Studied spaces

Creating a place for students to do homework is easy as 1-2-3

August 21, 2010|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

Once the homework assigned to her three children grew beyond the boundaries of the kitchen counter, Shari Cohen decided to create a dedicated homework space close to the kitchen so she could keep an eye — and an ear — on its progress while she prepared dinner.

"I knew if they were each in their own rooms upstairs doing homework, I'd be running all night," said the Owings Mills mother of Evan, 12, Alec 11, and Lauren, 10.

"The other advantage is that they are close enough to help each other," she said.

There is plenty of space, and a craft area, in the family's basement, but even when they were little, the children wanted to be on the same floor as their mom and dad, Dr. Michael Cohen, a Baltimore plastic surgeon.

The result is each child has a study cubicle that reflects his or her interests: Evan, the computer guy; Alec, the nature kid dedicated to the Terps; and Lauren, the soccer fanatic.

In addition, the room, designed by Jay Jenkins of Jenkins Baer of Baltimore, has all three laptop screens face the center of the room. "So I can always see what's going on," said Shari Cohen.

The oversize lounge chair in the center of the room, where the kids once cuddled to listen to stories, now serves as a place to set up board games. The cupboards around the room hold games, electronic extras, DVDs and school supplies.

"The kids have active athletic lives, with sports every night," said Shari Cohen. "They come in after school and dump their backpacks in this room, but it all goes back to school the next morning."

The nature and purpose of homework has changed over the years, and experts make the case that homework should be part of a conversation between parent and child — a conversation beyond, "what did you learn at school today?"

"Some homework is designed to engage the parent," said Joyce Epstein of the National Network of Partnership Schools at the Johns Hopkins University. "It doesn't matter where it is done, as long as the conversation is flowing. Rather than just monitoring, homework can be a positive time for conversation to help the parents see and learn, too."

While that would make the kitchen table ideal, sometimes even young students need a quiet place away from household activity to read, concentrate or prepare for a test.

"Some homework is designed to have the youngster learn how to study alone," said Epstein, but she cautioned that "not everyone has an upstairs or another other side of the house."

Making a homework space appealing is a good first step in the homework wars. A well-designed space can help keep the kids organized, too.

Kate Gaudreau and Molly Dixon, members of the in-store design team at IKEA in White Marsh, are experts at helping parents create a homework spot.

A study table and chair can go just about anywhere, said Gaudreau, interior design manager. But she suggested thinking about furniture that will "grow with the child." Adjustable chairs and adjustable legs on tables or desks will give parents that flexibility.

In addition, a bench instead of a desk chair provides a spot for a parent or older sibling to sit while helping with homework. And a hard plastic floor mat can reduce the wear and tear of chair wheels or bench legs on floors or carpeting and make for easy cleanup after projects.

Next step: lighting.

"If the light is set behind a computer, it causes less glare and less eye strain," said Dixon. "And any natural light should be off to the side to prevent screen glare."

She recommended ambient light in addition to a desk lamp, so eyes don't have to do so much adjusting.

"And a work lamp that clamps onto the desk or has a small base will give you more desktop space," said Gaudreau.

A study table set up in the corner of the kitchen or the dining room or in a home office can still look good if there are plenty of attractive bins and boxes to store stuff and keep things neat. A small bookcase can also serve to divide the study space between children or provide some privacy and quiet.

A corkboard or a dry-erase board above the desk can help the student stay on top of assignments, projects, dates and deadlines.

"And think about what your child likes," said Gaudreau. "And make the work area reflect that."

That's what D.J. Lamdin was thinking when she came to IKEA in search of a desk, possibly in a shade of orange.

Her son, Richard, will be living at home and attending Essex Community College for a year before leaving for college. And his favorite colors are blue and orange.

"The space is limited in his bedroom," said Lamdin, who lives in Timonium. "And I don't want to spend a lot of money because he will be leaving in a year. He needs a flat space, drawers and shelving. And I didn't want to spend more than about $200."

You don't need to spend a lot of money, said Gaudreau. For less than $90, you can have a 30-inch-wide desk with a hole for computer cables, an adjustable chair, some shelving and a magnetic writing board.

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