For me, it all started about five years ago when I was a Kindergarten teacher. I didn’t have desks or assigned seating in my classroom. We spent most of our days rotating through work stations. During this year, my husband and I talked about how if I ever taught older kids that we should turn the classroom into a cafe style environment. At the time, I never saw myself teaching anything other than Kindergarten because I had fallen so in love with it, but the next year I was offered a job as a 5th grade teacher in my home town. I had moved away for college and then moved again for my husband’s nursing clinical rotations, and we were now finally at a place where we could move back. I was so excited because my husband and I both knew we would end up back in my hometown, but jobs can be hard to come by, and I was happy to have been offered a full time teaching position. With this new position, my husband and I jumped on the opportunity to transform my new classroom. Over the course of a couple of years of DIY projects and shopping at thrift stores, we were able to create a cafe style classroom. You can read more details about this classroom here.
Over the three years that I taught 5th grade, I was able to see the amazing positive benefits this classroom had on my students, academically and socially. This last Spring, I was offered a 1st grade teaching position at a different school where I could learn more about Design Thinking and teach it to my students. This also opened up another opportunity for me to set up a new classroom with flexible seating. I set up this classroom very similarly but with a woodland/farmhouse style. You can also see pictures and learn more about this classroom transformation.
I get lots of questions about flexible seating, and this blog post is long overdue. I’ve been wanting to be able to put all the questions and answers in one place as a resource, so here we go…
What is Flexible Seating?
Flexible Seating is the philosophy of giving your students choice and variety in their learning space. This means that not every student is sitting in the same type of seating at the same time. There are not just rows of assigned desks. Flexible seating can be set up with lot of different types of furniture and seating options, as long as there are a variety of options.
Why Flexible Seating?
I could write pages in response to this question, but I will just share a few reasons. According to Benedict (2014), studies on how the brain works and recalls information showed that the more the environment changes while learning the same information, the more we are able to recall that information later. This can be as simple as learning through different activities, such as writing the words, typing the words, and also singing the words. It can also be about changing the physical setting in which we are learning the information. This can mean learning content at the standing table by the window, in the teepee, sitting on the spinning stools, and also stretching out at the coffee table..etc.
Another reason to have flexible seating is because of the space that it gives the students to move around, have quick transitions, and to be active while learning. Taking desks out and switching to flexible seating can give your classroom so much more physical space.
The last reason, that I’ll touch on right now, is the ownership of learning that it gives to the students. It is a great opportunity for students to have choice and power in discovering how to set themselves up for success.
Where Do Students Keep their Supplies?
In the schools that I’ve worked at, the students have had cubbies, lockers, or hooks to hang their backpacks and lunches. In the classroom, we have community supplies and areas where we keep our books and journals.
Do Students Fight Over Certain Areas?
I have actually not had students fight over an area, but I also don’t dismiss them all at the same time to find a spot to work. We have a gathering area where we do all whole group instruction, which right now is the carpet at the front of the classroom. After our short whole group lessons, I dismiss the students 1-2 at a time to pick where they are going to work. Different kids go first each time, so that they all have the opportunity to pick first. This also means that we are changing spots several times throughout the day.
I spend the first couple weeks of school having the students practice sitting in the different areas as we come up with classroom expectations for each spot. By the end of the first couple of weeks, they have had a chance to try everything. We also spend big chunks of our day rotating through learning stations, where the students are moving around to the different areas in groups.
Would Flexible Seating Work in Middle and High School Classrooms?
I have seen flexible seating be very successful in all grade levels from pre-K to High School. When I taught 5th grade, I also taught 5-8th grade Spanish while my students were at Specials. Flexible seating can be great when students are rotating in and out of your classroom, if you set it up strongly and have a gathering place for whole group instruction. Even with older students, I spent time going over the expectations and having them try the different areas before giving them choice. I have seen in my experience, and heard from middle school and high school teachers, that flexible seating allowed for more space in the classroom and also showed the students that their teacher respected them enough to give them choice and create an environment that they are proud of.
How Did You Pay for All the Furniture?
You can read about how I was able to set this up on a budget here, but there are also other options like Donors Choose to be able to fund flexible seating. I spent a lot of time looking on Craigslist, used furniture Facebook groups, and at thrift stores. Even though it is used, I chose to use solid wood furniture because it is sturdy and can be sanded down and re-stained if anything happens to it. The students take amazing care of the furniture because they are proud of the classroom and we have spent lots of time setting up the procedures at the beginning of the year.
- Have enough table surfaces for every student to be at a table if necessary.
- If you just make one change, have a standing table. You can use bed risers or just extend the legs on a table that you already have in your classroom. This allows your wiggly students to have a place where they can be more active while working.
- Have enough clipboards for all your students. These are great when students want to work on the floor.
- Remember, it is about giving your students choice and variety in their learning in order set them up for greater success. Spend the the beginning of the year setting up the procedures strongly and let the students be a part of this process. The more choice the students have, the more ownership they have of their learning.
Benedict, C. (2014). How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. New York, NY: Random House.