Simple tips to create a home nook that fosters learning and minimizes distractions
By Heather Laura Clarke
When Virginia Ward designed an office in her Fall River home, she never imagined she’d be sharing it with a six-year-old.
Her oldest daughter was in Grade 1 when she was suddenly shifted to at-home learning in March. Ward loaned out her home office in the mornings when her daughter attended virtual classes.
“I felt it was important for her to have a designated space to learn, somewhere quiet, organized and as distraction-free as possible,” says Ward. “I had all her school stuff in a basket, and we’d pull it out when it was time for school. Then we could tuck it away on my cube shelf when she was done.”
As a junior-high teacher turned interior designer, the owner of Virginia Ann Interiors has already created at-home study spaces for several families and it didn’t take long to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Oxford Learning had never planned to offer tutoring online but when the company closed its doors in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, both the Halifax and Bedford locations transitioned to virtual sessions within a week.
During their virtual-only months, Oxford Learning owner/director Lorelei Burgess says she learned quite a few tricks on how to keep their students engaged and productive when they couldn’t be in the same room together. And whether students are learning exclusively from home or just need a productive space for projects and homework, her tips are useful for any family.
HEADPHONES FOR MINIMIZING DISTRACTIONS
“When students have headphones on, they’re better able to ignore what’s going on around them,” says Burgess. “We’d have two to three students with each teacher at a time and if students didn’t have headphones on, the background noise was more distracting for everybody.”
Don’t worry what type of headphones you have. A parent’s headset, one borrowed from a gaming system, or just a basic set paired with a computer microphone will help students focus on their teacher and tune out the rest.
A DESK OF THEIR OWN
While many students do their virtual learning at the kitchen
or dining room table, Burgess says Oxford Learning teachers
have noticed a definite difference when it came to family tables versus desks.
“When a student’s at the kitchen table, there’s usually a lot of commotion in the background,” says Burgess. “They can sometimes hear and see other family members and it’s harder
At office furniture company Structube, marketing communications manager Melanie Hachey has seen the demand for home office furniture climb since the spring. “As more students learn from home, alongside their parents who are working from home, the importance of creating a dedicated workspace has become vital in many households,” says Hachey. “People have had to rethink their spaces to incorporate pieces that are both practical and functional in their day-to-day lives.”
Hachey recommends a compact desk with storage for young children, a starter piece that will grow with them. Older kids
may prefer a larger work surface to have room for textbooks
A COMFORTABLE CHAIR
Beds and couches are not ideal for at-home studying because they’re for lounging, not focusing. So once you’re set up with a desk, your child will need a chair that’s comfortable without being, well, too comfortable.
If their new study space is in a high-traffic area, like the living room, and you’ll be looking at it constantly, Ward recommends investing in a “stylish” chair from a store like Kew, Attica, or Thornbloom. If the study space will be temporary, you could pick up a secondhand chair on Facebook Marketplace, Kijiji or The Posh Pearl.
Hachey recommends something colourful with an adjustable seat for little learners or a compact office chair for a small space, while older kids might want to upgrade to a larger chair.
THEIR BEDROOM: YES OR NO?
So once you’ve got a desk and chair, should they be in your child’s bedroom…or is that just asking for missed virtual classes and a whole lot of slacking off?
At Oxford Learning, Burgess says their teachers have found that students working from their bedroom “is not ideal.” She says the preferred set-up is for students to instead have “a little space that’s specifically for schoolwork, that signals that they’re ready to learn.”
Ward says older children may do well studying in their bedrooms, but she doesn’t like the idea because their bedroom should be centred around rest and relaxation not school stress.
“Our daughter has a desk in her room and I’m OK with her going in there to do her homework, but a long day of virtual learning should be where that separation comes in.”
CREATING A STUDY NOOK
If a desk doesn’t work in your child’s bedroom, where should it go? Ward is a fan of creating an at-home study space in a nook somewhere else within the home.
“In the design world, we call it ‘dead space.’ Just a nook that seems to have no purpose, but it’s big enough to slide in a little desk,” says Ward. “If you walk around your house and really look, you may be surprised by the options you find.”
When you’re scouting out a location, consider fitting a small desk in a hallway, an alcove, a spare bedroom, an awkward corner or underneath a stairwell (channeling Harry Potter).
If you have a spare closet, turn it into a study nook by installing a wide board about 75cm off the ground to create a built-in desk. You could even paint and decorate the inside of the closet to make a mini classroom.
Need something that tucks completely out of sight when it’s not in use? Ikea specializes in small spaces, with fold-up desks and chairs that hook onto the wall for easy storage.
LIGHT IT UP
Ward says you’ll get the best lighting if you place the desk directly in front of a window. (Never have a window right behind a desk, or your child will be nothing more than a backlit silhouette during video calls.)
A desk lamp is a good idea, too. She recommends hunting for a nice one at Winners or HomeSense. Then your child will be able to clearly see their work, even when it’s dark and gloomy during the winter months.
WRANGLING THEIR SCHOOL SUPPLIES
Ward says every teacher knows the importance of students having easy access to the pencils, coloured pencils or paper they need, so they’re not procrastinating by running around to round up their supplies.
Burgess suggests a small desk caddy. Ward recommends keeping school supplies corralled on a roll-away metal cart from Michaels or Ikea, so it can be easily wheeled into a corner or closet when it’s not in use.
When clutter’s lurking, Ward says many parents will rush out to buy clear plastic storage containers, but she prefers wicker or canvas baskets that are “more pleasing to the eye.”
Thirty-One Gifts has a variety of fabric organizers that you can personalize with names and monograms. A basic shoe organizer hung inside a closet door is a budget-friendly way to organize school supplies, keeping them nearby but out of sight.
A LITTLE DÉCOR GOES A LONG WAY
“It’s important for a kid to feel like this is their space, so you want it to be bright and vibrant but not too busy or overstimulating,” says Ward.
She suggests decorating their study space with a fun framed print or their own colourful artwork. This doesn’t mean your living room needs to be guaudied up with unicorns or Minecraft; work with your child to pick out things you both like, if they’ll be working in a common space.
“Bring some colour in with accessories, rather than having to paint the walls,” says Ward. “You can add a toss cushion on a chair, or lean some art up on the desk.”
When the desk isn’t needed for schoolwork, Ward says you can whisk away the pencils and workbooks and replace them with a framed photo or plant, turning it into “a nice little vignette” that looks more like a console table.
“When a student’s at the kitchen table, there’s usually a lot of commotion in the background. They can sometimes hear and see other family members and it’s harder to focus”
PARENTS: NEARBY OR FAR AWAY?
Without a doubt, Burgess says it’s more helpful if parents are not lingering in the background when kids are using their spaces, whether they’re in a virtual class or doing homework.
“We find that when parents are around, the kids tend to rely on their parents and ask them questions,” says Burgess. “We’ll ask our students questions because we want them to think about their answers. But if they don’t answer right away, parents may automatically jump in to help and that’s not what we want.”
Since it’s difficult for parents to resist the temptation to help their children, Burgess says it’s best when they stay out of sight. Leave the “teaching” to the teacher.
Back in the spring, when she explained that parents were free to leave the room for 60–90 minutes, Burgess says many were “very grateful” to have the chance to focus on their own tasks and kids learned more effectively.
Ward is still working with families to help them set up cheerful at-home study spaces. While she admits she’s hoping virtual learning “was just a temporary thing,” it’s impossible to know what Nova Scotia’s 2020/2021 school year will bring and she feels it’s a good idea to be prepared.
“Back in March, we were in survival mode,” says Ward. “We made it through, and now we can be ahead of the game if it happens again.”