After countless decisions about what goes into a classroom — how much to spend, whether to get desks or chairs and tables, how large the furnishings should be, how easily they can be moved, how durable the pieces are, how much storage space will be needed — the question of color might seem like an afterthought.

But studies have indicated that the colors in a classroom can affect how students behave and perform. So after finding functional furniture that is safe, comfortable, flexible and durable, schools may want to consider how the colors of the furnishings can enhance the learning environment.

“Color is important and it can have benefits for the classroom,” says Kathie Engelbrecht, an educational planner with the Perkins + Will design firm.

Function first

The key pieces of classroom furniture are those where students and teachers will spend the most time — desks, or tables and chairs. The primary consideration should be providing students with a comfortable seat that allows them to learn without distractions and won't cause them undue strain or fatigue as they carry out their classroom activities. Health and safety concerns have become especially critical as student computer use has become a routine part of the school day. (see sidebar, left).

Function also should be a primary consideration for color selection, says Engelbrecht. In a presentation she prepared in 2003 on “The Impact of Color on Learning,” Engelbrecht urges school administrators and designers “to take a more studied stance of color in the educational environment.”

“When discussing color with school districts, it is important to approach color choices as functional color rather than from a standpoint of aesthetics,” Engelbrecht writes. “These colors and schemes are not measured by criteria of beauty, but rather by tangible evidence.”

She cited studies that say color can affect a student's attention span, eye strain, work productivity and accuracy. Monotone environments may induce anxiety and lead to irritability and an inability to concentrate; color can help increase classroom success.

“The mental stimulation passively received by the color in a room helps the student and teacher stay focused,” Englebrecht writes.

She notes that younger children find high-contrast and bright colors such as red, orange and yellow stimulating, so those colors may work better in a preschool or elementary setting. Adolescent students may respond better to colors such as blue or green that are less distracting or stress-inducing. The brightness difference between a classroom ceiling and the furniture finish should not exceed a ratio of 3 to 1.

“Being sensitive to each age group's different responses to color is key in creating an environment stimulating to their educational experience,” Engelbrecht writes.

Colors also can help students learn their way around a school.

“The use of color and graphics to aid wayfinding is particularly important for primary school children,” says Engelbrecht.

A school's overall color scheme, Engelbrecht says, should support the function of the building and the tasks that are carried out in it; avoid over-stimulation and under-stimulation; and create positive emotional and physiological effects.

In many cases, schools do not make decisions about furniture until after the school building has been designed, so the color of the furniture is not coordinated with the surroundings.

“We try to encourage schools to set aside money for furniture so they can get pieces that work in the environment,” says Engelbrecht.