In the fall, parents are usually purchasing clothes and shoes, lunch bags and boxes, backpacks, and other back-to-school essentials. However, some schools around the country remain closed in spring 2021 because of the pandemic, forcing parents to create home-based learning environments. A setup on the kitchen countertop may have been fine in the short term, but many students need a more permanent arrangement for virtual and/or home-based learning.
But where should you put a home learning center, and how do you determine what it should include? And how much should it cost?
We consulted a variety of experts—including a teacher, a college professor, an organization expert, two architects, and several tutors and academic coaches—to answer all of your questions.
Learning Center Options: Plenty of Space
If you have enough space to choose among various rooms, Melissa Lowry, who provides distance/virtual learning coaching services for students in grades K-12, recommends locating the learning center in a place that is away from distractions.
“I suggest the basement, guest house, third-floor flex space, or spare bedroom,” she told The Balance by email. And when you’re converting a room, she said, it’s important to have it resemble an actual classroom as much as possible.
It may be a good idea to mimic other school elements as well. According to Theresa Genovese, an architect at the firm CetraRuddy in New York City, students will ideally be able to access more than one space during the school day.
“Consider having a space for more formal academic use, another area of the home that can serve as a reading nook, and potentially also a project area with a table and school supplies,” Genovese told The Balance. She also recommends a space for students to play and exercise, especially elementary school kids.
Don’t keep students sitting at a desk all day, experts suggest. Try to mimic the total school experience, which includes changing environments several times a day.
“Students—of all ages—don’t learn just from sitting at a desk, and the best school environments allow for different types of learning,” Genovese said. She also recommends having a space for kids to work on messy projects or providing access to nature, if possible.
“Being able to move around through different areas gives children the structure and variety they’re used to during the school day—even moving from a small desk to a different work table can help to reset their focus, and a play rug or mat can do wonders for younger children,” she said.
Learning Center Options: Limited Space
However, if space is at a premium, there are still several options that could work. “You can utilize the corner of a rarely used room or a space under the stairs,” Jerry Egner, president of Closets By Design, said. In fact, you can convert a closet by removing the doors and then adding a small table and shelves.
If possible, try not to set up the learning center on the kitchen table or counter, or in the bedroom. The kitchen may seem like an ideal place, because it has bright lights and is easier to keep an eye on your kids, but there’s a major flaw in this plan for a longer-term setup.
“Valuable computer equipment, homework sheets, books, and projects could get damaged or ruined if food and drinks are spilled on them,” warned Egner. You’ll have to clear everything away for family meals and then put all of the school items back out when you finish. Every time you shuffle items back and forth, Egner said, you’re increasing the chances that important notes will get lost.
Some rooms are simply not ideal for learning or studying.
So, what’s wrong with the bedroom? It presents at least two problems. “A bedroom should be a cozy and comforting space for children, so working and studying there can create a disconnect with the brain associating the room as a relaxing space, and this could impact sleep,” Egner said.
His view is shared by Ashley Fox, a former teacher and homeschool/hybrid-schooling mom from northeast Ohio who is also the owner of The Homeschool Resource Room. With younger kids, she found it was best to have all of the learning stations in one centrally located area.
“This makes it easier to help one kid, then another, without bouncing all over the house, and it’s also easier to make sure they’re focused on learning,” Fox said.
Perhaps the most important thing is to ensure that it’s a place where kids can concentrate. “It matters less where it is located and more that students have a dedicated space for learning,” said Annie George-Puskar, Ph.D., assistant professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Education.
In fact, if push comes to shove, Lindsey Wander, founder and CEO of WorldWise Tutoring, said that an ironing board provides a great adjustable-height surface for a laptop if the student needs to work on the sofa.
What Does a Home Learning Center Need?
Students of every age will need a comfortable, ergonomically designed chair, a surface area (like a desk or laptop desk), and, depending on how much natural and artificial light is in the room, maybe a table lamp or floor lamp.
Technology needs include a laptop or tablet, high-speed internet, antivirus software, and parental control software. For most students, other necessities include pens, pencils, and paper. Some of the other items may vary by age group.
For Preschool and Grade School Students
According to Arash Fayz, executive director at LA Tutors 123, “Younger students may focus better during class if their favorite stuffed animal sits beside them—as long as it’s not a distraction.”
It could also be beneficial to let your young students help select some of the items they’ll be using—especially the organization pieces. “Let them pick a color or pattern they like, since their participation in selecting the items means they’ll be more likely to use them,” Egner said. He had the following recommendations:
- Colorful cups filled with writing utensils
- Organizer trays to hold erasers, staplers, and scissors
- Bins or baskets, which are the new backpacks, can hold workbooks, notebooks, and craft supplies
- A dry-erase board, which is a fast and easy way for kids to keep track of what tasks they need to work on
For Middle- and High-School Students
Many of the items listed above apply to middle- and high-school students as well. Fayz also recommended other items that aren’t necessarily essential but may add value, such as fidget cubes or stress balls.
“Other optional items vary, depending on the student's interests and needs. For example, if your student loved their school's art class, you can consider purchasing/renting advanced art equipment for at-home use,” he told The Balance.
“You can also take advantage of materials already on hand, for example, using a curtain to separate the learning area from the rest of the home,” said Ximena Rodriguez, director of interior design at CetraRuddy. “Since it’s critical to have some level of acoustic privacy and soundproofing, we often recommend hanging a tapestry, a small area rug, or even a kimono on any walls to help absorb sound waves,” she said by email.
Where You Can Find Learning Center Supplies
Our experts recommended a variety of places to find supplies and essentials, including some you may not have heard of:
- Lakeshore Learning
- School Specialty
- Really Good Stuff
- Discount School Supply
- The Oriental Trading Company
- Follett (for used textbooks and materials)
- Teachers Pay Teachers (additional lesson plans and instructional materials)
- Dollar Tree
How Much Will a Learning Center Cost?
Lowry has a "quaranteam" of seven students at her house every day, and she was able to get desks, tables, chairs, whiteboards, shelving, and supplies for them for under $1,000. She also recommends using items from around the house.
Fayz projects the cost of a learning center as ranging from zero to thousands of dollars. “You can create a great learning center with no money at all by sourcing materials from donations, asking your school for assistance, pooling resources with your neighbors, and asking for donations from your community,” he explained.
The Bottom Line
A home learning center is essential to continue educating your child during the pandemic—but it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. By creatively using what you already have, you can limit the items you’ll need to purchase.
The most important thing is to create a comfortable and distraction-free environment that’s conducive to learning.