How To Create a Visually Appealing Classroom for Better Learning

By James Rossi, Classroom Coordinator

Today’s post is part of a series on using the five senses to create an optimal learning environment. You can find all of those posts here.

In the same way that smells engage a response based on evolutionary pressures, the things we see can affect our states. Unlike smell, however, light does not come from a physical connection to your body. Instead, light from the sun or other source flies at an object. Some of it is absorbed by the object, and the rest gets reflected, bounced off. All that bounces off is free to fly at other things – like your eyeballs. 

You see an object’s color because it reflects that light wavelength and absorbs everything else.  Those photons that bounce off the object and into your eye light up your receptors in the back of your eye, then transmit a signal through the optic nerve into your brain where the information is processed into what you perceive as the world around you. Eyes arose as a simple sensor that could only tell the difference between light and dark. Now, we can see perfect clarity in millions of colors.

Sight clues us into many things, the feature of focus in this case being color. In natural environments, the color of things can tell us about them.  Waters are typically a blue color, as is the sky. Grasses, trees, and forests are greens. Yellow, bright like the sun. Each color was highly present in specific situations in our pasts. They have an underlying impact on us because they were part of what molded our ancestors for long periods of time. By incorporating specific types of colors and shades in specific contexts, we can play on our natural responses and influence more positive results for ourselves and our students.

So What Should I Have in My Classroom?

By making sure that the environment is visually appealing and not overstimulating, we can really impact mood. Some studies have shown that staring at a fish tank can have positive impacts on human well-being. Is this because all life began in the oceans? Or because seeing fish in the water means food for us to thrive on? Regardless, it works.

Being able to see plants and natural spaces has also been shown to have positive psychological impacts on people. With this in mind, blues and greens are excellent for classrooms when they aren’t too bright or thrown up in busy patterns. Consistent colors are also good, rather than throwing many random things all over.

Beyond just use of colors, you might also consider having plants in the room, fake or real. Another idea would be actually adding a fish tank to a classroom and encouraging kids to stare at it from time to time.

If you have a projector you could even go as far as playing videos of natural scenes – a much easier and low maintenance solution. I used to have an aquarium Blu-ray that looped a few different fish tanks. I would always have it on unless using the screen for something else. I encouraged students to look at it for thinking, when they were distracted, stuck on a problem, when they were stressing.

Just sit and look.

The Importance of Patterns

Humans have a superpower that helps us survive: we recognize patterns. Patterns of all kinds are present in life. By being equipped with the means to recognize, remember, and act on these patterns, we have a huge survival advantage.

But pattern recognition is kind of broad. You can recognize the pattern of a cup in a cabinet so you can grab that specific thing. You can recognize the pattern of letters that make a sound and have a meaning as you read. You can recognize the pattern of weather as it gets progressively closer to winter; the pattern of a road and drive along it. You can recognize the pattern of a zebra without hesitation, the pattern of behavior in an animal you depend on, the pattern of a leaf that is poisonous or medicinal, the pattern of the stars movement and what that means for food and water. 

By recognizing patterns, we learn a lot about our environments and can make predictions.  Keeping the classroom visually organized and calm is important in this. If the patterns we see are chaotic, our internal feeling will buzz with the same chaotic sense. If they are harsh, or rough, or maybe way too bright or detailed, we experience an uncomfortable response. 

We may not be conscious of it, but the visual surroundings play a real role.

Beyond natural patterns, we also recognize the pattern of words. It’s not really a conscious process, is it? Try to not read the next sentence but still look at the words. I wonder if it’s working, at this point you’d have to be really, really focused to have not read a single word but still seen all the letters. Did you read all of them? Thought so.

Put positive words everywhere you can. Not everyone has to see all of them, but everyone has to see some of them somewhere. Put them in high traffic areas, at eye level, in random hiding spots. When your students look around, they will see them and consume them. These can have far more influence than you’d expect.

Your Students’ Desks Play a Vital Role, Too!

One other aspect of the visual of rooms is the perspective from the students’ desk.

Being able to sit comfortably, with good posture, and see the area where most visuals are shared is very important. Tell your students this. Make them aware of your effort on this and why.

I made sure all my desks were set up so that no student would have to keep their head or body turned past 45o to see the front of the room. Anyone would be less inclined to do anything if it came along with aches and pains.

Unfortunately, Some Things Are Out of Your Control

It’s good to think in terms of what they see that isn’t in your control. I taught for five years in a room whose windows overlooked a soccer court that hosted recess for five periods every day.  My windows and wall were the backstop to one of the goals. The first few weeks in that room were rough: I either had to have the shades all the way down and seal us off from the world or everyone was looking out the window constantly – myself included.

One day it clicked – window cling.

I got some decorative window privacy cling and put it on all the windows up to the students’ eye levels when sitting- basically as high as the tops of their heads when they sat – and left the rest open. It worked wonders. Initially we all kept looking at the noises but couldn’t see anything. After a few days we were used to not being able to see and stopped looking. We also got to use natural light all day and look at the sky. The film even cast rainbows all over.

That’s a win, win, win, win.

How do you incorporate visuals into your classroom? What works for you? Let us know in the comments!

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