Kindergarten: Little Eyes Need Resting Spaces

This column was in today’s Daily Corinthian newspaper. With their permission, I share it here.

When I sat down to begin fumbling round with words this morning, I was certain about where this column would begin, if not exactly sure what direction it would take.
Before I settled in with my coffee and key board, though, I took a minute for a quick Facebook check. Maybe you know how that goes? So much for my planned column. My dear friend Donna, a middle school librarian with a passion for all things educational, had shared a link to a New York Times blog that snagged me and completely derailed my plans.
You might want to check out Jan Hoffman’s blog for yourself. Here’s the link to her entry, Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom. You read that right. Is it possible that the colorful room is not the best option for learning? Maybe it’s not, especially for children who already have trouble focusing. It’s a thought provoking read for teachers, parents, and anyone interested in early childhood: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/09/rethinking-the-colorful-kindergarten-classroom/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

When I realized that I’d high jacked Donna’s Facebook thread with three lengthy comments, I knew I had the beginning of an unexpected column, one that I was hesitant to dive into because education is not my background. I’ve never been a classroom teacher.
What I am, however, is an artist and counselor, an explorer of the differing ways in which we process this experience of being human. I’m curious about and attuned to the impact of our surroundings on how we function in the world. Most significantly, I’m the parent of a former student who struggled throughout his school years with staying focused and completing tasks.
The blog snagged me because I’ve thought about the very questions raised in the studies Ms. Hoffman references. I wondered about them when my son was in school, but I never raised them. I lacked the confidence to bring this up to the professionals and, I suppose, I felt it wouldn’t make any difference.
As if it were today, I can still hear my young son saying, “Mama, I don’t mean to but I see everything. I can’t help it. There’s so much going on.” It’s no wonder this gripped me.
Ms. Hoffman discusses a study of whether the colorful and highly decorated classrooms that have become typical of kindergarten could, in reality, be hindering learning due to the visual distraction, rather than encouraging it. Many classrooms are brightly colored, some decorated with commercially produced posters and educational material, frequently changing bulletin boards, and colorful borders (you know the ones that are corrugated and scalloped and have been around forever). Lots of color, lots of pattern, lots of texture.
It’s a big business. Design-wise, it’s also a lot of busy-ness.
There’s pressure on teachers about how classrooms should look. Parents may walk in with expectations about the ideal learning environment. Fellow educators may not understand the teacher who opts to provide a less intense atmosphere for students. I’ve thought about what it would be like to be that teacher whose room was more sedate. How is that teacher perceived by colleagues and parents?
This is from the blog entry Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom:
In the early years of school, children must learn to direct their attention and concentrate on a task. As they grow older, their focus improves. Sixth graders, for example, can tune out extraneous stimuli far more readily than preschoolers, the study’s authors noted.
But could information-dense kindergarten classroom walls, intended to inspire children, instead be overwhelming? Could all that elaborate décor impede learning? Some experts think so.
“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!’ ” said Patricia Tarr, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who researches early childhood education and art education, and was not involved in the study.
Dr. Tarr has long railed against the notion of “decorating” a classroom. In a 2004 paper called “Consider the Walls,” published in Young Children, the journal for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, she argued that classrooms could become so cluttered with commercial posters and mobiles that they obscured the children’s own drawings and writings, posing special challenges to any child with attention deficits.
Over the years, as a parent and with various jobs I’ve had, I have walked into classrooms that had so much visual activity that it set me, an adult, on edge. Bright primary colors dominated. Complementary colors (those that are opposite on the color wheel) naturally make each other “pop” more intensely, so they compete for attention. My eyes felt the strain.
Admittedly, I’m a bit distractible myself, given my quick shift of column topic this morning, but my ability to regulate my response to the stimuli is more mature than a five or six year old. If the visual energy made me edgy, I wondered how a little person could possibly concentrate.
No one wants totally colorless classrooms, though. That would be trading one extreme for another; it’s not even realistic.
From my perspective as an artist, the key consideration is simply the fact that the eye seeks out spaces to rest. In design, whether in a painting or a classroom, the negative space (the open area) provides this necessary visual rest. When there is pattern and color everywhere, it actually becomes more chaotic and less visible. A design stands out precisely because of the space around it. We can see it more easily when resting space sets it apart.
Thinking back to the classrooms I was in at West Corinth Elementary, I pulled out my class pictures to be sure my memory was accurate. There were bulletin boards, pictures of presidents, writing guides, flip charts, and the like. Most rooms had at least a couple of potted plants. The pictures and charts were few but good quality; there was a sense of continuity and a lack of clutter, especially as the year began. I knew that kids before me had sat under that same portrait of George Washington, and that in three years my little brother would too. I wouldn’t have thought of any of my classrooms as austere. Maybe they were or maybe they simply had enough resting space. I called what they had a sturdy warmth.
One of my earliest art experiences was getting to help put up bulletin boards and then later being allowed to design and post them by myself. Our drawings and class projects were proudly displayed and visible. As the year progressed, more of our work accumulated. Our progress was in view, easily seen. By the time I left each room at year’s end, it had become partly mine. I carry my investment in those early learning spaces with me still.
Natural light flooded our space from windows that rose almost to the ceiling. Those windows opened onto a naturally shifting scene. Seasonal and subtle. They’re the display I remember most.
That was another time. A time before lamination and die cuts, back when the mimeograph ruled and stomachs knotted up on test day.
There have been changes to how classrooms look since the 1960s, but stomachs still knot up. Children still take with them beyond their school years the images from their classrooms; they carry the emotions that they felt as they succeeded or didn’t, as they belonged or didn’t. Teachers still put more into the sacred task of teaching than seems humanly possible.
May our young children and grandchildren learn in surroundings with enough to interest them and not so much as to distract them. May they have space where their unique contributions to the classroom are seen and celebrated, where they feel valuable, and where the unfolding process of learning is the liveliest decoration.
May each classroom be a living work of art.
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To the teachers in our community, may you have an enjoyable summer break. You’ve earned it.