Stimulating children with school design and architecture

Schools are complex environments, where a wide variety of factors interplay to determine the kind of experience children will have, whether in the physical, intellectual or social domain.

One question that educators and policy-makers continuously struggle with, is what makes one school succeed more than another?

If we look beyond the more obvious considerations of available resources, social catchment areas, etc., then several different factors come forward. One thing that does seem to be clear is that the design of the school building itself has an import role to play in creating the best possible learning environment for children.

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How much is too much?

Schools need to be stimulating environments for students, but how much stimulation is too much? Studies into pub design in the UK have shown that a surprising proportion of violent or unruly behaviour can actually be avoided by implementing the right architectural and interior design strategies. Too many vibrant colours, for example, were found to exacerbate these behaviours in UK pubs.

Similar findings are also applicable to schools. Studies show that schools can improve student performance by focusing on the visual conditions inside classrooms. These could include complexity of classroom layout, colours used in décor, levels of information on display, a feeling of order vs clutter, quality of lighting, etc.

Children can easily be over-stimulated with too many vibrant colours and overly busy displays, but a plain white enclosure deprived of sensory input is not the answer either. Children need spaces where they can concentrate, but they also need input to arouse curiosity and encourage learning.

Academic studies would appear to back this up. Godwin and Fisher (2014) showed that children in “low visual distraction” conditions spent less time off-task and obtained higher results than children in “high visual distraction” conditions. It also found that results were higher in sparse classrooms than in highly decorated classrooms.

However, Read et al (1999) found that differentiated spaces with varying ceiling heights and wall colours supported cooperative behaviour, while also acknowledging that the effect could be counter-productive if the space became too complex. It would seem that balance is required.

Moderation in classroom design

The Clever Classrooms study (2015)¹ looked at the effects of classroom design on 3,766 pupils in 153 classrooms in different schools across the UK. It found that the level of stimulation in classrooms – taking into account complexity and colour of classrooms – accounted for about one quarter of the overall effect on performance attributable to classroom design. It also found that while overly high or low levels of complexity produced poorer learning conditions, an intermediate level of visual complexity was optimal.

So how can we achieve this optimal level of stimulation? The Clever Classrooms study recommends the following:

  • Floor layout should be sufficiently visually diverse to stimulate pupils’ attention, while still presenting a degree of order. Complexity can provide positive stimulation, as long as feelings of clutter or disorder are avoided.
  • Visual displays on walls should be well-designed and organised, and it is recommended to leave 20-50% of wall space clear.
  • Placing display materials on windows should be avoided if possible due to loss of light.

What about colours - is bright best?

Anyone who has children, or has spent time with them, will know that they are undoubtedly attracted to bright colours. However, colours should be deployed in classrooms in a smart way. Jalil et al (2012) examined how different colours influence work performance, cause certain behaviours, create negative or positive perceptions, and influence moods and emotions. Their conclusion was that coloured environments have significant effects on both students’ learning ability and their wellbeing.

In the Clever Classrooms study, low-brightness colours (white/pale) were assessed against high-brightness colours (red/orange). Once again, stimulation from the use of colour was found to be curvilinear, meaning the best results are achieved from a middle range of brightness.

Everything in moderation

So, it seems that when it comes to designing classrooms, it’s the middle ground educators should strive for. Of course, classrooms should never be dull and boring – kids are there to explore and to learn. At the same time, however, over-stimulation needs to be avoided. Classrooms should exude balance and a sense of order if we want to get the best out of our children, and architects should work together with researchers, educators and school governors to design the best possible learning environments of the future.


  1. Clever Classrooms (2015), Summary report of the HEAD project, University of Salford, Manchester
  2. Godwin and Fisher: Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young
    Children: When Too Much of a Good Thing May Be Bad. 2014
  3. Read et al: Impact of Space and Color in the Physical Environment on Preschool Children’s
    Cooperative Behavior, Environment and Behavior. 1999
  4. Jalil et al: Environmental Colour Impact upon Human Behaviour: A Review. 2012.