STIR article - Colors That Help Kids Learn header image
Originally published in STIR®

By Holly O’Dell


Color plays a significant role in designing learning facilities for students of all ages.

For at least a century, researchers have studied school design to determine whether certain factors affect learning environments. For example, in the 1980s, the Wolfarth Study examined the effects of light and color on elementary students for a full school year. “The results showed that carefully selected color and light lowered blood pressure and stress levels, reduced disruptive behaviors, and improved academic performance and IQ scores,” says Stacy Reed, senior interior designer and project manager, and south central education and culture practice area leader at Gensler in Austin, Texas.

Color clearly plays a significant role in designing learning facilities for students of all ages. “Color shouldn’t be considered just an aesthetic element, but a vital function of the space, as it has a strong influence on the emotional feelings and physical health of the occupants,” says Ashley Banbury, interior designer for Color Marketing & Design Services at Sherwin-Williams. “Color selection and placement can affect the attention, behavior and achievement of both students and staff.”

Colors for all ages

Studies show that certain colors appeal to certain age groups based on their psychological development level. “By selecting colors appropriate for the age group, you can create an environment that supports children’s development,” Reed says.

  • Preschool and elementary school. Bright color schemes increase brain activity and reduce the scale of large spaces, helping young children feel comfortable. “The use of vibrant blues and greens in classrooms for young students stimulates creative thinking yet brings a sense of calmness to the space,” Reed says. Pastel hues work well for first- through third-grade classrooms. Light blue is often associated with safety and security.
  • Middle school and junior high. Mixes of bright and cool colors, such as fucshia and aqua, can help focus concentration. Bright greens stimulate creativity, while cool colors are calming to students.
  • High school. As children mature into adolescence, deeper, more subdued colors stimulate without leading to stress or becoming distractions. Colors such as olive green, gray and violet are good selections for high school classrooms.

Conversely, a lack of color can negatively impact how students learn. “Color-deprived environments can be uninspiring and non-stimulating,” says Reed. “Human efficiency rates drop when exposed to white or off-white surroundings. Lack of stimulation in monotone environments can lead to irritability, restlessness, anxiety and excessive emotional responses.” Neutrals can be used, she says, but not monochromatically.

Adapting the playbook

It isn’t always a black-and-white process, however. As Reed puts it, “There is no prescribed approach to specifying color for schools.”

“Everyone has a personal connection with every color in the rainbow,” adds Abbie Cronin, an associate with architecture firm Perkins Eastman. “I don’t think it’s as prescriptive as, ‘Young children should only be in rooms with primary colors.’”

When developing color schemes for schools, Perkins Eastman often employs a “quieter, more refined base palette with an accent color to animate the particular environment and draw attention to certain features within it,” says Sean O’Donnell, a principal at Perkins Eastman and leader of the firm’s primary and secondary education practice. “Our goal is to create something less institutional and more approachable.”

Banbury agrees with this approach: “Each space throughout a learning facility has a different function and should be treated as such with color.”

For corridors, Banbury recommends cool, calming colors that “can be reviving to the student’s mind.” However, cool hues in lunchrooms have been shown to suppress appetite. In these spaces, Banbury suggests using warm neutrals with bold splashes of orange and red, which have been proven to stimulate the appetite.

Gymnasiums are places of motion, and people tend to gravitate toward active colors. Children with asthma respond favorably to yellow, while red and orange are associated with the heart and nervous system. Meanwhile, spaces that include performance arts should be dramatic and creative, and “occupants thrive in spaces with warm neutrals, violets, greens and dark blues,” Banbury says.

The library often serves many functions and may need to incorporate multiple hues, so “finding a harmonious balance between the different areas can be challenging,” Banbury says. For example, reading and study areas should include calming colors to promote concentration, while social lounges should feature more energetic hues to promote engagement and conversation.

For its design of Stoddert Elementary School in Washington, D.C., Perkins Eastman wanted to incorporate some of the oranges and reds from an existing building on campus. “The literature shows that blood pressure rises in response to red, and some people have this automatic reaction that you can’t put that color into a learning environment,” O’Donnell says. “However, nobody asks, ‘Is it necessarily a bad thing for your blood pressure to go up in a learning environment?’”

In seeking an answer to the question, O’Donnell discovered research that used both blue and red backgrounds on computer interfaces to test subjects on particular tasks. The results showed that each color had its place, depending on the task. “You just need to be careful about application and excess,” O’Donnell says.

Perkins Eastman did integrate red in the Stoddert palette, most notably on the massive gymnasium ceiling — to great reception. O’Donnell and Cronin attribute the success of the space to the use of red with an analogous color (orange), rather than using a hue that would create a stark contrast.

Establishing an overarching identity for a school and creating ambience are frequently the main drivers in color selection, according to O’Donnell. When designing the new home of Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, D.C., Perkins Eastman took their identity as the “Crimson Tide” into account and made sure the red accents carried throughout the entire building.

For the school’s four distinct learning academies, Perkins Eastman developed separate color schemes to help identify a home base for students in each academy. While the crimson hues were threaded through each academy, they were given extra prominence in the school’s public spaces such as the gym, armory auditorium and media center, where red makes a strong statement in the carpet and furnishings.

“Utilizing school colors encourages pride and a sense of place in students, which in turn, brings confidence and excitement to students’ academic experiences,” Banbury says.

For more information about color and design trends influencing education, as well as product solutions for learning facilities, check out Sherwin-Williams Facility Solutions for Education.