Classroom Setup: Arranging the Physical Space

By Michelle Sullenberger on August 4, 2011
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

It won’t be long until summer is behind us and we are back at school. I’ve spent hours imagining the perfect classroom setup, and in about three weeks, it will be time to transform my thoughts into reality. Experience has taught me that details matter. How quickly I am reminded of the sheer exhaustion of classroom setup when I see furniture piled high, boxes stacked one on top of another, and closets packed full of materials. The classroom space is clean, fresh, and anything but organized! I begin my classroom setup wisely by reflecting on student learning and my teaching practices.

classroom setup

I believe that the classroom should be an organized, colorful, print-rich environment where students feel safe, happy, and inspired to learn. The classroom should contain defined working spaces, quiet areas, and a large meeting area where the class can gather throughout the day. I want the students and myself to move easily in the space and know where and how to access the different areas and materials. The placement of the furniture will affect my classroom management, my students’ sense of community, and our use of wall space. With these thoughts in mind, I find a willing friend to help me move the furniture into place and within a few hours, I design the space for form and function.
Below are five ways I stay on top of my classroom setup.

1. Define a Whole Group Area

A common meeting place is a must in the primary classroom. My whole group gathering area is along a wall. I want the students and myself to have easy access to the SMART Board and the easel since those teaching tools anchor my focus lessons and shared reading and writing experiences. Since the SMART Board is already on the wall, my decision is quick and easy. A large rug defines this area and makes the space more comfortable. Stored materials such as chart paper, easel clips, markers, crayons, a pair of adult scissors, highlighters, sticky notes, bookmarks, and pointers are under the easel. I display read-aloud books on the easel and in baskets around the easel during units of study.

Last year's whole group area. The photos below also show last year's classroom.


2. Create Small Group Areas Using Tables, Desks, and Shelves

I arrange student desks into groups to form tables. If possible, I arrange the desks to face the same direction in order to leave more space and to create aisles. I put them into four sets of six to facilitate the rotations of literacy and math stations. Extra desks can be placed on the ends of three of the table groups. Due to the laptop and projector, I am not able to add additional desks to the fourth table group without compromising traffic flow. 

I strategically place tables around the edges of the room. These purposeful spaces are used for small group work, teacher guided instruction, partner work, and quiet work. I define the literacy and math stations with shelves and storage units for the materials. In this classroom, I have chosen not to create a specific library area. Books organized throughout the room surround the children for use throughout the day. A future post will highlight our classroom library and take-home reading program. 



3. Decide on a Teacher Space

I have a small teacher desk where I arrange my plan book, materials for each day’s instruction, and professional resources. I keep this space organized and clutter free, but I do not sit there. At the end of a busy day, I can return to this space and review my materials. A teacher desk is not necessary, but a personal space or shelf for planning materials in the classroom is helpful.

4. Establish Classroom Walking Paths for Smooth Traffic Flow

The placement of furniture affects traffic flow. I establish aisles where students line up and walking paths by which students obtain materials and move to different parts of the classroom. I explicitly teach the students how to move along these walking paths on the first day of school. Time spent modeling and practicing these transitions will prevent classroom congestion and wasted minutes.




5. Envision Purposeful and Relevant Wall Space

Bulletin boards and walls can be used as display areas for student work, learning centers for anchor charts, and instructional backdrops for word walls and calendar time. The walls will illustrate the students’ learning. Simple suggestions for display spaces include cabinet doors, windows and blinds, and the wall outside the classroom door. Hanging pocket charts make great interactive displays, and don't forget to utilize both sides of the furniture when possible. Be familiar with any fire safety rules regarding the displays in the classroom, on the doors, and in the hallways of the school.

For more Scholastic resources to inspire and enhance your classroom setup, see the Class Set-Up Tool, "Our Easy Guide to Setting Up Your Grade K–5 Classroom," and The Great Eight: Management Strategies for the Reading and Writing Classroom.

                   Screen shot 2011-07-28 at 4.45.32 PM            Screen shot 2011-07-28 at 5.01.28 PM

Have fun and be creative with how you use your space. Leave a comment and share your story (the highs or lows) of classroom setup. Do you use a teacher desk or have you gotten rid of it? I would love to hear from you!

Wishing You a Great Start to the School Year,



I was hoping for some input on classroom setup. I teacher high school English.

So, I have large class sections this semester, 23-25 students per class (that's big for our school). The classes are heterogeneously grouped, and our school does not a lot of options for honors/AP at any grade level. So, my classes range from Ivy League material, to extremely low IQ IEP students, to major behavior problems. I have tables, which in the past, I have always set up in a horseshoe or "dining room" set up. Students could discuss as a full class, we were all on the same level, all facing each other. Because I have larger classes, I had to get more tables, and now, although we face each other, we are very far apart. And, frankly, this is not working with these huge, diverse classes this year.

I wonder if there was any set up that worked for you best. I could face the tables all towards the chalkboard and line the kids up, but I really would prefer to teach in the "Gradual Release" manner. Our school has also adopted the "Penn Literacy Network"best practices, and we are all required to run our classes in a co-constructivist manner, always - No lectures.

I'm stumped. I don't want to obviously group kids by ability, however they have already done this on their own, and it's like a showdown since we all face each other: This side of the room wants to learn and is always engaged, that side of the room is... Not as much. At this point there are actual showdown type looks that go on at times.

All the students respect me and they don't misbehave. Some kids do become distracted easily. There are just super high level kids, and kids who "don't get it" and need a lot more guidance and help to stay engaged. I'm stumped on how to set up the physical classroom tables in a way that is most engaging and most beneficial to all the students' learning.

Hi Christine, Best wishes for a wonderful student teaching experience! I still remember mine like it was yesterday. I had a fabulous cooperating teacher who I've kept in touch with over the years and I still use a lot of the tips and structures I learned from her classroom. Please feel free to share your experience with us this school year! I would love to hear from you. ~Michelle

Hi Michelle. I am completing my student teaching experience this year and look forward to finding great tips and inspiration from your blog. Already you have given me a great idea about creating the common space right in front of the SMART board. Thanks.

Hi Pat, Thanks for the great question! I have my students use the SMART board during whole group, small group, and individual activities. When the students are at their desks, we use the SMART board quite a bit especially while we are working with dry erase boards and manipulatives. ~Michelle

Do you have the kids participate in SMART Board activities from their desks at all, or only sitting right in front of it?

Starting a new school year is an exciting time. Thank you for taking the time to read the post. Best wishes for a great year! ~Michelle

Really enjoyed your advice! Looking forward to the classroom library that isn't a library!

Great ideas! This is my second year and I know that this year I want to be organized! Great small group area ideas.

Congrats big sis..your blog is great. Not much I can use here on the streets, but maybe I can use something for my DARE classes.

These are great tips, but I'm looking for middle school classroom set up suggestions. I teach eighth grade English (five sections plus an ELA Lab and a tutorial) and have an average of 105 students on my team. Any ideas?

These are great tips, but I'm looking for suggestions for a middle school English classroom rather than the elementary grades. On my team we ahve an average of 105 students and I also teach an ELA Lab and a tutorial. Any suggestions for the upper grades?

Lori, It's great to have a place to set the things we need, but I know what you mean about never being at the desk. I hope you have a great school year!

Hi Monica, You are exactly right about space around the SMART board. Great phrase, "Walk on the stage". I love it!

Don't forget space for seating around your smartboard if you have one. I always add a carpet in front of my smartboard and call it my stage. It defines a space for me to give directions, students come up to the smartboard, and shows where they should begin sitting. No more crowding around the SMARTboard and stepping over each other to get to the board. Just walk on the stage!

I have my desk but only use it for my computer that is hooked up to the smartboard and my work computer. Most times I'm up and around unless I'm working on IEP's. I'm a special ed. teacher and our computer work is never done!

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