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May 27, 2014 10:22 AM EDT

Heavily Decorated Classrooms May Distract Young Children

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Heavily decorated classrooms may disrupt attention and learning in young children, according to a recent study.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania found that children in highly decorated classrooms - maps, number lines, shapes, artwork and other materials -- were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.

"Young children spend a lot of time - usually the whole day - in the same classroom, and we have shown that a classroom's visual environment can affect how much children learn," Anna Fisher, lead author of the study and associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said in a statement.

For the study, researchers looked at whether classroom displays affected children's ability to maintain focus during instruction and to learn the lesson content. They place 24 kindergarten students in laboratory classrooms for six introductory science lessons on topics they were unfamiliar with. Three lessons were taught in a heavily decorated classroom, and three lessons were given in a sparse classroom.

Researchers found that while children learned in both classroom types, they learned more when the room was not heavily decorated. Specifically, children's accuracy on the test questions was higher in the sparse classroom (55 percent correct) than in the decorated classroom (42 percent correct).

"We were also interested in finding out if the visual displays were removed, whether the children's attention would shift to another distraction, such as talking to their peers, and if the total amount of time they were distracted would remain the same," Karrie Godwin, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and fellow of the Program in Interdisciplinary Education Research (PIER), said in a statement.

When the researchers tallied all of the time children spent off-task in both types of classrooms, the rate of off-task behavior was higher in the decorated classroom (38.6 percent time spent off-task) than in the sparse classroom (28.4 percent time spent off-task).

However, researchers said they do not suggest that teachers take down their visual displays.

"We do not suggest by any means that this is the answer to all educational problems. Furthermore, additional research is needed to know what effect the classroom visual environment has on children's attention and learning in real classrooms," Fisher said "Therefore, I would suggest that instead of removing all decorations, teachers should consider whether some of their visual displays may be distracting to young children. "

The researchers hope these findings lead to further studies into developing guidelines to help teachers optimally design classrooms.

The findings were recently published in the journal Psychological Science.

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