Color in the Classroom: Creating Welcoming, Age-Appropriate Learning Environments

We want to create spaces where children want to be. In the spaces we experience, few design elements are as high-impact and low-cost as color. A well-chosen color scheme can improve safety, support mental focus, protect vision, elevate mood, assist with wayfinding, promote kindness, encourage active learning, reinforce branding, and create a welcoming learning environment for all. Which colors work, and which colors don’t? There is no one-size-fits-all solution to color selection in the school environment. The ideal color palette depends on the Local Education Agency (LEA) vision/mission, student developmental stage, the targeted curriculum/teaching methodology, the local climate, and myriad other factors.

A few guidelines, however, can be helpful in determining color selections for the classroom to support learning, morale, behavior, focus, and even school spirit, community pride, and ownership.

Color Strategies for Optimal Vision

To protect eyesight and minimize glare, colors and lighting must work together to create the appropriate level of contrast in the learning or any other environment. The color palette should provide enough brightness to encourage focused attention, such as a vibrant teaching wall to draw the attention towards the instructor and learning activities. To reduce eyestrain and improve visual ergonomics, designers must also consider the contrast between brighter and darker areas of the classroom. For example, the ratio for reflectance should be less than 5 to 1 in the general field of view. This ratio is calculated using a Spectro-guide or spectrophotometer. In making color selections, designers must consider the predominant method of instruction within the space. In a room which makes heavy use of audio/visual technology, dark or saturated colors may create an ideal backdrop to the screens, and in computer-heavy spaces, mild and mid-tone colors may help to reduce visual contrast and relieve eyestrain. Equally important is lighting: the parameters of lighting in educational spaces must be considered meticulously such as the tasks being conducted, solar orientation, and controls within each space for flexibility of usage.

Developmentally Appropriate Palettes for a Range of Ages

Humans perceive colors differently at different developmental stages. So, we must select colors that acknowledge, support, and are sensitive to functional and psychological needs. Young children gravitate towards bright, warm, high-contrast colors, while older elementary students tend to prefer more subtle colors which are vibrant without being overstimulating. Secondary students tend to think of primary colors as immature, and respond best to deeper, cooler colors. Teens, however, are attuned to style trends and may enjoy a color like bright orange if it becomes the “it” color of the moment.  These preferences are generalities; some students may have specific visual requirements. Designers should work closely with the LEA system and the industries they are educating for to match the color palette to the needs of particular programs. For example, a more muted color scheme might make the learning environment more inclusive for special needs learners who are easily overwhelmed by basic visual stimulation.

Impacts on Mood

As part of the electromagnetic spectrum, color is registered by our eyes and processed by our brains; extensive research shows that color affects both our physiology and our psychology. Almost universally, we tend to select particular colors to elicit particular emotions or behaviors: red for energy, blue for serenity, or yellow for cheerfulness. We can use these preferences to guide our color selections for task-oriented spaces as well. Shades of blue support productivity, while orange increases brain function. Red and yellow are associated with improved problem solving, while green encourages concentration. Colors impact our perception of a space as well. Cool colors lower the perceived temperature of a space, while dark colors can make walls seem to recede so that a space seems larger. Bright colors, on the other hand, make walls seem closer and can minimize the sense of distance in a large space. Designers will also want to select a color palette which complements the climate. Schools in areas with long rainy seasons may benefit from a brighter than average color strategy, whereas schools in arid climates may opt for more blues and greens to create an atmosphere of oasis.

Branding and Wayfinding

Strategic use of color doesn’t just boost learning and mood. It can also be a key wayfinding tool, helping to create multiple touchpoints to help small children navigate their school environment with confidence as they build independence. This is accomplished by specific colors assigned to a respective grade and a level or area within the educational facility. Color can also create a sense of camaraderie and belonging, particularly when the school colors are incorporated into the design to reinforce school spirit and pride of place. School is an important part of student and community identity, and color plays a large part by creating visual memory cues and positive emotional connections to the collaborative experience.

Finding a Balance

In developing a color scheme for a classroom, school, or campus, designers must work closely with stakeholders to achieve the right balance for the space, the task, the learners, the geography, and the program. The goal is to create just the right amount of stimulation without being overwhelming, and the needs will vary from space to space. A room with a bright teaching wall, for example, may have muted colors on the side and end walls to support focus, and the color scheme shouldn’t compete with the artwork or other graphics displays. Color isn’t confined to the walls, as there are now more options than ever for bright, flexible, kid-friendly classroom furniture.  Designers will likely pair vibrant furnishings with subtle wall colors to avoid overstimulation in the learning environment.

While there is no single formula for color selection in schools, an experienced design team will bring valuable expertise which will create a welcoming environment for all students. Thoughtful use of color can support learning, improve focus, elevate mood, assist with wayfinding, and encourage school spirit  as designers and school systems collectively advocate for positive emotional, physical, and mental health.

About Vincent

Associate Principal Vincent Spencer has over 17 years of experience in design for educational and investment commercial clients. A member of Charlotte’s K-12 design studio, he is well-versed in best practices for the design of state-of-the-art learning environments. His guiding philosophy is that better schools show our communities that we care about education. His passion is to make a difference in the lives of the school-age population, their teachers, and their families. He is involved in all aspects of the design and construction process, from advance planning, design, and production of contract documents to quality reviews to ensure the project meets environmental, zoning and regulatory standards.

Vincent holds a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Engineering from North Carolina A&T University and a Master of Architecture from the University of Illinois. His calm, polite, and considerate demeanor is the cornerstone of his positive working relationships with large technical teams. He is always willing to spend his time and expertise to provide guidance and to elevate the confidence of others. As a consummate listener, Vincent is always attuned to the needs of his clients and seeks creative and cost-effective solutions that fulfill the client’s project requirements.

About Chelsea

Associate Chelsea Harrell brings energy and exuberance to project teams, tempered with a deep understanding of workplace strategies. Her design ethos seeks to understand occupant needs without forgetting occupant delight, molding environments that balance the everyday with the extraordinary. Chelsea approaches design projects with an open mind and a willingness to illustrate the effect of good design.

A graduate of Mississippi State University with a Bachelor of Science in Interior Design, Chelsea’s portfolio includes a wide range of corporate, education, healthcare, and hospitality projects around the state.