It’s always exciting starting a new school year, and although I’m entering my eighth year teaching preschool, no year is ever the same—and I love it that way! Sometimes a new school year brings new staff and new families who are unfamiliar with the purposeful aesthetic our school strives for. Training new staff and talking to new parents is an opportune time to clearly demonstrate and verbally justify an important aspect of our school philosophy: Our classroom decor and walls support creativity, learning, and respect towards children.
In the Beginning
All of the walls in my 20’ x 20’ classroom start out very bare. Bulletin boards are neutral in color and have no decorations. There are no boarders. Our large bulletin board always starts out with the names of all the class members. This year I have cardboard circles with the children’s first name and a shape next to each name (we will be playing a shape game with these, and then later using them as a base for a sculpture). I like children to see their name and all of the names of their classmates on our large board to help give them a sense of belonging to our school community. Some children are unable to recognize their name yet, but parents and teachers point out their name and they know these represent each child in the class. Our walls have no number lines or alphabet charts. Few posters are ever used in our room. I have a sign on our paper towel holder that is a visual about how many paper towels we use, because we are diving right into our kindness to our Earth exploration and will be starting with what we can do for the Earth within our classroom. I also have a small sign about our voice scale, because I talk about the voice scale and indoor and outdoor voices right away, and then I use that language all the time in class – “Let’s bring our voices down to a Number 2 or 3.” I also have some small signs identifying each center and what developmental domain is supported by the activities within each center. These signs are for parent education purposes. For the most part, the walls belong to the children, and the children will be responsible for the lively color and decorations in the room through their art.
What the Future Holds
As school progresses, our largest bulletin board will have a variety of every child’s art. As new creations are made, the children choose new items to replace the old ones. Art can be created through several opportunities: at our class center we call the “Creation Station,” process art set up by the teacher, paintings made at our outdoor easels, or during our optional after school program. I reserve our smaller bulletin board for art that comes from of our Book of the Month program, in which we focus on a book and extend literature through our classroom centers and activities. Some of these books include stories that allow for in-depth learning about famous artists and their techniques (check out the series by James Mayhew).
Our wide window sills can hold some sculpture creations, and art is always displayed in our front window for parents to see. I leave the wall above our coat hooks blank so children have a calming place to rest their eyes.
I frequently ask myself, “Is what I’m doing for the children, for the parents, or for me?” If my answer is not clearly “for the children,” and I can’t identify the learning outcomes, then I need to be honest with myself and reevaluate what I am doing. Self-evaluation is so important in making sure I provide the best program I can for children.
I’m confident my bare wall philosophy is strongly supported as a best practice. It is the philosophy taught at West Valley College where I received my A.S. in Early Childhood Education, and it is the practice that researchers are finding best supports children’s focus, learning, and test scores in Kindergarten and into primary school.
The following is a list of some of the classroom décor policies I follow and my why behind them.
- Cluttered color can be overstimulating for some children. Children with sensory integration dysfunction or those on any part of the autism spectrum tend to experience stimuli more intensely, and teachers should plan their classroom to meet their needs. Also, many things influence children’s classroom behavior, but it’s so easy to start with a calming classroom aesthetic in supporting all children’s social/emotional development.
- Cluttered color can overwhelm executive function in some children. The ability to stay on-task or hold and retrieve information from memory can be compromised when the environment is distracting and overstimulating.
- Store-bought decorations and images are often silly and non-authentic. In my opinion, children deserve authenticity. Decorations may set a design standard for some children because this is what the adult, authority figure, or teacher has deemed worthy to decorate a wall. Children perceive the decorative image as the standard for what something is supposed to look like. If, for example, a teacher hangs cartoon-like fish from the ceiling, children may think the fish they paint need to look like those “teacher-approved” fish. When children can’t paint fish that look like those fish, they may believe they are not good at painting, or their creativity could be stifled to create different fish from their imagination. Without decorations, children’s minds are free to imagine, create, and explore possibilities.
- Trademark images are never used in my class. Most children are bombarded with commercialism in their daily lives, and my class is a vacation from all that. In addition, I want to be respectful of families who are restricting screen-time with their children, or who are being very selective in what their children watch. Incredibles, Octonaughts, and Disney characters may go against what parents are teaching. But, you may say, “Hey, Karen, Winnie the Pooh is trademarked, and there’s nothing wrong with The Pooh!” I ask you, “What is your why for putting him on the wall?” Reading the book is great. Extending the literature experience through activities and centers within your class is even better. But what does an image of Winnie the Pooh do for children that they can’t gain through their own creative means? Winnie the Pooh is a story that has been told, now let’s let the children create their own stories.
- No borders on the bulletin boards. Again, here’s where we ask ourselves, “Why?” Bulletin boards are our classroom’s art galleries and borders distract form the children’s work on them. I have been to a number of art galleries, and I have never seen decorative borders around a grouping of masterpieces. Out of respect for the children’s work, their names are always printed on the back of art (unless they want to write it themselves on the front), and their art is displayed as if it was in a gallery with a small tag with their name and picture alongside it.
- I believe if I see a need for a poster, such as the alphabet, then it will only be used because children are showing an interest in letters, or they want to sing the Alphabet Song, or the language activities I have led in class make the alphabet poster relevant to them. Children need to have a connection to a poster before it goes up, and then, I also have to ask myself, is it for me or for the children? Is there an alternative to the poster that has a stronger learning outcome? Ideally, I would love to see classrooms create their own alphabet chart and number line, through art and photography. It would be a fantastic and fun way to reinforce letter and number identification.
I challenge you to take a good, long look at your classroom and ask yourself how each and every decoration and poster serves the children. Get on your knees and see what your walls look like at the children’s level. If you find yourself spending way too much of your class budget on decorations, or you are struggling with behavior problems in some children, reevaluate what your walls look like. If you’re not doing it already, try out the bare wall aesthetic for a month and see what happens!
Bennett, Colette. “Stop Classroom Clutter.” ThoughtCo, Jun. 4, 2019, thoughtco.com/decorating-your-classroom-4077035. Accesses Sept 8, 2019
The Hechinger Report, “The Bare Walls Theory: Do Too Many Classroom Decorations Harm Learning?” NBC, Oct. 13, 2014, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/education/bare-walls-theory-do-too-many-classroom-decorations-harm-learning-n223436. Accessed Sept. 8, 2019
Tarr, Patricia, “Consider the Walls.” Young Children, May 2004, http://ocw.umb.edu/early-education-development/echd-440-640-eec-language-and-literacy-course/learning-module-1/module-11/consider%20the%20walls.pdf. Accessed Aug. 30, 2019