There is a wealth of powerful scientific data that points to the fact that children learn better in environments that are not highly decorated. Particularly for Reggio educators, there has been a large push-back against the brightly colored, plastic furniture and learning materials that were so common when I was a child.
In general, I am in favor of eliminating clutter in the classroom. It is my opinion that clutter is not just physical, but also visual. Even a space that has scarce learning materials and very little furniture can become cluttered when its contents are clash in purpose or appearance. The learning environment is prime real estate, and each inch that is used without consideration of the large whole is an inch whose learning potential could end up squandered. A thoughtfully constructed learning environment is as much about the physical objects in the classroom as it is about the intangible atmosphere those objects create.
I have to admit, I can’t stand the brightly colored plastic stuff either. My coworker and I do our best to remove said plastic items from our classroom as often as we can, and when we can’t, we tend to just paint them a nice chocolaty shade of brown. Just like many teachers, we like our classroom to look nice. I often scream inside when students in my class express interest in audaciously colored stuff, but I know that my aesthetic preferences aren’t a legitimate reason to deter them from exploring what they want in that moment. Rainbow colored plastic toys can inspire children to learn, as well. While it is important for a classroom to look good, it is never important enough to disrupt the learning happening within.
Recently, however, I have begun to consider what it means to make an indoor learning space more “natural.” Removing excessively colorful plastic items is widely recognized as a good first step. Like me, I think many educators make an effort to utilize more wooden furniture, natural blocks and manipulatives, and subtle colors in the decorating scheme (e.g. taupe or off-white walls, brown carpeting, hanging tree branches, baskets). I have seen countless photographs of beautiful classrooms reconstructed from the ground up with a Reggio framework in mind. Many of them make me jealous of how limited my resources are, while other inspire me to do more with what I have. Without even setting foot inside these rooms, I can understand the calming effect they might have on young minds learning in that space.
But as I spend time outside from day to day, I am struck by how little subtlety nature implements in its decorating schemes. Regardless of the season, the vibrancy of nature is marked by its diversity of color, not uniformity. Spring isn’t taupe or off-white. Black-eyed susans sport tangerine petals with a jet-black center; morning glories come in bright pink, red, blue, purple, and white; even the common white clover flower is made far more beautiful when adorned with the yellow and black of an over-sized lazy bumblebee. Summer brings with it fruits whose colors are as diverse as the flowers that bore them. Likewise, fall is full of foliage in orange, yellow, red, but it also gives rise to the deep purple of the purple queen plant and the ubiquitous poke berry. Even the white snow of winter creates the perfect backdrop to highlight the rich tawny of deer, evergreen branches, and pale blue juniper berries.
I’ve seen the effect the natural world has on our students, and while it can be calming, it also allows for a much greater range of possibilities. For every calming moment it provides our students during rest periods, it also imparts upon them a moment of voracious curiosity or insatiable passion to explore. The discovery of a cone of bright blue flowers erupting from an otherwise unassuming tree sparks in them a desire to learn more about the tree and why only one of its branches saw fit to explode into color overnight. When I review documentation, I am regularly struck by the prevalence color has in the efficacy of a provocation, gift, or activity.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a warm, calm, indoor learning environment that utilizes natural materials. Every child needs opportunities to relax and explore a space that is restorative and soothing, but it is my opinion that these opportunities exist at one end of a spectrum. As an educator, sometimes I don’t want to encourage my students to be calm. I think students deserve to be riled up in a moment of intense curiosity or excitement. Children need to be able to blast off into their world like the flowers of spring, expressing themselves and exploring without care or reservation. Like butterflies, color is enticing to them. It elicits these unabashed moments of powerful learning in a way that neutral environments cannot always replicate.
In my experience, neutral indoor environments can do both when considered in a different way. Off-white, taupe, and wood grain are neutral, but during moments in which students are not receptive to a calming atmosphere, their neutrality can create a backdrop that showcases the vibrancy and rarity of natural color. Provocations of freshly picked flowers, mossy rocks, juniper and holly berries, and pine needles have been incredibly successful in our classroom because they draw the eye. As soon as children enter the room, they are instantly recognizable as objects that deserve to be noticed because of the contrast they provide. When scaffolded, these provocations can sometimes become even more engaging than if the natural objects were still in their original ecosystem; with color everywhere, interesting but subtle items can often go completely unnoticed.
I believe that “natural” and “neutral” are not one and the same. Our world contains colors that are both bright and subtle, calming and exciting, vibrant and muted. While making indoor learning spaces more natural sometimes has to begin with removing artificial or unnecessary color, I do not believe that it should result in a learning environment that is devoid of contrast or visual excitement. Like all things that involve teaching, balance is the key. In my opinion, in order for indoor learning spaces to be natural, they should be mimetic of the trends nature displays. The colors we utilize in our classrooms can be valuable tools to help students oscillate between periods of calm introspection and explosive expression. They can indicate classroom expectations or the interests of teachers and students. They can inspire individual students and help friends empathize with one another.
As Vassily Kandinsky once said, “Color is a power which directly influences the soul.”