The study, one of the first to examine how the look of these walls affects young students, found that when kindergartners were taught in a highly decorated classroom, they were more distracted, their gazes more likely to wander off task, and their test scores lower than when they were taught in a room that was comparatively spartan.
The researchers, from Carnegie Mellon University, did not conclude that kindergartners, who spend most of the day in one room, should be taught in an austere environment. But they urged educators to establish standards.
"So many things affect academic outcomes that are not under our control," said Anna V. Fisher, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon and the lead author of the study, which was published in Psychological Science. "But the classroom's visual environment is under the direct control of the teachers. They're trying their best in the absence of empirically validated guidelines."
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. She was not involved in the study.
Image: Colorful classroom, via Shutterstock