Learning environments: Finding the Catch Zone...

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:

How effective is your school’s learning environment? How do you organise your classroom and school displays for maximum impact on learning? Fiona Aubrey-Smith discusses the secrets to success and introduces the Catch Zone...

Your children will spend around 10,000 hours in your school over the seven years of their primary education. They spend around half of their waking hours in the physical environment that you provide for them and we know from the research that their environment plays a significant role in their mindset, wellbeing and achievements.

Visiting schools across the country, I have seen noticeable differences in the approaches that are taken to creating learning environments that promote learning. Schools that do this well tend to share the following features...

Care and attention

Children will reflect what they are experiencing. If they can see great care has been taken in ensuring a clean, safe, carefully presented environment then that’s what they will produce in their work and in their demeanour.

If everything has a place in your classroom then children will be better at tidying up. If your board and desk are organised and pride is taken in the what you model, then children will reflect the same care in their own presentation.

If spaces are kept clean and presentable then children will respect and care for their class around them.

The litmus test, according to one head is to compare the classroom walls, furniture and resources to your home environment, and to ask each member of staff to do the same – would you live in the same conditions?

Top tip – parent helpers are always happy to help wash resources, clean furniture, run materials and aprons through the wash or tidy up display walls.


Help children to identify what they need to engage with – if your school uniform is red then colour-code anything to do with school rules and information by using red borders or backing paper.

Use a contrasting colour such as yellow for displays or exhibits that are showcasing excellent work, and a different colour such as blue for all displays and stimuli that are for supporting learning (e.g. word walls, learning journeys). For wall displays just use the colour for borders, backing and mounting and for table and unit displays colour-code with tablecloths or sugar paper. Don’t overcomplicate things – just three colours to differentiate between “information”, “showcasing” and “learning”.

Top tip – ask a child on the playground which displays they can remember in their classroom and which they find useful. What they remember (and what they have forgotten about) is telling. If it’s not being used, is it worth displaying?

Curriculum displays

Reflect your broad and balanced curriculum. Make sure you have displays and exhibits that reflect learning-in-action as well as achievements from across the curriculum. It is easy to slip into the habit of making displays about history topics, writing and a few artworks. How are you showing both breadth and depth within your learning environment?
Top tip – do a curriculum audit and see which subjects are most and least represented in your learning environments. What does this say about your priorities for children’s experiences?

Time well spent

Make sure the time spent on organising classrooms and making displays is having an impact. Watch the children carefully when they first experience something that has changed (e.g. furniture moving around or a new topic display) – what difference does it make to their dialogue and behaviour, what difference does it make to what they see and notice, and what impact is that having on their learning?

Top tip – trying “closing” space by using voile to lower high ceilings, or putting furniture in the centre of a room to space out children – see what the impact is on classroom dynamics and behaviours.

The Catch Zone

With the many hours spent planning and facilitating the learning environment in and around your school, it is easy to stray away from some of those very basic principles. The most important of which is to remember who the environment is really there for – the children. To help refocus on this, start thinking about “The Catch Zone” – but to do this you need to find it first!

Identify a Reception child and a year 6 child – ideally children who are particularly inquisitive and observant (you know who they are!). Then find a blank space on the wall in your office and for each child mark the wall where their eyeline height is. Do this twice – once when they are standing and once where they are sitting (use different coloured sticky notes). The space between the height of the younger child’s eyes and the height of the older child’s eyes is called the Catch Zone – the place where they will be most likely to notice things.

Take those children on a walk around your school – be sure to include all year group classrooms as well as communal areas (e.g. the hall) and learning spaces (e.g. learning hubs), outside spaces (not just the playground) and functional areas (e.g. corridors).

Initially, ask children to focus on what they see that doesn’t move (in other words – not looking at the people in the space). Ensure that they are aware that you are asking for their views as the youngest and oldest in the school, and that you know that they will each experience different things (and that there are no wrong answers).

Ask them to tell you exactly what they notice first on entering each space and what they see in the time spent in that area. If possible, ask the children to each film their experience, from their height, of what they see.

Capture all of the above – take notes on what they say if you are not able to film it. Keep a track of what they see that is about stimulating, encouraging and supporting learning (e.g. word walls, stimulus learning journeys), how much is passive or reference information (e.g. rules, fire routes, signs) and how much is about celebrating achievements (e.g. topic displays, photos, completed work).

Afterwards, have a careful look at your notes – what were the similarities and differences between the Reception child and the year 6 child? What patterns are there in what they each noticed across the school? What did they not notice?
Repeat the steps of this walk with the staff who are responsible for each area – what do they notice? What are the similarities and differences between what they see and what the children experienced? Consider what has been identified by both staff and children and focus on the three key themes – learning, information and celebration.

How much of your environment has learning stimuli within the Catch Zone? Should this be closer to 100 per cent? Where are you presenting work and photos that are celebrating achievements? Who is it that you want to see this – children, staff, visitors? Do the current arrangements reflect this?

Where are you displaying information and how much of this do you want to be used on a regular basis? To what extent could statutory and occasional use information be placed in spaces that you can direct attention towards as and when necessary, in order to free up valuable Catch Zone spaces?

Plan to improve

Usually a key finding of this task is that most of the stuff we want children to engage with is in the adult Catch Zone rather than at a height appropriate for children. Think about this for a moment – would you engage with things, particularly within confined spaces such as classrooms and corridors that are presented a metre above your eyeline?

Utilise the summer holidays when walls are empty and furniture is already being moved about for cleaning to make a change. Move display boards down so that their midpoint matches the children’s Catch Zone. If it uncovers tatty walls and you don’t have budget to repaint those patches then cover them with bright material or paper (remember the colour-coding above) that draws attention to these new spaces.

Do a quick and informal audit in each space around the school – particularly classrooms and resource areas. What needs a good wash and clean up? Can it be done over the summer? (if not – remember those parent helpers this term while the weather is warm and things can dry off outside),

Less is more. A few carefully chosen resource tables and display walls can make a big difference if they are planned from the perspective of the child not the adult.

  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is a former school leader and now Doctoral researcher who facilitates a number of national networks. She sits on several MAT boards and is chair of governors at a maintained primary school. Email fionaaubreysmith@googlemail.com. Read her previous best practice pieces for Headteacher Update, go to http://bit.ly/2IPHfe4

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