How to design a better school

Hi Reader,

Last year, around this time, the lovely Kelle Hampton asked me if I had any research on why school buildings often feel so institutional, and so joyless.

If you have a child, or were once a child, or you work in education, I'm sure you've also probably asked this question.

Kids are joyful. Learning is joyful. Why, then, do the spaces we send our kids to learn feel more like warehouses or (I'll just say it) prisons, than the temples of wonder and play we might imagine?

The blame often falls on budgets, but it's actually more a question of values. The built environment reflects what we care about, and when our school buildings are more punitive than inspiring, it forces us to ask ourselves what we believe beauty is for — and what our kids deserve.

As I was researching this question, though, I began to stumble upon examples of school buildings that felt anything but dull. They were vibrant, whimsical, even downright magical. I pulled 7 lessons from these beautiful schools, and have collected them in this week's post.

Read the post here

This post includes inspiration from 20 different schools in more than a dozen countries around the world. And while all of them are architect-designed, many of these ideas can be implemented in some form in existing buildings — by teachers, administrators, and even students.

You'll find in this post: a rainbow turned into a clever wayfinding device, a genius school hallway design (I'm low-key obsessed), and the most beautiful cubby system ever created. (It's in Japan. Obviously.) There's so much I love here. I hope you will too.

And read on for secret handshakes, playtime with robots, and the quote of the week!



One Thing

Make Something Just For Fun

Lately, I've been playing on Midjourney, the AI image rendering app. While I have mixed feelings about AI, I'm interested in how these tools can help us envision different possibilities for our built environment.

And can I be honest? It's also really fun. This week I've been experimenting with prompts that combine playgrounds with apartment buildings. Rather than doomscrolling before bed, I dream up prompts and let my imagination romp.

What can you make for no reason other than that it's fun?

And for more ways to feed your inner child, see here.

Joy Story: Secret Handshakes

Maybe it's the old-school blogger in me, but there's nothing I love more than reading your comments on a blog post. Some of the best stories and wisdom end up in the comment threads.

To wit, this gem of a reply to last week's post on unique ways to celebrate:

Everyone in my family has a celebratory “secret handshake.” We each have one for each family member so that any given pairing is ready to celebrate at any given time. We use them as a “ritual of connection” as the Gottmans say, and also to mark good moments, both large and small. There’s something special about looking at someone you love and having a little celebration right there and then about how happy you are to see them.
— Amy S.

Brb, going to figure out how to teach a 3 year-old a secret handshake. 😉

Research Highlight

In this week's post, I make a passing reference to a body of research that shows that children are born with lots of innate sensibilities, including a rough understanding of morality. This comes from one of my favorite studies of all time, in which researchers showed babies as young as three months old a simple puppet show.

In the puppet show, there's one character (a red circle with googly eyes) who's trying and struggling to get up a hill. Along comes a character called the "helper" (a blue square) who helps push the main character up the hill. But then, researchers introduce the "hinderer" (a yellow triangle) who pushes our main character back down the hill.

Even at only a few months of age, babies consistently prefer the helper to the hinderer. Isn't that incredible? They understand the distinction between prosocial and antisocial behavior, and form judgments of others accordingly.

To see footage from this experiment and learn more, check out the "Relationships" episode of the Babies series (Netflix).

Quote of the Week

"The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled."

— Plutarch

The Joyletter

Designer, bestselling author, and founder of the School of Joy. I help people find more joy in life and work through design. Join more than 45,000 readers who receive our weekly treasure trove of science-backed tips, delightful discoveries, and inspiration for living a better life.

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