facing the front, and away from one another?” Georgina asks. 

“We now recognise that every student learns in their own way, and that different subjects lead to different behaviours, experiences and uses of space,” Sasha says.

Furniture plays a critical role in creating that sense of belonging in the educational setting. “We know furniture can transform how a space feels,” Sasha says. “It can be the difference in whether a room feels daunting or approachable; sterile or comfortable; boring or fun. 

"Colour, light, textures, patterns and other design elements can make a space more alluring to students and teachers alike. It’s why Koskela follows biophilic design principles, favouring natural colours, materials, textures and rounded edges, reflecting what we see in nature"

Sasha Titchkosky

Three years of research went into the creation of Koskela’s Learn range. The flexible furniture solutions can be easily reconfigured to suit different purposes, and nod to function without dictating it, giving students a sense of autonomy and control over their environment. This includes desks that connect to enable collaboration and soft floor cushions and ottomans that invite both work and play. And all of Koskela’s Australian-made products are designed to last a lifetime.

“I get really excited by Koskela’s focus on the circular economy, not just because it’s doing right by the planet, but because students want to know what’s been done in terms of sustainability in a very visible way,” says Georgina. It’s the same with using design to help tell valuable First Nations stories, helping students connect to Country, local history and a sense of place.” 

Designing for wellbeing is also about creating the conditions that support individuals and communities to flourish, ideally in supported and connected environments. It’s about responding to the unique needs of the people using a space, whether that’s through creating sensory rooms for self regulation, walking paths that harness the power of exercise for self regulation and brain fuel (like the Ravenswood School for Girls’ Wellbeing Path by Anne Johnstone with artwork by Jennifer Turpin) or, of course, cinema spaces that delight and excite. “Having a sense of wellbeing can help students build lifelong skills of resilience, grit, and optimism,” says Georgina. “These are all tools that help you to thrive for the rest of your life.”

Explore Koskela’s range of Learn furniture, or speak to one of our expert consultants about your next educational project.