Nesting in the Zoo: Create a Great Learning Space


It’s that time of year again! Early mornings trying to gently, then not so gently, wake up my weary teenagers as the sunrise continues to sleep in later and later each morning. Stacks of paperwork, permission slips, class rules, and participation waivers clutter the kitchen table. Our table has transformed to a multi-use purpose these days: fly-tying surface, meal consumption, laundry table, game table, and occasional  study area..

I remember my kitchen table as a homework haven growing up. One of the perks of having a large family was the equally large table which graced our dining room. Since my parents enjoyed reading after dinner, the house was relatively quiet upstairs. That old table became my extended classroom, big enough to spread out textbooks and notes and have productive study time.

Years later, I have a difficult time replicating that in our small kitchen with an equally small table. My kids don’t often use it, as old-fashioned notekeeping has transformed  in today’s world to computers, notepads, and phones fired up anywhere and everywhere.

Jen Slayden Real Estate in Missoula

I’m not gonna lie: it’s my favorite office…but it’s seasonal! Photo by Jen Slayden

So how do people create a productive learning environment at home? What I found out was that there are two types of space that are essential to the learning environment: headspace, and physical space.


A student has to be in the right frame of mind to study. This is evident from early childhood into adulthood. I am a lifelong learner, and I know that if I am tired, distracted, ill, or preoccupied it is very hard for me to concentrate.

According to Jennifer Swartz, a Professional Development Specialist for Child Care Resources in Missoula, there are a few strategies that will help get your child prepare for studying, and enhance their learning process.

  • Have down time right after school. Play outside or go to a park.
  • Have a healthy snack and drink water before studying.
  • Pick a good time for homework. An example may be during meal preparation when an adult can supervise but not pester. You want your student to be able to do the work on their own but seek resources as needed.
  • Turn off the TV or media. Music has been documented to improve learning IF there aren’t any lyrics. So, classical music would be best, or no music at all.
  • Take a brain/movement break every 15-30 min. Get up, stretch, reset, and get back to it.


It’s important to have an area that is conducive to a learning environment. Whether it is the kitchen table, or modifications in other areas of your house, physical space makes a big difference.

I caught up with homeowner Leah Farnes of Kalispell, who home-schools her two boys. Leah is faced with the challenge of living and teaching in the same space. She answered a few questions regarding how she has adapted her home for optimal learning.

J How do you use your home space to create learning?

L I have a school classroom , but I also use my kitchen area for science projects and art projects. My husband recently used our garage and driveway to teach a group of home school kids how to change a tire and check the oil in a car. We have even had a winter Olympics games at our house. I see my home as the true whole classroom because that is where life takes place.

Jen Slayden Realtor Missoula, MT

Photo courtesy of Leah Farnes

J What is the biggest challenge of having a space in the house dedicated to school work?

L I would say some of the biggest challenges is willing to sacrifice living space and keeping all of our school work organized.

J What simple tricks and organizational skills would you recommend for parents to create a learning space in their home?

L The biggest thing I think would be to find a space to put and keep all of their school supplies and books. Nothing’s worse than searching the house over for a lost book or assignment. I am not sure how they can lose a book in one day at home, but it happens all the time! Also have a designated spot for them to complete all of their school work whether it be at the kitchen table or in a school room.

Jen Slayden Missoula Realtor

“Classroom” Photo courtesy of Leah Farnes

Home school families aren’t the only ones who use their physical space for multiple purposes.Bonner teacher Therese Bell, who has taught elementary school for eight years, is on sabbatical this year in order to be at home with her two girls. She has launched a preschool, Two Rivers Preschool, allocating learning space within her private home.

It was really important for me to create a designated space in my home for learning, separate from the normal play or hang-out space.

Jen Slayden Missoula Realtor1

Photo by Therese Bell #tworiverspreschool

Because my children and up to 4 other children join us in our learning space for preschool, it was also important for the learning space to be completely removed from my childrens’ bedrooms. They need their own space that other kids are not part of, a kind of sacred space.

Jennifer Slayden Missoula Realtor1

Photo by Therese Bell #tworiverspreschool

I really was torn, at first, as to where to put the classroom, but ultimately the best choice was to convert our dining room. This is where the majority of our learning activities take place. I take a less is more approach when decorating children’s spaces. The classroom is decorated with things that will catch the kids’ eyes, but not over stimulate them.

Jennifer Slayden Missoula Realtor

Photo by Therese Bell #tworiverspreschool

Both Leah and Therese have done a great job designing their learning space. Wherever you live, by keeping in mind both headspace and physical space, you can create an optimal learning environment for the entire family without spending large amounts of cash. It all comes down to functional use, creative tricks, or perhaps an old sturdy kitchen table.

Happy Nesting,



Jennifer Slayden bioJen Slayden wears many hats: Mother, Real Estate Agent with Main Street Realty, teacher for the non profit music program Center for Music, UM alumni, runner, and supporter of all things local. Her RealChange program dedicates a generous amount of her Real Estate commissions to be given back locally to organizations of her client’s choice. You can find her on Facebook, or give her a call at 406-370-0300.