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Kids Learn Better in Stark, Barely Decorated Classrooms, Study Finds

Kids learn better in classrooms that are bare, less decorated
Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you think your kindergartener's classroom is a wonderfully inspiring, adorable little place, with its bright, eye-catching posters on the wall and friendly signs that greet you at the door ... you (and your kid's teacher) may have it all wrong. According to a new study, that colorful classroom is more of a distraction than anything else.

The research, which was conducted by Carnegie Mellon University, found that kindergartners who were taught in bright, cheery and well-decorated rooms were actually more likely to have their gaze wander off during a lesson, perhaps more engaged and inspired by the surrounding decor than the particulars of how one spells "cat." As a result, those children scored lower on tests than others who were taught in less-decorated, more "stark" classrooms.

(Hmmm, so it looks like our own childhood teachers were on to something?)

While the researchers aren't saying we should strip all our classroom walls bare and have our kids learning only in white-walled, barren environs, they do think these findings suggest we should establish some standards.

"So many things affect academic outcomes that are not under our control," Anna V. Fisher, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon, told the New York Times. "But the classroom's visual environment is under the direct control of the teachers. They're trying their best in the absence of empirically validated guidelines."

Patricia Tarr, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, has some, ahem, stronger words for teachers: "I want to throw myself over those scalloped borders and cute cartoon stuff and scream to teachers, 'Don't buy this, it's visually damaging for children!'"

Yikes. That may seem like a bit of an overreaction, but Tarr has been researching (and railing against) the state of children's classrooms for a decade now. Her 2004 paper "Consider the Walls" was even published in Young Children, the journal for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. In it, she spoke of how classrooms have become essentially littered with commercial posters, mobiles and other needless designs that they "obscured the children's own drawings and writings, posing special challenges to any child with attention deficits," the NYT reports.

But even if this research is on to something, it's not to say that we should all be surrounded by boring environs our entire life in order to learn. Experts argue that young children specifically need to focus on one task, without distraction, in order to truly grasp new concepts; whereas, older kids (even by sixth grade) are able to tune out surrounding distractions when required.

You can read the rest of the study's findings here.

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