Color and the Classroom
Anyone with only a modest degree of experience working with children has recognized that their moods can be impacted by numerous color-related factors ranging from the amount of light in the classroom to the myriad colors surrounding the classroom. The color of the chairs, desks, tables, bulletin boards, floors, furniture, and walls can impact student learning and student behavior.
Since the publication of Faber Birren’s book, Color Psychology and Color Therapy, there has been a growing interest on the part of educators and administrators to better understand how colors can influence the overall climate in the classroom and the role that emotions/mood play in concentration, appetite, relaxation, alertness, and student engagement and thereby, learning. Every educator acknowledges the value we place on memory, but learning precedes memory formation, and emotions often determine when, if, and for how long a memory last. Certain colors stimulate creativity, while others promote collaboration with colleagues (PBL-oriented learning environments), and still other colors keep students “bouncing off the walls.” There are also colors that activate the body-brains alarm systems, which shut down learning and memory.
Not only are there centuries-old and widely-accepted therapeutic benefits of specific colors, that knowledge can be put to good use and classroom planning. While there is no direct one-to-one correspondence between color and student learning/memory, we do know that specific colors can have a significant impact on the emotions and moods that influence learning. Although some colors (example: black) are excellent for keeping a classroom clean and cleaning up daily, they are not ideal colors for stimulating student participation in conversations that advance learning. The best ergonomically-designed furniture will not counterbalance the impact of the colors that negatively affect learning.
Before the bell rings for dismissal, teachers frequently admonish kids, “…And don’t touch the walls in the hallway!” Research from cognitive science tells us that stimulating the hands and fingertips is how we stimulate the young brain. Most adults will notice that children walking past a picket fence on the way to or from school will want to touch every single picket as the child passes by. The first 3 feet of school hallways should be composed of paneling, burlap, or any material with indentations, varied surfaces, crevices and protrusions that activate the high density of specialized receptors in the fingers, which “turn on the brain” readying young children for learning.
Colors in the classroom
· Aqua blue and light green – are calming colors (conducive to relaxation, comfort, and a sense of well-being and healing). Light blue is a tranquilizing color (decreasing nervousness and irritability), and regularly persuades our body-brain into thinking that the room temperature may be cooler than it actually is. The body-brain message sent by these colors is “calm down.”
· Bright yellow – promotes excitement, optimism and liveliness in children, which can be an asset to creativity (“sunshine and energy”), but can be over-stimulating to some learners. The body-brain message sent by this color is “be alert.”
· Red and red/orange – stimulates the alarm systems in the brain and can promote anxiety learners. They can be disturbing to anxious individuals, as well as students with ADD and ADHD. The message sent by these blood-like colors is “you had better pay attention!”
· Off-white - promotes and helps to maintain one’s attention, because it is not distracting, although it does little to stimulate thinking either. The body-brain message sent by this color is “only look around occasionally at your surroundings.”
· Neutral colors like beige - also a common effect on children, but can lead to lethargy. (Thus, these colors are also referred to as “institution beige,” because of their use in hospitals, correctional institutions, and many schools). The larger challenge is that one will often “calm down” to the point of drowsiness or slumber. Neutral wall colors can be matched with colored furniture as the stimulant. The body-brain message sent by beige and related bland colors is “relax.” Dark brown promotes a sense of security and relaxation, but can promote feelings of fatigue, particularly during winters.
· Gray - elicits depression, sadness, and edginess in students. Gray to the human body-brain suggests clouds overhead and the absence of sunshine, promoting negative moods that are not conducive to long-term learning. In geographical regions where there is little sunshine for long periods of time, inhabitants regularly experience “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD), because each time they look up, everything is still gray with dark clouds. The body-brain message sent by gray and related melancholy colors is “not much reason to be happy or excited here.”
· The free play centers and common gathering areas should have bold vibrant colors (red and/or canary yellow tables that are stimulating and exciting. These colors generate immediate smiles from children.) The body-brain message sent by vibrant colors is “have fun!”
· The reading center should have blue chairs, beige rugs and only slightly decorative walls.
Using large wide rolls of colored paper (including wrapping paper) to cover student tables on which specific learning tasks are planned, can promote specifically sought-after behaviors. For artwork or creative STEM projects, bright colored and/or patterned paper is an appropriate stimulant. For student discussions cover the table with calming greens or aqua blue paper promotes the desired behaviors.
School furniture, classroom decorations, and displays of artwork (streams of crêpe paper) that complement the learning goals of the environments can enhance student responses that move them towards the intended learning goals rather than away.
Picture a long vinyl couch manufactured in each of these colors inside your “mind’s eye.” Then, ask yourself, “How would I feel as I walked towards that couch, and what would I do on that particular couch?” As you think of your own response, you will quickly detect the impact of that specific color on your own mood(s). In planning colors for your classroom and students, whether you are investigating furniture or wall colors, deploy the “couch color test” as a practical barometer for the most probable affect that a particular color will have on the moods of the students in your classroom.