The Schoolhouse South Africa project by Cornell University Sustainable Design

focussing on “Learning from Play.”

The Het 4e Gymnasium in Amsterdam


An auditorium at Trakya University

Showcase 31 Oct 2012

Colour for educational institutions

Colour expert Kate Smith explores about the importance and use of colours in educational spaces.

Colour has a profound effect on our daily lives and its impact begins at the earliest of ages. From childhood through adulthood, specific colours have meanings and connotations that grow along with us in our lifetime. Even the earliest education efforts rely on colour, such as teaching preschoolers that the colour green means “go” and red means “stop.” More than just a reference tool, colour creates an environment that is able to promote and enhance learning.

The value a culture places on education can be seen in the design, construction, and maintenance of their educational institutions. It is here that students encounter information and concepts that provide the building blocks of their lifelong learning. The way these buildings appear—their architecture and interior design—must reflect the activities they are designed for and that take place within them. Colour can also reinforce the goals of an educational institution—whether it is designed for the pure assimilation of information and subordination of students or whether it’s designed to promote creativity, free thinking, and independence. The use of colour in the design of these spaces shapes the educational experience and must be undertaken with care. Successful design utilizes colour to create a nourishing environment that stimulates learning while supporting the individual and social processes of development. 

Well designed educational spaces provide students with an aesthetically pleasing visual experience while supporting the goals of the facility. In addition to addressing the mandatory architecture-related criteria, colour can be used to: 

  • Create a sense of trust and security 
  • Encourage communication 
  • Stimulate creativity 
  • Energise the senses 
  • Motivate and stimulate behavior


Strategic Colour Choices 

While choosing colour in the context of educational design, you must address the specific type of learning that the environment is being designed for, as well as the target age of its students. For the purpose of defining the users and the goals of each facility, we will broadly classify these categories as preschool, school, and higher education.


The Schoolhouse South Africa project by Cornell University Sustainable Design

The preschool is a center for play and playbased learning for students between the ages of three to six years. In preschools, the goal is to help children develop their cognitive and emotional skills, as well as to develop their personality and expand their social skills. An important design goal at this level is to facilitate the development of sensory perception as it relates to emotions, cognition, and thought processes. It is important to recognize that the design of the learning environment for this age is critical. For example, a stimulating environment can motivate a child and allow him to gather complex emotional and intellectual experiences. Up to the third year of life, these interactions typically occur with the mother or primary caregiver. Children in this age range require an environment that transmits trust, security, and confidence. 

The ideal educational institution is designed to stimulate the mind and senses of this age group while making them feel safe. It should foster responsibility as well as creativity and nurture individual development. All colour and material selections are important at this stage because each one can influence a child’s well-being and behaviour, as well as leave a lasting impression.

Elementary, Middle, and High School

In addition to being places of learning and the platform for a lifetime of education, schools provide a social environment and represent a microcosm of society. These learning institutions operate within the  world and mimic its social aspects and boundaries. The importance of design that addresses the societal aspects, the school’s constitution, and its pedagogical objectives cannot be overstated. Understanding the unique mission of a school is crucial to its successful design. The age of students, (typically between six to seventeen years), the focus of academics, and any additional vocational or special education offerings must be considered. 

Today’s learning institutions are challenged to balance the needs of individual children while satisfying standardised scholastic requirements. This as well as the increasingly demanding role of education in preparing students for society makes the design of the educational environment pivotal. The impact of the classroom space on learning has been studied and proven to be significant. While younger children are influenced the most with learning taking place primarily through observing and exploring, the theory applies to students of any age. An environment that is intriguing and that appeals to all the senses plays a major role in the development of learning processes. Studies also show that students are more likely to participate and be engaged in classrooms with a “softer” design, for example, using carpeting, comfortable seats, suitable colours, and pleasant lighting. 

focussing on “Learning from Play.”

Higher Education

A discussion on the aesthetics of the learning environment is not complete without addressing higher education. It has been proven that colour in the context is best served when it is neither over-stimulating nor understimulating creating a balanced atmosphere. 

Overall in addition to providing the ultimate environment for learning, and intellectual and social development, a well-designed educational institution also appears friendly, warm, and safe. It can be characterised by its openness and frequently uses warm tones to create a lasting and memorable appeal. Successful design of educational institutions requires designers to address the emotional needs of the students by creating environments that foster their well-being. Ideally, the use colour in these spaces should encourage lifelong learning.

The Het 4e Gymnasium in Amsterdam

Contributor: President and chief color maven of Sensational Color, Kate Smith is an internationally renowned colour expert, sought out for her ability to guide businesses on how to use colour to gain recognition and generate revenue. 


• Thomas Hawk » 
• Cornell University Sustainable Design »
• D'Oude Vos » 
• Enver Duran & Raupp »

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