Like many people’s homes at the moment, mine now resembles a juvenile corporate office. My 6-year-old logs into Zoom for morning meetings and singalongs, my 8-year-old uses Google Docs to pitch fairy-tale adaptations to his teacher, and both use new email accounts to compare schedules with classmates and dole out emojis.
When New York closed its public schools, my wife and I scrambled to gather the digital gear and download the multitude of apps that enable online learning. But like so many parents suddenly required to work from home, we devoted an equal amount of time to fretting about how we could all complete our tasks in such close quarters, without ending up in a daily battle royale.
Fortunately, our 8-year-old’s third-grade teacher at Public School 59 in midtown Manhattan, Jennifer Frish, had some ideas for keeping the peace. The day before online classes began, she encouraged parents to set up a dedicated learning space for their children.
For strategies on how to do that successfully, I asked educators and interior designers for advice.
Give them their own space
Pulling a stool up to the kitchen island, which might have worked for casual homework, isn’t going to cut it when your child will be studying all day, every day, for weeks or months.
Adding a small desk, if you have the space, is one easy option for creating a dedicated space. But it is not the only solution.
One end of a dining table can work just as well, Frish said, as long as the space is clearly demarcated and reserved for the child’s use. “You could block it off with masking tape,” she said. “Or get a cardboard divider.”
In the classroom, Frish has privacy partitions from Lakeshore Learning Materials available for students who need help focusing, but you could just as easily make one from a cardboard box, she said. Especially now that you’re having so many purchases delivered.
If your child already has a desk, it is probably covered with everything but tools for learning, said Ghislaine Viñas, a New York-based interior designer — in which case it needs a refresh. “If your kid is lucky enough to have a desk … take everything off that desk, give it a good clean and start over,” Viñas said.
Design with your children
Your child’s desk is not the place to showcase your personal design ambitions. More than anything else, Frish stressed the importance of including your child in the design process. “It’s extremely important not only to set up a space, but to have them plan it out with you,” she said. “It gives them ownership and, later on, more accountability.”
The goal, she added, is to end up with a workspace where they will love spending time.
One way Viñas has helped her children, who are now teenagers, create personalized workspaces over the years is by encouraging them to make collages. “Take images from Instagram or whatever else inspires them. Print them, cut them out and create beautiful collages of things that are meaningful to them,” she said. “They can look at those things, dream and stay inspired.”
Provide tools for organization
Having storage space for school supplies is critical to supporting learning and maintaining sanity.
“Sharpen all the pencils, have extra paper and make sure you have a place where everything goes back to,” said Julie Bogart, author of “The Brave Learner: Finding Everyday Magic in Homeschool, Learning, and Life” and founder of online learning company Brave Writer, who home-schooled her five children.
In her house, the children would return all their learning materials to individual cubbies at the end of each day, she said, so they were always ready to go the next morning. “One of the big jokes in the home-schooling market is, ‘I don’t know where the math book is,’” she noted, “because so often kids lose it somewhere, or hide it.”
Baskets, bins and cups can help keep various types of materials separated while containing the clutter. They don’t have to be fancy. Shoeboxes and plastic containers can be repurposed as holders of notebooks and markers, and Viñas recommended painting soup cans to make pencil cups.
To keep those containers organized — and off the floor and desktop — consider adding shelves near the desk, said Joan Enger, founder of J. Patryce Design & Company, in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Offer various options for seating
At school, children often have a wide variety of seating options. When it’s reading time in Frish’s class, some students sit at group tables, some use benches, some opt for sitting on the rug with a pillow and one lucky child might snag the beanbag chair.
“The biggest thing is that we want kids to feel comfortable in their workspace,” she said. Trying to get a child to sit on a hard desk chair for six to eight hours a day is a fool’s errand, so offer at least a couple of choices — a desk chair, for example, along with floor pillows.
If you have the space, you could set up multiple workstations for different tasks, said Michelle Gerson, an interior designer who lives in Tenafly, New Jersey.
Knowing that her 8-year-old son would require frequent changes of scenery when he recently switched to online learning, she planned three zones. For school videoconferences on Zoom, she created a station for her son in her home office, where they work side by side.
“Then, after he’s done on Zoom, he goes up to a built-in desk in his bedroom to write in his journal and finish his work privately,” she said. For art projects and play, she installed the family’s old Saarinen dining table in the finished basement.
Add headphones and a task lamp
In the same way that you probably don’t appreciate a kindergartner’s singalong while taking an important business call, children likely don’t want to hear your Zoom presentation while trying to tackle long division.
Headphones can help, Frish said, by shutting out background noise.
A task lamp is also important, Enger said. “Overhead lighting is not really conducive to studying, especially if you’re doing writing or reading,” she said. “A task lamp offers more direct lighting.”
She recommended looking for a simple, inexpensive LED-based model that takes up a minimum of desk space.
Try to remember that no matter how much you work on the design of a child’s study space, it is no classroom.
“School is designed as an institution with desks, classrooms, blackboards and teachers in the front of the room to create an environment that helps children cooperate with the agenda,” Bogart said. “Home is not like that. Home is where we come to get relief from that, where we don’t have to perform and where we relax.”
Trying to create a strict, schoollike environment at home “is like oil and water — and your kids know it,” she said. “They don’t cooperate the way they do for the teacher.”
So when things start going off the rails, the best response may be to take a deep breath and embrace the idea that learning can happen just about anywhere.
“Some children are much more likely to do their handwriting practice if you give it to them on a clipboard, set them up in the corner of the sectional, tuck them in with a blanket and let them pet the cat,” Bogart said.
“In other words, we’re borrowing from the divine wonder of home,” she added. “It’s about balancing the yin and the yang.”