During this time of looking at all aspects of a student’s day differently, we think there is an opportunity to consider a different experience for Dining. The reasons to reinvent the Dining experience extend beyond the safety factors that were required to address Covid concerns.
Most schools recognize that unstructured times of the day can be challenging for many students, but few districts attempt to address the issue. School districts usually have anti bullying protocols that provide a framework for direct negative student interactions. However, bullying also occurs through exclusion and social isolation which is a common anxiety provoking situation for elementary, middle and high schoolers. While learning the social skills to navigate the lunchroom and ultimately all social situations is an important soft skill and part of growing up, we feel the design of these spaces can make for a more humane experience. Few environments in the commercial adult world are as segregated and stressful as a school lunchroom. No matter how great the food, if you confronted a dining room resembling your school’s cafeteria, you’d likely vote with your feet and take your dollars elsewhere. So why do we subject student, who don’t have a choice to this experience?
Outside of social issues, dining spaces can be difficult spaces for students with sensory processing disorders as the spaces typically feature high noise levels, strong odors and a constant buzz of movement.
Knowing that these factors can impact all students, let's look at ways that space can promote a student’s feeling of safety and comfort while still providing a highly efficient, important school function.
Taking lessons from Covid rules for dining
The lower density for dining spaces implemented during return to school under Covid rules could be continued when it is no longer required. Schools that have dispersed their dining spaces out to areas beyond the cafeteria have likely experienced this. With fewer students in one concentrated place, acts of truancy and general noise levels are reduced.
Setting the stage for Empathy
Just as schools are often organized into smaller teams/houses/grade clusters to provide a sense of a smaller community within the bigger organization, a dining area can be broken down into smaller neighborhoods. These smaller neighborhoods benefit a student in multiple ways, the first being creating empathy for your fellow student. Its easy to feel anonymous and be excluded when in a large crowd. As groups become smaller, it is easier to fit in.
Role of Furniture
Moving walls to find more space for dining isn’t always feasible but changing group sizes is. The long row tables for 12 students are efficient uses of space but only when all the seats are filled. Let’s accommodate the smaller groups of 6, 4 and 2 with furniture geared to their group size. This can take away inefficiency of a small group occupying a table for 12. Changing the shape of furniture from rectangles to squares and circles means that students can talk to each other, rather than shouting across a long table in conversation. The single most important element to changing the dining environment is finding a home for the single diner without making them feel singled out. Dining counters work well to provide a natural spot to sit, are an efficient way to get seating out of areas of a plan that can’t accommodate large tables and can offer the coveted resource of a power outlet for charging devices.
Managing the Senses (or Stimuli or Chaos)
Controlling noise levels is possible through changing the group sizes as addressed above. Additional mitigation can happen in any space through surface treatments.
Food odors can be addressed on multiple fronts. Adequate air exchanges in the space through the HVAC system should be verified first. Generally, any space that suffers from persistent odor control is probably not performing well for overall indoor air quality and should be addressed. Rather than placing trash and recycling receptacles at regular increments, trash and recycling areas should be located away from diners in the path of traffic leaving the space.
Schools that locate their dining spaces amongst high traffic circulation paths can minimize the distraction and sound of circulation by strengthening visual connections to the outdoors. Visually calming views can be a welcome respite in a fast paced, technology heavy school day.
Most districts have taken advantage of the swing seasons by providing covered outdoor dining spaces to reduce the density indoors. Many of the issues addressed above; connection to nature, sounds, smells, small groups are solved with outdoor dining venues. Finding this extra square footage outside presents an opportunity in the long term to make better use of underutilized space.