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Teachers often decorate a classroom with colorful art pieces from their students. Yet a recent study conducted by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that rooms with too many decorations or distractions could be detrimental to children’s learning.

Have you ever walked into a childcare center or preschool classroom and been overwhelmed by all the colorful stuff on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, and even laid across the floor? I have! Now a study by psychologist Anna V. Fisher, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that all that visual clutter might have a negative effect on learning.

Fisher used a classroom of 24 kindergarteners and six science lessons as the basis for her study. Three of the lessons were taught to the children in a sparsely-decorated space; the other three lessons were taught in a heavily-decorated classroom. After each lesson, students were quizzed on the content. The result? Lessons taught in the plainer classroom resulted in higher quiz scores (55 percent correct) than did lessons taught in the visually-busy room (42 percent correct).

Certainly this is a small-scale study of limited scope but it suggests something you might have suspected to be true: that children’s attention can be diverted by their surroundings and can result in paying less attention to what we might want them to notice. In fact, it’s been established that children have “open attention” – meaning they process all sensory information equally – in contrast to adults’ more focused attention, in which we are able to filter out what is important and attend only to that.

It seems to me that it’s not just teachers and classrooms that might be a problem. If your young child seems to have trouble focusing, seems easily distracted, and never listens look around. Is there a lot of clutter?

Goodness knows, it’s hard to keep things neat with children in the house. But if clutter in classrooms makes children perform less well, it seems reasonable to guess the same might be happening at home.  Here are some tips to try:

  1. Make it a habit to pick up books and toys at least before bedtime every day. Together. This isn’t a task for the grownup but something for the children to do, though we know they’ll need your help. Start each day with a clean playroom, instead of with the mess from the day before.
  2.  Keep children’s rooms on the spare side, instead of letting them fill up with boxes and bins and shelves full of stuff. Less might mean more when it comes to attention and good behavior. This doesn’t mean you should throw the excess out but that it should be stored away. Rotate toys, instead of having them all available all the time.
  3. Keep clothes drawers lean too. What’s in a child’s dresser and closet should be what actually fits him now, not what he’s going to grow into and what he’s already grown out of.
  4. Pay attention to media clutter too. If the television is always running in the background, if there’s the “zap-ping-pow” of video games going off all the time, or music is blaring distractingly, tone things down. Teach your media-lovers how to use the volume switch and where the headphones are kept… and even how to turn the sound off altogether.

If sometimes things at home are so distracting and crazy you “can’t hear yourself think,” imagine what it’s like for your children, who have trouble enough thinking even on a calm day.  Control the clutter and your kids may find it easier to control themselves.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.