Developing best practice guidelines in designing physical learning environments for students with complex needs

Author: Pam Keegan

Keegan, P. (2022). Developing best practice guidelines in designing physical learning environments for students with complex needs. (A thesis submitted for the degree of Master of Professional Practice, Otago Polytechnic, Dunedin, New Zealand).


This thesis explored the planning and design processes of learning areas for students with additional needs in Aotearoa New Zealand. The central case study was Blomfield Special School’s new two-classroom satellite unit at Oromahoe School in Northland. The aim of my research was to explore pedagogical practices, school property design, and how students with additional needs interact with physical learning environments so we could better support our children (tamariki) to discover and reach their potential.

Flexibility and safety were two key aspects underpinning nearly all design features. Flexibility comes from having enough space and a well-designed layout with multipurpose-zones, flow between indoors and outdoors, moveable furniture and equipment, and operable-walls or ranch sliders. Safety involves secure facilities and outdoor spaces, robust building material and furniture, careful placement of glass, line-of-sight for passive supervision, and areas for teaching and learning with low sensory and “crash and bash” zones.

When ākonga feel safe they can engage in learning that is personalised, inclusive, culturally responsive and fun. The MoE calculates specific entitlements for every new-build or renovations, so making the most of each square metre, and consultation between schools, architects, the MoE and local communities is crucial. Good designs work well for all students, not just those with complex or additional needs so the findings of this report are applicable to all schools.


Keywords: architecture, design, specialist schools, physical learning environments

Pamela's supervisor for this research was Glenys Forsyth.


This thesis is available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.

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