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Student Ownership of School Spaces

By Abby Sandberg PhD, Learning Specialist and Early Elementary Division Head

The view from my office in the Labyrinth is full of energy and action! Nestled right between the Discovery Area and the Centro, I am privy to the comings and goings of our youngest students. In long loose lines they make their way to Specialist classes. Some feet make quick hurried steps, while others linger slowly behind, perhaps taking a moment to study the latest addition to the bulletin board. Many times pairs stroll by my door, walking hand-in-hand. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch the eye of a passerby and get a quick smile or a wave as they go on their way. The one consistent missing detail is the classroom teacher chaperoning their journey.

At UCDS, we believe students can navigate through their learning spaces with independence from the time they enter the Labyrinth. With a teacher’s knowledge of where they’re headed, we trust they can move efficiently and safely to their next destination without the hovering eyes of adults. By affording them the opportunity to move freely about their school, students learn that they have the skills to find their way and can be trusted to do so. The notion of someone believing in your capabilities and “bigness” is powerful. Young students see themselves as competent and capable, and their confidence grows.

Moving freely about the school also allows students to practice regulating themselves without a teacher in their immediate presence. Sometimes you hear (not so subtle) peer reminders to “use walking feet!” or “no cutting into line!” When these reminders become frequent, students often add the issue to their Class Meeting agendas to discuss further. The value of students recognizing and discussing appropriate movement to and from the classroom far outweighs any rule delivered to them as an edict from the teacher. This is not to say that teachers are not guiding and supporting! Suggestions to “try entering again with a quieter voice” or queries of “how can we make sure we’re getting to Science quickly so you’ll have plenty of time for the experiment?” help students take ownership for refining their behavior and learning from mis-steps. They discover the relevance of regulating, beyond doing it because a teacher is watching, or had simply issued a rule to do so.

When students develop an ownership of their educational spaces it sets a foundation for diving into learning. Need to borrow pattern blocks from the classroom next door? A preschooler will swiftly spring into action to volunteer for the trek to retrieve them. Need more paper for the classroom printer? You can guarantee a student (or two or four!) will readily voice their willingness to ask the front desk for more. Traveling throughout the Labyrinth collecting survey data from peers, or making the proud journey to retrieve their first bookmark, our students embrace opportunities to be out and about with independence. They not only see school as a building they learn in, but also as a space full of resources they can access. When students are empowered to take ownership over their spaces, they become confident and capable to independently learn and regulate in any environment.