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Back to School Feature

Decoration or Distraction: Are Classroom Walls Too Busy?

September 1st, 2016 by

Back-to-school time is here for our local families, teachers, and school facilities! Once classroom spaces are stocked with desks and books for the coming year, teachers in those classrooms set to work to make the spaces lively and unique. As designers and observers of several varying types of classrooms and learning spaces, we have seen that teachers not only gear their decorations to the interests of their students—based on their age, grade, and subject matter—but also to their own personal interests: including quotes from famous cultural and historical figures, favorite sports team and college memorabilia, and popular movie posters, for example.

This NBC News article explores some interesting points on this subject, and asks the question: Do too many decorations in classrooms overstimulate students and distract them from learning?


At lower grade levels, all classrooms are geared toward piquing the interest of young learners and encouraging their engagement. Pre-K and kindergarten classrooms are active spaces: Students are playing, creating art work, reading, and constantly moving around. Walls are adorned with nametags, alphabet letters and numbers, and pictures to help little ones learn about the seasons, holidays, and telling time. In classrooms for these youngest students, it is hard to find blank spaces on walls, cabinets, and doors. Every surface seems covered with educational decorations.

Seed School
As students progress up through the elementary grades and into middle and high school, the supplemental décor becomes less evident. Students tend to move around to several rooms during the day, rather than remaining stationary in one or two rooms as they did in elementary school. Also, older students have more fully developed attention spans—thus, surrounding decorations are not as visually distracting.

In designing classroom spaces and all types of learning environments, we aim to include opportunities for display and placement of decorative learning items: full walls of tack boards, and tackable strips around the entire room. We are sure to include the appropriate building materials on walls so that work can be pinned up. But ultimately, we’ve found that every surface becomes a display surface, whether it was our intention or not.

classroom 2

The types of visual materials that are posted on the walls may factor into student response—and this raises interesting questions. Are students more apt to stay on track, for instance, if the majority of the supplemental décor is that of their own work—art creations, writings, and research papers? Do students feel more of a sense of pride and ownership in their classrooms if they have a part in contributing to and creating its atmosphere? Could this help produce better behavior?


In the end, classrooms are a place of pride—or both teachers and students. The most effective spaces are those that are a creation of those who spend the most time in the room. While an overabundance of decorations—whether to support the learning of the students in the room or not—can be over-stimulating and distracting, each space is unique.

There are a variety of opinions on these topics and questions, and the most important thing we can do as designers is to take all of these factors and analyses into consideration to best help schools liven up the spaces and buildings that we create.

What are your thoughts on these topics as we head into the start of a new school year?

At Marks Thomas, we understand the value behind a good education. Take a look at our case study, Public Boarding Schools Pave the Way for Optimal Learning, to learn more about how we brought the SEED Foundation’s vision to a reality.