Lunch is one of the most important times of day for school children. It is time to eat, relax, and learn valuable life skills, such as socialising, using crockery and even learning to tidy up after themselves. Away from the structure of the classroom, the dining space should be a space where children feel safe, can have fun and even be inspired to try new foods with their friends.
Dining rooms therefore need to be clean, accessible and functional, and the equipment and placement of furniture needs to work together to create a space that is practical and a joy to be in.
Incorporating colourful dining tables and chairs is one way that schools can achieve this. Having tables with colourful tabletops can really transform a space and can inspire creativity, from naming tables according to different food colours – such as green tables for broccoli, orange tables for carrots and red tables for strawberries etc – to using tables to representing house colours.
“Many schools are giving a new lease of life to their multi-functional halls, with pupils being seated at colourful dining furniture,” points out Diane Ponting, sales and marketing director of Gopak. “Some schools are ordering dining furniture in their corporate colours, while others enjoy a clash of colour.”
It isn’t just colour that is an important factor in the dining room, but table design too. Ideally, schools look for simplified folding mechanisms in tables so they can be easily and safely stacked away. Rounded corners are another must, Ponting adds, along with lightweight designs and no removable parts, all of which are features of Gopak’s new Contour25 tables.
The reason why this is so important is because the type and style of tables used in the dining area can impact on how the space is used at different times throughout the day. This can be from breakfast and after school clubs, assemblies, drama classes, PE classes and even for use by the local community for meetings.
“Dining halls are working harder than ever before,” says Miles Liesching, managing director of Westcountry Group. “Gone are the days of a stand-alone dining hall that’s only used for a fraction of the school day. Today, dining halls are being used from first thing in morning right through to afterschool clubs late into the evenings and right through the weekend.
“The dining area is one of the largest, single assets for schools, and can offer a whole lot more than just a space for pupils to eat,” continues Liesching. “This calls for a totally different approach to dining furniture and it’s now all about space saving, flexibility and speed of set up.”
Dining tables are traditionally known to stack away to the side or into storage rooms, allowing the hall space to be used for other activities. However, a new development in the school dining sector is seeing tables folding up into walls, providing even more space and opportunity to use dining halls in more than one way.
One example of this new development is the Versa Wall Pocket. Folding out from a shallow cassette on the wall, the Wall Pocket provides an entire dining hall of furniture in less than 10 minutes and can be set up by a single person. Using the benches independently allows for assembly seating, teaching spaces, exam practice and a whole lot more all from the same unit.
Great dining room furniture and layout, however, isn’t going to create a better environment in isolation. As Paul Aagaard, director of Recipe for Change, explains, children need enough space to both eat and socialise. These factors were highlighted at West Lodge Primary School, which recently had its dining room transformed into a restaurant-style area.
Before the transformation, the dining hall was hectic and noisy, with those eating packed lunches and hot dinners eating in separate areas. Children spent far too long queuing, and there were arguments between the children about who was sitting next to who at the dining table. Now, children can socialise, and they are encouraged to clear up after each other and interact with the cooks.
“The key to making West Lodge a success was based on creating a new lunch timetable, so everyone had enough time to eat together in one hall,” says Aagaard. “Before we introduced the changes, packed lunch eaters ate in the main hall and were segregated from school meal eaters who ate in the dining hall located next to the kitchen.”
To give everyone enough time to eat, lunchtimes at the school were extended without losing any curriculum time. This, as Aagaard explains, allowed children on each table to be involved in the conversation. As a result, noise levels decreased and overall, everyone is happier, and no one is rushed to eat. Queuing times have also reduced dramatically, meaning the pupils have longer to eat.
The new timetable means that lunchtime is staggered over a two-hour period, with four dedicated time slots for each year group. This reduces the number of pupils at the serving counter at any one time. Seating plans with printed table names have also been introduced, which has reduced disruption in the dining hall as everyone know where to sit.
“Children sit on the same table every day, located in the same place every day so everyone knows where they are sitting,” Aagaard says. “Children sit together in friendship groups – which they agreed themselves – so everyone knows who they are siting with and are happy. Each table also has a chosen table captain, who ensures that their table is cleared up and wiped down before they leave the dining hall.”
By introducing seating and table plans, children are encouraged to join in conversation at the table and wait for their friends to finish eating so they can all clear away their plates and cutlery together. As a result of the plans and new timeslots, children now have longer to sit down and eat, and supervisors can interact with the children. In addition to the table plans, flight trays have been replaced with attractive plates and bowls with ‘times table’ designs. This encourages children to talk about numeracy in an informal and relaxed way. The restaurant style dining room has created a learning-friendly environment; student behaviour has improved, and school meal uptake has increased by 15%.
A restaurant style dining room setup has been successful at Heathrow Primary School too, which participated in the Building Stronger Foundations strand of the Hillingdon Innovation and Improvement Networks (INNS).
Before revising the space and layout of the dining room, lunch time at Heathrow Primary School was classed as chaotic. To refine the dining experience, the school extended lunchtimes from one hour to two hours and launched a new restaurant style dining room that dramatically reduced food waste and improved behaviour.
“Before we made the change, it was chaos,” says the headteacher at Heathrow Primary School. “Everything we tried before didn’t seem to work. Children had to queue to queue; they were queuing outside in the playground, they then queued when they came in to get their dinners, queued to get their knives and forks and queued to get their drinks. They weren’t guaranteed a seat and had to sit anywhere in the dining room so they couldn’t sit with their friends. The noise was astronomical. You couldn’t hear yourself think, let alone talk to the person next to you.”
To overcome the issues, separate infant and junior lunchtimes were introduced. This extended service times from one to two hours, without affecting curriculum time. The launch of the new restaurant style dining service created a calm and relaxed environment.
“The restaurant style seating arrangement means that children sit down when they first arrive in the dining hall and collect school dinners one table at a time – this ensures that no one queues for more than a few minutes,” Aagaard adds. “Children are also required to stay in the dining hall for a minimum length of time before leaving – this allows slow eaters enough time to eat.”
During lunchtimes, the children are also responsible for clearing up any food that drops on the floor. A seating plan was also introduced – with table names such as Carrot and Lettuce – and just like West Lodge Primary School, every child has a name card and sits with their friendship groups, encouraging them to engage in conversations at the table.
“As Dr Gurpinder Lalli’s ethnographic study – which was prepared as part of a PhD study over a five year period – explains, a school restaurant, as opposed to a school canteen, acts a platform for social interaction and helps to facilitate a community of social practice, which features understanding, respect and aids integration,” Aagaard adds.
It would therefore seem, then, that by choosing language for the dining area carefully and combining well-designed, functional tables, an agreed seating plans, bright table colours and a room layout that can be swapped and changed to suit the time of day, dining rooms can be more than just a place to eat. With the right idea and furniture, dining halls can truly be a place for children to relax and have fun, all while enjoying a great plate of nutritious food.