Creative Education, 2010 , 2, 75 -80
doi:10.4236/ce.2010.12012 Published Online September 2010 (
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
Contemplating Design: Listening to
Children’s Preferences about Classroom Design
Marilyn A. Read
Department of Design and Human Environment, Oregon State University, Corvallis, USA
Received June 29th, 2010; revised July 22nd, 2010; accepted July 30th, 2010.
This paper focuses on childrens responses about the design of two images of interior classroom environments. Children
reported that key elements were circles, spheres, and windows in the low visual stimulation environment. In the high
visual stimulation environment they identified activity materials and the decor as preferred elements in the space. Re-
sults from this study can be used by designers of child development centers to guide the design of the space to reflect
one that incorporates childrens preferences for design.
Keywords: Classroom Environments, Design Principles and Elements
1. Introduction
Young children understand and appreciate the aesthetics
of their near environment in both a complex and visceral
manner. As they work on projects, create new experi-
ences, eat lunch and rest, their eyes are scanning and
focusing on the designed classroom environment. Visual
stimuli within a space can vary widely from high visual
stimulation which may appear to the young child as clut-
tered and overwhelming to low visual stimulation which
may appear boring and static. Interior design principles
and elements in the classroom range from bright and
subdued color s of materials and manipulative to rich and
varied textures on the furnishings, walls, floor, ceiling,
and cabinetry. The aesthetics are enhanced with myriad
shapes, forms, and light throughout that add to the rich-
ness, complexity, and depth of the space. Ideally, the
synthesis of functional and aesthetic components in the
classroom creates a harmonious setting for young chil-
dren. Researchers have extensively studied visual per-
ceptual knowledge of children [1]. The area that has not
been investigated is the impact of aesthetic form and fin-
ishes on children’s preferences.
Numerous decisions about the application of the ele-
ments and principles of design in the classroom are de-
termined primarily by the teachers in the setting. Po ssible
questions teachers may ask themselves when designing
the classroom include the following: 1) Does my class-
room design reflect a welcoming learning environment?
2) Does my classroom design represent the curriculum or
theoretical perspective of the cen ter? 3) How do the chil-
dren in my class perceive the designed classroom? and 4)
What type of design characteristics do children in the
environment prefer and why? The focus of this study was
concerned with the last two questions regarding chil-
dren’s perceptions and preferences in the classroom en-
vironment. Specifically, the researcher was investigating
children’s preferences for an environment with design
elements and principles illustrating a space with low visual
stimulation versus a high visual stimulation environment.
The overall objective of the research project was to have
a better understanding of what principles and elements of
design are considered to be aesthetically pleasing to
young children.
2. Background
Enclosed space provides a backdrop for combining com-
plex and meaningful design el ements and design principl es.
In the large literature on environmental quality, rela-
tively few works attempt to understand how people feel
about space and place, to take into account the different
modes of experience (sensorimotor, tactile, visual, con-
ceptual), and to interpret space and place as images of
complex—often ambivalent —feelings”—Yi-Fu Tuan. [2]
Tuan highlights the idea that space is somewhat mini-
mized and underappreciated as a salient concept. Young
children report detailed knowledg e of the various shapes,
forms, and colors in the near environment; however, the
Contemplating Design: Listening to Children’s Preferences about Classroom Design
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
meaning of these elements of design to children is un-
clear. Malnar and Vodvarka [3] propose that sensation is
mediated by culture and experience to form an individ-
ual’s reaction to space. This proposition places sensory
experiences as the central concept that impacts a person’s
response to their environments.
Principles and elements are usually represented in the
use and manipulation of materials. The interaction of the
elements of line, shape, form, pattern, texture, scale, light,
and color with the principles of proportion, balance,
rhythm, contrast, emphasis, and harmony creates the
overall aesthetic effect of the space.
The direction of a line can be horizontal, vertical, di-
agonal, or curvilinear. Horizontal lines are usually
thought to evoke feelings of calm, rest and stability
within a space. Lines in the early childhood classroom
can often be seen in the division of a wall with one hori-
zontal line separating the upper and lower walls with
paint and a chair rail. This design is useful when the
ceiling in a space is high. A visually lowered ceiling is
scaled to and reflective of a child’s height. Vertical lines
show strength with resistance to gravity [4,5].
Images of vertical lines are created with tall windows,
paint, columns, and wall variations with the application
of different materials to emphasize height. Diagonal lines
suggest a dynamic motion or tension within a space cre-
ating a sense of movement. They are best used in areas
where children’s play is highly active. Curvilinear lines
also create visual motion; however, they have a softer
effect that has a flow or rhythm as compared to diagonal
lines. In a recent study, Dazkir [6] found that people re-
ported curvilinear lines in furniture to be more pleasing
than furniture with rectilinear lines. It may be that chil-
dren would prefer curvilinear lines to rectilinear lines as
pleasing design elements in a space.
The elements associated with shape such as square,
circle, rectangle and triangle have similar associations to
line. The circle is considered to be a more inviting,
calming shape while the square and rectangle are more
rigid with their rectilinear shapes and sharp corners. The
triangle is dynamic with its diagonal lines but also rigid
and uninviting with its sharp corners. Cubes are stable
while spheres evoke feelings of movement while a pyra-
mid form shows stability with dynamic diagonal edges.
Organic shapes, based on the natural environment, are
amorphous without clearly defined shapes. Organic de-
signs denote movement with their curvilinear, asymmet-
rical line and form. They can be quite effectively in a
space to show variation from symmetrical geometric
shapes and forms.
The additional elements of colo r, light, texture, pattern,
and scale complete the design of the space. Variety of
texture and pattern can create a high visual stimulation
environment or a low visual stimulation environment
depending on the materials used to create the texture or
pattern. For more information on children’s color pref-
erences, please see Read and Upington [7].
The natural light in a space is critical to children’s
proper physical development [8]. Windows add visual
interest with transparency, reflection, views, and spatial
variation [9] while providing views to the outside helping
children with understanding of climate patterns, natural
cycles, and different times of the year.
If the center can provide views to green space, chil-
dren will benefit from the opportun ity to g aze at th e natu-
ral environment [10]. Ideally, a center will have windows
on opposite sides of the room to balance the glare and
reflection within the space. Clearly the principles and
elements of design create an environment that can be
dynamic or serene depending on how they are imple-
mented in the design of the space.
3. Evaluations of Children’s Environments
The designed classroom is seldom the central focus of
observational research with children. For example,
Boehm and Weinberg [11] detailed methods for observ-
ing children within the classroom environment, however,
the descriptions of the classroom focused solely on the
furniture layout and lighting in the space.
Interior design elements and principles were not in-
corporated in the observation guidelines. The ECERS-R
scale [12] is used extensively to evaluate classrooms,
however, the designed environment is, again, only con-
sidered in the context of the furniture layout and materi-
als within the space.
The aesthetics of the physical environment is a sig-
nificant consideration [13] that, for the most part, has
been overlooked in the literature on early childhood
education e nvironments.
Interior designers and architects of child development
centers do not regularly consider the perspective of the
children using th e classrooms. Children’s p erspectives o n
aesthetics are important for thoughtful inquiry because
designers of child development centers are typically us-
ing design principles and elements that are pleasing to
adults. The center’s board of directors, administrators,
teachers, parents, architects and / or interior designers
may be involved in the design process of the center. The
children’s perspective on the designed classroom is often
overlooked in the design-decision making process. This
is unfortunate because young children are passionate
observers of the environment and, as such, their reports
of preferences for interior design principles and elements
are important to understanding their perceptions of the
classroom environment.
Contemplating Design: Listening to Children’s Preferences about Classroom Design
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
Clark, McQuail, and Moss [14] concluded that studies
should include listening to ch ildren’ s views on the indoor
and outdoor environment. Therefore, this study focuses
on children’s reports of preferences for two designed
4. Method
Twenty-two girls and 23 boys participated in this study.
Twenty children were 3-years of age, 21 children were
4-years of age, and four children were 5-years of age.
Semi-structured interviews and image selection were
used as methods to understand children’s design prefer-
ences. Each child discussed two photographs with the
interviewer while seated at a small table. Two digital
images of two different classroom environments were
used as the visual stimuli. Figure 1 shows a classroom
with low visual stimulation with subdued colors, low
shelving, windows, and area for movement. Figure 2
depicts a classroom with high visual stimulation in the
space. A variety of display materials are seen with bright
colors and assorted shapes along with densely placed
chairs and tables. The children were asked to identify
which room they would like to visit most. The interviews
were designed in an open-ended format so that children
would express their preferences without a structured plan
from the questionnaire. The interviews were recorded
with field notes and audiotapes which were then tran-
scribed and analyzed using coding techniques to draw
out themes from the interviews [15].
5. Results
The themes that emerged from the children’s responses
to Figure 1 were Circular and Spherical Design Ele-
ments and Windows. Children discussed distinctive de-
sign elements when they noted their preferred classroom
environment. The classroom in Figure 1 was described
as open with a lot of space. It was “plain”, “not messy”,
and had “lots of space to run”. The spherical forms and
circular shapes throughout the space drew the partici-
pants’ attention for discussion. Although the balls were
partially seen in the lower right-hand corner of the photo-
graph, several children, both boys and girls, commented
on these forms as representing something special in the
space. As well, they noted the hat above the window and
the map of the world. An additional theme that emerged
from the children’s responses was the description of the
windows. Windows are clearly a dominant design ele-
ment in the photograph so it is not surprising that they
were discussed as a special element in the classroom. In
this particular photograph, the windows create an asym-
metrical rhythm with seven windows on the left wall and
three windows on the right wall along with emphasis on
the large scale dominance of the space.
Selected children’s responses to Figure 1:
The interviewer question is iden tified with an I and the
Respondent is identified with an R. For example R-6 re-
fers to respondent 6.
I. Would you most like to visit this roo m (po int at room
1) or this one (point at room 2)?
What is special about this room?
Circular and Spherical Design Elements
R-6 It has a circle (pointing to map) and a baseball
(pointing to orange hat at top of windows). Boy
R-9 Because it looks be tter and good and it has a pic-
ture of two sides of the earth. Yeah, I can see some stuff
in the corner rig ht there, and that red circle there by the
windows, which I think is Mars, and... theres a tree
(small plant on desk in farthest corner) on the table...and doesnt have a clock...and...its not messy as the
other picture. Boy
R-32 Points to orange hat on wall, points to colored
balls in corner. Po ints to the map on the wall. Girl
R-13 Because this has a circle thing that you can ride
on. Maps. The chairs. I think all of the stuff is special.
R-7 It has lots of windows. (Points to balls in corner.
Points to flowers on desk.) The floors so big, windows.
R-39 Windows, (points to more windows), more win-
dows. Points to balls in right lower corner. Boy
R-41 Its plain. Window s . Boy
In Figure 2, the high visual stimulation environment,
children preferred the wall decorations, particularly the
banner of the children, the musical notes, and the poster
of the red dog. The space was described as “fancy”,
“pretty”, “more decorated”, and “fun”. They also noted
the puzzles, blocks, and kitchen play area as special ele-
ments in the space. The two themes that emerged from
Figure 2 were Décor and Activity Materials.
Selected children’s responses to Figure 2:
I. Would you most like to visit this roo m (po int at room
1) or this one (point at room 2)?
What is special about this room?
R-20 Because...I really like it, its not very messy. Well
it has these pretty things here. Like chairs, tables, people
on the walls and those...(po inting to musical notes on the
wall). Boy.
R-21 Well, because theres lots of fancy stuff in it. A
lot of fancy stuff in here - this room kind of has more, a
lot of, more stuff in it so it looks more fancy. Girl
R-35 Because its more decorated. I like this banner. I
like those (pointing to music notes) and these stickers on
the wall. Girl
Contemplating Design: Listening to Children’s Preferences about Classroom Design
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
Figure 1. Classroom with low visual stimulation.
Figure 2. Classroom with high visual stimulation.
Contemplating Design: Listening to Children’s Preferences about Classroom Design
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
R-37 This room, because its pretty. Well it has some
pink stuff in it...I really like... this around it (pointing to
paper bells around window frame in center) cause its
pink around...I really like this because its pink around
(pointing to puzzles on table). Its really kind of
pink...being in this room...I could go to here...this round
place. Girl
Activity Materials
R-5 Points to table and chairs set. Points to puzzle on
the table. I like the beautiful thing up on the wall (point-
ing to children’s banner). The clock. Boy
R-12 Because theres more toys. Puzzle, Chairs. Girl
R-15 Because its fun. Because it has a whole bunch of
toys. And a whole bunch of stuff with color in it. Boy
R-36 Points to the refrigerator. The window. Points to
the music notes on wall. Girl.
An additional finding when comparing preference and
gender was that there was a significant correlation be-
tween gender and preference for Figure 2, t the high
visual stimulation environment. Girls preferred the high
visual stimulation environment over the low visual sti-
mulation environment (r = 0.34, p-value = 0.05). More
boys reported preference for Figure 1 over Figure 2,
however, the difference was not significant.
6. Discussion
The intent of this exploratory study was to document
children’s preferences for visual stimulation via the ap-
plication of design principles and elements in the class-
room environment. The finding that children selected
circular shapes and spherical forms as special elements is
of note. Circles and spheres provide variety in spaces
where most elements are made up of rectilinear lines and
forms. Bachelard stated “And in this rounded landscape,
everything seems to be in repose” [16].
The spherical forms had special meaning to the chil-
dren which they clearly stated in their responses. Possi-
bly children felt more relaxed when viewing the spheri-
cal forms and shapes in the environment. The large-scale
windows with their rectilinear shapes created dramatic
rhythm within the low-stimulation environ ment. Ch ildren
responded positively to these design elements and prin-
ciples. Also of significance is the finding that girls pre-
ferred the environment with high stimulation over the
low visual stimulation environment. Their descriptions of
the space focused on decorative elements that created
texture and rhythm in the space. Designers and teachers
may wish to consider designing the environments for
young children with more variety of circular shapes and
spherical forms. Interest can be created simply by vary-
ing the shape in an environment to show emphasis on a
form or shape through use of textures and materials.
Girls may be more interested in a display area if it re-
flects a high stimulation view of materials. The class-
room can be balanced for open areas with less visual
stimulation and more enclosed areas with more visual
Interviewing very young children always presents cer-
tain challenges to the interviewer. At times children were
not interested in completing the interview. They were
occasionally bored or tired of talking with the inter-
viewer. Most of the children, however, appeared to enjoy
giving their opinions about the photographs presented to
them. Their responses to the interviewer were often
thoughtful and complex.
Future directions for research would be to focus on
investigating a greater variety of design principles and
elements within a se tting such as combinatio ns of differen t
lines and volumes. An increased understanding of chil-
dren’s preferences for design in the early childhood edu-
cation classroom is clearly important for designers and
teachers to consider when designing a space.
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