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Nicole Jacobsen
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New Learning Spaces at The Episcopal School of Dal Different stations throughout the gated area allow children to not only choose from a variety of activities, but also to develop new skills without recognizing they are actively learning. Furthermore, the cross-disciplinary work of combining science and exploration allows for more creative thinking and problem-solving, as well as collaboration between students.

United in the conviction that environment is our children’s third teacher, we can begin a new vital mission: designing today’s schools for tomorrow’s world. The Third Teacher

The new school year at The Episcopal School of Dallas brings new beginnings: new friends, a new curriculum, and new learning spaces. Students at the Lower School of The Episcopal School of Dallas were welcomed with a new outdoor exploration area, a fine motor skills lab, and redesigned learning spaces.

Susan Fraser, an education professor at Clark University explained, “A classroom that is functioning successfully as the third teacher will be responsive to the children's interests, provide opportunities for children to make their thinking visible, and then foster further learning and engagement."  

With this concept in mind, Lower School faculty and staff spent the last year researching how to utilize a student’s natural environment as a third teacher.

“Parents have long been considered a child's first teacher, with the classroom teacher at a close second. Research supports that learning environments are the ‘third teacher,’ leading to significant innovation in all aspects of the classroom atmosphere from furniture design to layout,” Chelle Wabrek, Assistant Head of Lower School said. “Classrooms need to provide spaces for children to collaborate, to concentrate, and to decompress, as well as the versatility to allow teachers to modify their space in response to student learning.”

The new learning spaces came to fruition last fall, during a visit from educator and designer, Christian Long of Wonder By Design. Long spent a day with Lower School teachers brainstorming new learning environments for students. But rather than let teachers use nouns to describe what they wanted, Long asked them to list verbs specific to what could be done in the new space. Ideas such as “conduct scientific explorations,” “grow plants,” and “make a mess” were tossed around as potential uses for the new spaces.

Included in the new outdoor exploration area are water tables with hand cranks, building block stations, sand boxes with measuring cups, and painting easels. New developments also include tables with connecting pipes and a water table with submerged letters and numbers that students must “fish” out. There are also picnic tables that double as benches to provide students and teachers will space for concentration, as well as an area that students can share a meal.

Different stations throughout the gated area allow children to not only choose from a variety of activities, but also to develop new skills without recognizing they are actively learning. Furthermore, the cross-disciplinary work of combining science and exploration allows for more creative thinking and problem-solving, as well as collaboration between students.

“Research shows that a program rich in creative play and exploration enhances the development of the whole child,” Jill Stanford, a Pre-K teacher at ESD, explained. “The whole area has been an incredible addition to the Pre-K curriculum.”

Also new to the Lower School environment is a Motor Skills Lab. Donated in part by the ESD Booster Club, this new space allows children to build the gross and fine motor muscles crucial to sustained development. Young children develop the muscle capability to control and support their weight by swinging on trapeze bars, climbing jungle gyms, and bouncing on trampolines. Students also learn how to skillfully balance and walk on narrow rows of blocks, and engage in activities that test their hand-eye coordination.

"The connection between physical development and brain development is well known and it is exciting to watch our Physical Education department work in concert with our early childhood educators to encourage both gross and fine motor muscles," Wabrek said.

New classroom designs for second-grade students also emerged during the brainstorm sessions with Long. New to this year’s rooms are Idea Paint walls that students can write on with dry erase markers, wobble chairs, and moveable desks and tables.

The classrooms also include tables designed for quick and easy storage so when teachers need to create large workspaces for collaboration, science experiments, space can be made readily available. Ergonomically engineered chairs and stools ensure a child’s natural instinct to move is not curbed, but rather used as a vehicle for better learning. According to research by Dr. Mark Rapport, the supervisor of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, children need to move in order to better focus during complicated mental tasks.

“Second-grade teachers began this school year with spaces that are flexible and maximize student learning.  Idea Paint on the walls creates shared work space to students to work through math challenges together or to brainstorm story ideas,” Wabrek said. “It is clear that these second-grade learning spaces have been ‘decorated,’ but have been designed to better maximize brain power.”

For a tour of these spaces and to learn more about The Episcopal School of Dallas Lower School community, please attend one of our upcoming Admission Previews on October 16 and 21, and November 13.

Learn more at www.esdallas.org/admissionevents. To see more photos of the new learning spaces, please click here.

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