The walls of my son’s pre-K classroom were covered with posters and children’s artwork. It was like walking into a massive collage! My eyes bounced from one item to another as my brain struggled to make sense of it all. I tried to listen to his teacher’s mid-year report and kept getting distracted. The kaleidoscope of colors and shapes was just too intriguing.
My experience as a parent raises a question for me as a teacher: at what point do room decorations move from helpful to distracting? I like creating a colorful learning space and encouraging children to display their work. Yet I don’t want to overload children’s senses with too much stimulation.
Fortunately, recent studies provide insight into this decorating conundrum. Researchers found that room displays that are limited to just 25% of wall space hit the sweet spot for supporting children’s learning. Calculate the square footage (length x height) of your walls and then divide by 4 to get your target amount. You don’t need to place your decorations all in one spot, but your total display area shouldn’t exceed your calculation.
The color scheme of decorations matters, too. Using fewer colors and coordinating designs helps children process what they are seeing and use it to support their learning. This might mean picking yoga posters in grayscale and matting them with a single color, or clustering children’s environmental justice drawings together on a neutral background. It could also mean choosing one colorful focal point (a nature center or meditation space) and then repeating just one or two colors from that space in other displays (motivational posters, community covenants) to tie them back to the main focus.
Room decorations also need to have a purpose. Select decorations that promote belonging, affirm group values, and reinforce what children are learning. For children’s meditation sessions, post images of diverse people in varied meditation poses so that all kids see themselves mirrored somewhere. Create a visual timeline of sacred stories for a religious education class. Or display placards from previous BLM marches while helping children plan a social justice demonstration.
Consider purpose as well in deciding where to locate items. Place decorations where children can benefit from them as needed without being distracted by them at other times. A list of steps for centering exercises isn’t very useful if it is by the door, whereas a community blessing plaque makes better sense there. Cluster student recycling posters above your trashcan so kids are reminded of their commitments every time they throw something away. And place your group covenant on the wall that children face most of the time so it is ever present in their minds.
Finally, use decorations to undercut race, gender, class, and other stereotypes. Children encounter these negative assumptions in many different ways every day. Make your room a safe space that acknowledges and resists these hurtful ideas. Check your instructional decorations for hidden or implicit biases (e.g., depicting just one gender or race, failing to acknowledge different body types, masking disabilities). You might even invite children to suggest problematic stereotypes and find or create posters together that contradict these hurtful ideas.