More Colour and Less Hessian in the Classroom (in which I dare to disagree with a popular Early Years trend)
If you keep your eyes on Early Years boards on Facebook or the Alistair Bryce-Clegg blog you will be no stranger to the approach of having your classroom decorated largely in neutral colours. There are many, many (many) fans of this approach. Display boards decorated in hessian or brown parcel paper, twigs, branches and leaves festooning the room, all furniture, baskets and storage in natural colours and fabrics. Bringing the outside in, if you will.
Today I am taking the brave step of talking about why I don't buy into this common approach. Brave huh? I'm not going to pretend I am a colour obsessive or hater of nature. In fact there was a time, when I was less confident in my knowledge and opinions, that I assumed that if so many Early Years educators and bloggers were buying into this new colour scheme (or lack of) then they must be right and I must still be foolishly living in the plastic fantastic 80s if I kept parading colour through my classroom like an acid tripping rainbow unicorn wonderland. None of us want to be accused of that most dreaded sin of not embracing nature in the early years do we?
So within a week all of my display boards were backed in hessian or brown paper, bright, plastic sand and water toys replaced with found objects and plastic storage replaced with wickerwork or wood. It was pretty, in a Ikea restaurant sort of a way, but did it make a difference to the children? No. The practitioners and parents? Yes.
The children continued to play as they always had. They asked where some of their favourite toys were then played with what was available instead. Very few of them displayed new imagination or problem solving skills that they hadn't displayed with the primary colour plastic fantastic items. In fact some (mainly boys) who had previously had quite complex narratives in their play displayed less imagination, reverting instead to more basic play skills such as transporting.
As far as practitioners were concerned we felt somehow less energised and inspired. Sure we love outdoor play and nature but we make a big deal about outdoors providing unique experiences for children which indoors does not. Do we not owe it to the crappy, well loved plastic Lego and garish fish and letter shaped sand and water toys to also value indoor play for its own unique properties? Parents came in to drop children off and cast dubious glances around the room. You could see their minds whirring. Did they appreciate the calming effect of the natural environment and see how backing a display board in hessian made the child's work the star of the show? Not on your Nellie! They looked around and wondered if a) we were in the middle of decorating and b) were we about to start burning patchouli incense sticks and become proponents of them breastfeeding until their child was ten.
Now don't get me wrong. I love my wicker baskets instead of hideous bright plastic ones, my den making outdoors themed building area with sticks, logs and hessian is the best I have ever had and I do sometimes remove all of our manufactured toys and equipment and replace them with found or natural equipment just to see how it changes play but all things in moderation people! In trying to be progressive and get back to nature and, essentially, create an indoor forest school classroom I was really buying in to making my classroom a cookie cutter copy of the thousands of other classrooms out there in which well meaning Bryce-Clegg fans took his advice a little bit too literally and a little bit too far. I had become a franchised colourless dictator, no more individual or unique than a branch of Macdonalds.
My first mistake? Not having the courage of my convictions or the confidence to know that my opinions on education and environment were just as valid and well thought out as those who loved and blogged about the latest trend. My second mistake? Valuing the opinions and tastes of adults over those of children. My third mistake? Forgetting that, though Alistair Bryce-Clegg is a huge (HUGE) advocate of natural classrooms and resources, his blog also celebrates other types of resources, activities and learning. The mistake many of us made? Forgetting that in nature there are far more colours than just brown, green and grey.
So, in brave rebellion of those who buy too completely into making the indoor classroom mirror the outdoors here are my reasons why colour crept (then bounded unashamedly and with whoops of eccentric celebratory joy) back into my classroom.
1. It made me happy! Yep. That simple. Having a variety of colour in our classroom brought joy to me and to the people who came into our classroom, be they adult or child. Colour cheers my mood and inspires me. It does the same for the children. Ok so they aren't encouraged to become calm, contemplative, meditative learners and my classroom isn't a haven of peace but do you know what? They are 3 and 4 years old! Let children be children. I would much rather have a slightly nutty, slightly louder, exciting and energised room to explore and create in.
2. Rather than making a child's work the focus and making children want their work to be on display boards my brief foray into neutral palettes made children not even bother to look at the walls. They are now far more excited about getting their work on the board with the superhero border or princess stripes because princesses and superheroes matter to them. Sack cloth doesn't.
3. Nature has colour. Nature celebrates colour. All colour comes from nature so why run away from that with too much neutrality? When we like a beautiful photo of nature on the internet how often is it in black and white? Sometimes maybe but more often than not what draws us to these photos is the wonder at the amazing colour palettes that Mother Nature creates and blends. I may one day return to a more natural palette in my classroom but I have learnt my hessian lesson - next time I will include all of the colours from nature, not just the neutral and green colours of the forest.
4. Colour is proven by science and studies to influence moods and enhance learning so why not tap into that. Studies have shown that cooler colours increase calm and focus and are particularly useful to focus learners on more academic subjects like science and maths, while warmer colours such as reds and oranges help to encourage creativity.
(Further reading: http://www.colorobjects.com/en/color-columns/the-colour-real/item/357-psychology-of-colour-in-the-educational-environment.html)
5. Last one and not so much a rebellion against natural colours but more about natural objects. I like plastic! There - I admitted it. I love the feeling of a nice warm stone or a rough piece of bark (in fact pebbles and stones are one of my major obsessions). Looking at the swirls and whirls of a shell truly entrances me. The delicate composition of a velvety petal or gauzy spider web fills me with wonder. But metal, fabrics and plastics offer just as much sensory interest, especially for a child. I love seeing children build with lumps of rock and wood but it is something I enjoy observing them do outdoors, in the natural environment, with the wild abandon of forgetting that they are getting mucky hands and not bothering quite so much that they have just dropped a rock on their toe as they would indoors. Indoors they have the great experience of being able to create that perfectly formed sandcastle with turrets made by pressing wet sand into a bright yellow plastic mould. I like to see them practise their dexterity and muscle strength in their fingers and hands as they construct including spaces, dimensions and borders and exploring repeating colour patterns as they build a very primary coloured, very plastic Lego castle for an equally plastic Peppa Pig or Buzz Lightyear toy.
So there it is dear reader. Please don't judge me as a sub-intellect poor excuse of an Early Years Practitioner but the dreadful and shameful truth is that I love nature and outdoor learning but an equal part of my heart does and always will belong to the 1980s child within me who gleefully celebrates garish colour and fantastic plastic.
So what about you?