Designing healthier schools

Philip Watson | 20 Dec 2016 | Comments

Once again we’ve been hearing in the news how children’s mental health services are struggling. Some people disagree on whether this is improving or worsening, but what is for certain is that there are still a worryingly high proportion of children suffering from anxiety, depression, stress and other forms of mental health problems.

There’s no single contributing factor that’s causing this and there’s certainly no single solution. In The Guardian last week I was reading one journalist’s opinion that teachers need to be better equipped to identify and address mental health issues within their classes. Having teachers more knowledgeable in this area can only be a good thing, but the truth is we need a more holistic approach to truly and sustainably improve student wellbeing. 

A key factor that can often get overlooked when thinking about mental health and wellbeing is the impact our built environment can have on us. By designing spaces to incorporate plenty of natural light, fresh air, views outside and giving children a sense of community and ownership, we can make a real positive impact on the wellbeing of students. 

Designing buildings with these considerations in mind requires a little more effort but the payback in terms of both performance and health is potentially enormous. Surely it’s better to spend some time up front to ensure we get our building design ‘right for wellbeing’, rather than trying to fix our children’s health and wellness problems after they’ve already taken root?

Buildings shape how we interact with each other socially and this is especially important in the school environment. As designers we can create learning environments where staff and students feel comfortable, have a sense of belonging and feel connected to the people around them. Equally, we can ensure we don’t contribute towards stress levels by putting them in environments that are restrictive, have poor lighting, too many people and too much noise. 

An excellent example of where we’ve been able to put theory into practice and deliver real, measurable improvements to student wellbeing is Atkins’ design for the Harraby Community Campus. Here our team of designers created a flexible learning campus for students and the surrounding community, with the provision of independent and shared learning zones, both indoors and outdoors. The feedback we’ve received on the impact our award winning design has had on the children has been fantastic. You can hear for yourself here

By incorporating principles of good design for wellbeing – and prioritising what will actually have the biggest impact on student’s health and happiness – we could start to make real strides to actively improve, instead of reactively treat, wellbeing in our schools.

You can find out more about how Atkins are putting wellbeing at the heart of design here.