This past year has been like no other in the education sector.
Many students spent long months learning remotely, as classrooms, playgrounds and lecture halls fell silent.
But, as schools, colleges and universities have opened their doors once more to welcome back curious minds, a lot has changed.
The demands of social distancing and virus suppression mean these places - once so familiar to students, teachers and parents - are now home to a raft of new rules, regulations and procedures, all expressly designed to keep everyone safe.
But how do we ensure that in this process we don’t lose the essential characteristics of our education establishments? How can we avoid transforming these environments of nurture, play, exploration and delight into areas of inflexibility, fear and rigidity?
All academic institutions, from primary schools to colleges, face the same fundamental issue - how to increase the space between people when premises remain the same size.
This is where expert use of colour and a focus on occupant-centred design can help.
In primary schools, it’s well-known how a strong colour on one wall, with muted colours elsewhere, can help focus children’s attention. We can take that principle and apply that elsewhere - by using colour to demarcate spaces - such as areas to sit, areas to play and areas to keep one-metre plus apart.
For younger children especially, social distancing can be a challenge - and never more so than in a playground. But, by using exterior paint to create a star on the ground and with children standing on its points - they can have conversations with each other in an entirely safe manner. The same effect can be achieved with animals and flowers - creating a warm, engaging environment and avoiding anything that looks too much like a warning.
The transition back to a very different way of being at school can present challenges for these younger learners, as well as those that have complex learning or behavioural needs.
So as the guidance changes, being able to quickly adapt spaces through colours and symbols is not only a clever use of design - especially as these ideas can be installed without the need for specialist equipment - but also offers a low-cost way to help students feel more connected and reassured when in unfamiliar spaces, adding a sense of belonging.
Where classroom walls once groaned under the weight of pupils’ colourful creations, for the time being at least that will no longer be the case. Instead, paint can be used to create attractive wall art including murals.
Across all school years, children will be arranged in bubbles in a bid to cut down on unnecessary contact with others. Again colour can have a really important influence on the success of schemes like this.
For example, if each bubble was referred to by a colour, then the blue bubble might only use classrooms, toilets and science labs with blue doors. The green bubble would stick to green areas and so on.
Larger spaces in schools such as libraries could be colour-coded too. Instead of one large library - it could be divided into four smaller pocket libraries for the use of each bubble.