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Sign, sign, everywhere a sign: decorations in elementary classrooms - good or bad?

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign: decorations in elementary classrooms - good or bad?

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This article, "Heavily Decorated Classrooms Disrupt Attention and Learning In Young Children" (Association of Psychological Science, May 2014, has been making the rounds on social media of late. The takeaway: research showed that "children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed." What's your take?

I'm going to be honest here and admit I have a bias in this conversation because I'm utterly HORRIBLE at classroom decorations, bulletin boards and the like. Making matters worse, since I teach 500+ students (the entirety of the K-4 student body in our elementary school) in a computer/STEM lab setting, whatever I place has to appeal to a broad range of students. At least, that's one of my excuses for NOT decorating...

I'm also going to admit that, again, in my experience, some of the most warm, welcoming and inviting elementary classrooms in my school are quite literally filled to capacity with ... stuff! Massive quantities of instructional materials, painstakingly arranged and presented in thoughtful, creative ways ... contributing to a very relaxing, kid-friendly environment. This is especially true in Kindergarten, the subject of the study in question.

For reference, here is a photo of the classroom I inherited (it was a third grade teacher's space) BEFORE I moved in:

and here it is AFTER I transformed it into my learning space two years ago:

Admittedly, the uses of the rooms are very different; third grade self-contained and Computer/STEMLAB are not much alike, but, if I had an ounce of decorating savvy my walls wouldn't be so barren.

So, now I'm wondering - should I even decorate at all? Would the addition of visuals significantly distract my kids from the tasks at hand? Or make the environment more welcoming? Or not make any difference at all?

What are your views on classroom decorations? (I'm just now realizing that late August / early September would be a better time to share this post, but, here we are...)

Thanks for any insight!


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Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.


This is an interesting piece. I've been in classrooms that looks like the school specialty store puked all over it...and then in the opposite type of classroom where there's nothing on the walls and kids sit on chairs (no desks) in a circle kind of like a buddhist community.

There's no right answer. You have 20-30 kids who all have different needs and distractibility levels. Personally, I started my career with cute, mostly store-bought, decorations. I created posters for Math, reading, writing, science, etc... that kids never used because of distance issues (in my opinion).

This is how I've changed over the years. I put up a few things in the classroom, but leave all bulletin boards empty. The posters hung on the walls, math charts, word lists, whatever, are now shrunk down and glued into the back of folders and notebooks.

For the last five years, whatever that goes on the walls is completely KID MADE. Posters, cut-outs, big books, whatever art we create to learn something is kid made and shared for all. It's almost always super-sized and easy to read and understand.

The Buff Verb Alphabet

Here's a cool first week of school activity I do with "Strong Verbs" for some decorating purposes.

--I do a short mini-lesson on verbs (Verbs are taught all year--the beating heart of the sentence).

--Next, I unveil 26 strong (You're so Buff) verbs. Make sure you pick the verbs so each verb begins with a letter of the alphabet. Depending on the age of the students, you can have the kids create the list. I've tried this with my 3rd graders, but the lesson usually drags on and gets a bit off-task (remember, it is the first two days of school).

--Each student will pick a verb, enlarge it in some way (bubble letters, thick marker, etc...) usually around the size of a standard piece of paper. Make sure the first letter in the word is LARGE AND STANDS OUT.

-- Instead of those crusty-old-yellowed letter you put up for the alphabet, use the BuFF Verbs your kids created and reference them all year.

Here's a blog I wrote (My first blog for Edutopia) on using music the help teach verbs.

Gotta' Keep on Jammin',


Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI

Thanks Gaetan! I am going to share this post with my classroom teacher friends. My situation is unique in that I have 500+ students ... so, accommodating / including everyone's work can be ... a challenge. Similarly, concepts taught vary accordingly by grade level, so, well, yeah. :) Such is the life of the "Computer Teacher," rare birds that we are!

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

My of the things I really like about the Finnish classrooms that I have seen is that they aren't filled with lots of "stuff". (Tim Walker @timdwalk blogs and tweets great stuff about teaching in Finland) Personally, I am not a fan of cluttered walls (or any visual space). I find it hard to focus when everywhere you look there is a visual or words. White space is not a bad thing. If classrooms are going to have stuff on the should be student created work. Examples of their learning/creations. Having just come from visiting Carrie Jackson's (@jackson_carrie) school in TX, 2 things that I loved in her MS...first a few of the classrooms had murals painted on the walls (the one was Dr Seuss can you go wrong with Dr Seuss?) and then the other were candid pics of the students. The candids were actually hanging outside of her office...but I think images of the kids is great in any space. Maybe give a camera (even disposable) to some of the students to take pics of "a day in the life..." in your classroom and hang those??

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