Wall Decorations at the Elementary Level


Okay, I am back! This year I got to kiss my art cart goodbye. That’s right … I have my own room. Yay! With a room, though, comes different realities than being on a cart:

  • Classroom management changes because you are no longer in someone else’s space (though, you still have to deal with the fact that the non-specialist teacher will do things differently than you do!)
  • Student roles/responsibilities will look different as students interact in an art-specific space (versus a general ed classroom)
  • Visual communication needs to be tailored as students (480 in my case) from different grade levels and developmental stages grapple with learning goals in a specialist classroom

So, why am I writing—in February!—about a topic that usually finds its way to blogs in September? Well, I realized how delinquent I have been in neglecting my blog. <pouty lip> Also, as the evolution of my room has occurred over these five months, I felt it necessary to comment on room decorations and their implications on learning.

Without further ado, I’m going to post about that last bullet item above: visual displays.

When is enough, enough?

I have frequently struggled with the amount of visual detritus that finds its way onto the walls of many elementary classrooms. Yes, I get the whole bright, colorful, visually engaging mentality behind doing classrooms that way. But having experienced working from a cart for two years and walking into others’ learning environments, my thoughts about room set up and decorations have become more polarized. But, does that mean I am right? Is there a right or a wrong on this subject?

So, I began looking for research to understand better how best to layout displays as I considered my own room design. In addition, I have my own room and I wanted to maximize its usability and effectiveness. Now, coming from the (graphic) design industry, I had clear expectations about what I wanted to do, but I wanted to be open to what others had to say about the topic. Two key concepts from looking around are things I was already aware of:

  1. Colors are meant to accent, not dominate
  2. White/Negative space (i.e., the space between or around things) is your friend not foe

While researching this topic, I came across two articles. One somewhat recent study and another opinion piece offered by a PhD who works in teacher preparation. Both articles point in the same direction:

Teachers need to be more cautious and aware when they lay out and decorate their rooms to maximize the learning space.

Finding Balance

I can appreciate the tension the above statement can present for the eager teacher. For instance, my own classroom is presently jammed with supply cabinets, display racks, and a couple of supply tables leaving no room (literally) along the walls. In fact, I had to reorganize the room three times because I was frustrated with it just not working for me as I interacted with my students or watched them move around the space.

Heavily Decorated Classrooms Disrupt Attention and Learning in Young Children was the title of a Carnegie Mellon press release that highlighted the results from a study done by Anna Fisher and Karrie Godwin. The study, albeit a small one, found that children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted and made smaller learning gains compared to a minimally decorated classroom. The heavily decorated room also affected off-task behaviors such as talking to their peers. In the final analysis, researchers ask teachers to think hard about the role their visuals play in the learning of their elementary students.

Patricia Tarr, PhD, is associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary, Canada. As an art and early childhood educator she has been interested in the Reggio Emilia approach since the early 1990s. In her article, Consider the Walls, asks a series of questions challenging educator’s preconceived best practices that lead them to over-decorate or put up displays that have no clear focus. Her article will have you thinking about your motivations in an effort to have you justify your decisions regarding your room layout and displays.

Questions she suggests teachers ask themselves are:

  • What is the purpose of the materials I am putting on display? Who is the display for? The children? Families? Other visitors?
  • What image of a learner is conveyed by the materials displayed?
  • Does the display honor children’s work or has the work become simply decorative by being cut up into shapes contrived by an adult?
  • How can the walls reflect the lives, families, cultures, and interests of the learners within?
  • Do the posters invite participation and active involvement or passive reception of information (Shapiro & Kirby 1998)?
  • What is the atmosphere of the classroom? How do the materials on display contribute to this atmosphere?
  • What are the assumptions about how children learn, and how are these reflected by the classroom walls?

Turn a critical eye to your classroom the next time you walk into it. Have those questions printed out in front of you. Answer them—and don’t be afraid to be brutal. Your students deserve it! If you are like me, you will be forced to rethink a few things. Fortunately, just about everything Dr. Tarr recommends can be implemented now since displays are going to change anyway. And, because you are re-thinking things now you can implement your totally new strategy before the beginning of next year!

In my next post, I will show you how I’ve wrestled with Dr. Tarr’s questions as they relate to my own space. Sadly, I do not have before and after photos for everything. As I noted earlier, I moved my space around three different times trying to open up wall space as well as focus attention.

Until next time …


One response to “Wall Decorations at the Elementary Level

  1. Pingback: 2015-16: A Year of Change (Part 4) | The Poetry of Seeing·

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