How the kindergarten classroom hurts the mind?

We like — or these days, even preschool — as the best academic start for our children. Fresh young minds enter a stimulating classroom to enrich their understanding, sculpt their brains, and prepare them for the world. Except, that “enriching” classroom may not be as ideal for learning as we like to imagine. It may instead reflect the way modern society distracts and damages the brain.

Consider the two classrooms in the picture below. Which would you like to enroll your kindergartener in?

A heavily decorated classroom is more distracting to kindergarteners than a bare classroom. Image from Fisher et al. (2014), by Psychological Science.

A heavily decorated classroom is more distracting to kindergarteners than a bare classroom. Image from Fisher et al. (2014), (c) Association for Psychological Science.

The top, decorated classroom is more colorful and appealing, and fits the mental image I suspect most Americans have a kindergarten classroom — it certainly matches my own experience, and what I see in Kindergarten Cop (Austrian-accented undercover police officer optional). Despite its familiarity and appeal, however, the design of a kindergarten classroom is not based on any scientific evidence supporting learning; in fact, the latest evidence suggests that the fanciful decorations that make a classroom seem so inviting and education to adults may make it more distracting and ineffective for young children.

The research has been described quite well elsewhere, such as in “Rethinking the colorful kindergarten classroom” on the New York Times. In brief, a group of 12 kindergarteners took several very brief (5 minute or so) lessons in each of the pictured classrooms, alternating between the sparse one and the decorated one, over the course of 2 weeks. When they were sitting in the decorated classroom, children spent more time (39% of the lesson) distracted and not paying attention than they did in the bare classroom (28% of the lesson distracted). This distraction showed in simple tests given about the lessons; although the children did learn something from all the lessons, they didn’t learn as much in the decorated classroom (42% correct) as they did in the bare classroom (55% correct).

Beyond the implications for helping kindergarteners max out their standardized test scores, though, my first thought when I saw the panoramas of the two classrooms was another side-by-side contrast of two environments that I wrote about a few years ago, describing how a walk in nature can restore your mind:

Looking at pictures of urban environments (left) does not help restore attention, but looking at pictures of nature (right) does. Photographs by K. Blackwell.

Looking at pictures of urban environments (left) does not help restore attention, but looking at pictures of nature (right) does. Photographs by K. Blackwell.

The finding that walking through a park will help restore depleted cognitive reserves, while a walk through the city streets did nothing, is just one link in a long chain of research showing how the city hurts the brain. One theory to explain this damage is that the city environment is too busy, too distracting: too many sights to see, things moving about, stark contrasts in man-made objects that grab your attention and demand to be processed….just like the decorations in the kindergarten classroom. Nature, on the other hand, contains fewer items to look at and process, just like the bare classroom. Parents and educators today have focused quite a bit on how television and smartphones might be damaging to the developing mind, but no one has considered that the very rooms children live and play in could be overstimulating as well.

This realization of the potential cognitive harm of a classroom sheds new light on the idea of “nature deficit disorder”, Richard Louv‘s proposal that the rise of attention deficit disorder and other mental ills of the 21s century have risen because we no longer spend time outside. I originally considered this purely from the perspective that we might receive some positive benefits by a daily dose of the outdoors; this new study suggests we might also be starting out with some negative costs of our hourly dose of the indoors. This would be a fairly new development, fueled by affluence and the sheer amount of stuff that we can cheaply acquire to fill a room.

Now, the differences caused by that cluttered classroom are not strong enough to justify calls for a return to classroom austerity; the difference of spending just 30 additional seconds (10% of 5 minutes) with eyes wandering, or scoring 10% lower on a test, does not match the drama of having an attention deficit problem or not. The unanswerable question, though, is how these costs might accumulate over the course of an elementary education. The constant drain of dealing with distraction could create a permanent state of ego depletion, at best making it more challenging to learn new material, and at worst preventing the brain from forming the neural circuitry needed to excel. Just to be safe, perhaps the best decoration for a kindergarten classroom might be a nice nature mural.
Fisher, A.V., Godwin, K.E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children: When too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological Science. Manuscript accepted for publication. PMID: 24855019


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