Byline: Mike Kennedy
After countless decisions about what goes into a classroom - how much to spend, whether to get desks or chairs and tables, how large the furnishings should be, how easily they can be moved, how durable the pieces are, how much storage space will be needed - the question of color might seem like an afterthought.
But studies have indicated that the colors in a classroom can affect how students behave and perform. So after finding functional furniture that is safe, comfortable, flexible and durable, schools may want to consider how the colors of the furnishings can enhance the learning environment.
"Color is important and it can have benefits for the classroom," says Kathie Engelbrecht, an educational planner with the Perkins + Will design firm.
The key pieces of classroom furniture are those where students and teachers will spend the most time - desks, or tables and chairs. The primary consideration should be providing students with a comfortable seat that allows them to learn without distractions and won't cause them undue strain or fatigue as they carry out their classroom activities. Health and safety concerns have become especially critical as student computer use has become a routine part of the school day. (see sidebar, left).
Function also should be a primary consideration for color selection, says Engelbrecht. In a presentation she prepared in 2003 on "The Impact of Color on Learning," Engelbrecht urges school administrators and designers "to take a more studied stance of color in the educational environment."
"When discussing color with school districts, it is important to approach color choices as functional color rather than from a standpoint of aesthetics," Engelbrecht writes. "These colors and schemes are not measured by criteria of beauty, but rather by tangible evidence."
She cited studies that say color can affect a student's attention span, eye strain, work productivity and accuracy. Monotone environments may induce anxiety and lead to irritability and an inability to concentrate; color can help increase classroom success.
"The mental stimulation passively received by the color in a room helps the student and teacher stay focused," Englebrecht writes.
She notes that younger children find high-contrast and bright colors such as red, orange and yellow stimulating, so those colors may work better in a preschool or elementary setting. Adolescent students may respond better to colors such as blue or green that are less distracting or stress-inducing. The brightness difference between a classroom ceiling and the furniture finish should not exceed a ratio of 3 to 1.
"Being sensitive to each age group's different responses to color is key in creating an environment stimulating to their educational experience," Engelbrecht writes.
Colors also can help students learn their way around a school.
"The use of color and graphics to aid wayfinding is particularly important for primary school children," says Engelbrecht.
A school's overall color scheme, Engelbrecht says, should support the function of the building and the tasks that are carried out in it; avoid over-stimulation and under-stimulation; and create positive emotional and physiological effects.
In many cases, schools do not make decisions about furniture until after the school building has been designed, so the color of the furniture is not coordinated with the surroundings.
"We try to encourage schools to set aside money for furniture so they can get pieces that work in the environment," says Engelbrecht.
Room to move
As schools try to accommodate more varied learning styles, the furniture they provide students must be able to adapt to many activities.
The Big Picture Company, an educational organization in Providence, R.I., working to create student-centered schools, has compiled a design guide that offers school administrators tips about furniture selection.
"Erase assumptions of what school furniture is," the guide says. "Start by thinking about the daily activities and needs of the students and staff."
Choose simple colors and stay away from trendy colors. A school may need to replace pieces, so it should choose styles and colors that will be available later.
For files and bookcases, choose black. "Later additions will blend in more easily than if you try to work with beiges and putties."
In a commons area, choose a variety of seating types to make the space feel less institutional.
Chairs on casters are discouraged because they may invite "ride-around-the-room antics," especially if the floor is not carpeted.
Upholstered seats and backrests reduce fatigue and physical distraction.
Armrests may be undesirable if they prevent a user from sitting close to the edge of the work surface.
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com.
Percentage of U.S. public school instructional rooms with Internet access, 2003. Source: U.S. Department of Education
In minutes, the length of the break students should take every 20 to 30 minutes from working at a computer. Source: The American Occupational Therapy Association
* 90 TO 105
In degrees, the angle at which hips and knees should be bent as students sit at a computer workstation. Source: The American Occupational Therapy Association
* 2 TO 3
In inches, how far below the top of a computer screen a student's eye level should be for proper positioning. Source: The American Occupational Therapy Association
Comfort and safety
Since computer workstations have become ubiquitous in classrooms, school administrators have had to pay closer attention to ergonomics - how people interact with their workplace. The wrong furnishings can cause students using computers to strain their necks or eyes, or develop repetitive stress injuries.
The American Occupational Therapy Association says many school systems do not pay enough attention to ergonomics when they obtain computer hardware for classrooms.
"Preventive education can help to facilitate good computing habits, but carry-over of these concepts can be difficult when the environment is not easily adaptable for multiple users," the association says. "The computer workstation should be adjustable so that different-sized users have easy access to the reach zone of their body - in front and to each side."
Cornell University's CUErgo website offers similar recommendations for ergonomically correct computer workstations:
A stable work surface that is adjustable in height to accommodate different users.
A comfortable, adjustable chair with chair-height and back-support adjustment mechanisms. If the back tension of the chair does not adjust, make sure that the lower back is firmly supported. Armrests that pivot and are height- and width-adjustable are also a good idea.
A height-adjustable, negative-slope keyboard tray is best for keeping the elbows at an angle greater than 90 degrees and for allowing the wrists to remain in a neutral position.
A height-adjustable, gliding mouse platform that allows the mouse to be positioned close to the side of the body, above the keyboard tray (so that the arm does not have to reach to the side).
The occupational therapy association also encourages school administrators to make sure that students take a two-minute break every 20 to 30 minutes they are at a computer workstation.
"During this time, they can stretch their fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, necks, and back; relax their shoulders, neck, and eyes; and walk around to promote blood flow and relieve sitting pressure," the association says.