A Palette for Learning: The Role of Color in Early Childhood Education Design 

A Palette for Learning: The Role of Color in Early Childhood Education Design 

Early Childhood Education (ECE) programs can equip children from ages 18 months – 3 years old with essential tools and skills vital for their academic journey and lifelong development. These programs focus on early childhood development, socialization, and preparing children for formal schooling. The curriculum is typically play-based, aiming to nurture social, emotional, and cognitive development through activities that stimulate creativity, curiosity, and fundamental pre-academic skills. Recognizing the pivotal role the early learning environment plays in shaping a child’s foundation, it’s crucial to highlight an often overlooked yet cost-effective element: the use of color.

Children notice colors everywhere, and research shows color influences the atmosphere by adding a valuable dimension to the learning experience.

Colors aren’t just decoration. Colors are powerful design tools that can turn a room into an inspiring environment for learning, a calming area for relaxation, or a lively space for creativity.”

– Olivia Pettler, Interior Designer

Color Psychology in Education

Color has a profound impact on emotions, behaviors, and cognitive functions. For example, red signifies action, alertness or passion, while green promotes harmony and safety. Understanding the psychological nuances of color is essential for creating a positive and conducive learning atmosphere for young minds.

Whimsical graphics and murals are inexpensive ways to use color in early childhood education centers.

Bright colors and whimsical graphics create a nurturing space at Meeting Street Academy in Spartanburg, SC.

Color and Educational Objectives

Colors can be strategically chosen to align with specific educational objectives. For instance, incorporating a variety of colors in a creative arts area can inspire imaginative thinking. And a well-balanced palette in a reading corner encourages a sense of calm conducive to focused learning. Different spaces within the educational environment can benefit from distinct color palettes, aiding in the separation of activities and zones.

Practical Tips for Implementing Color in Design in Early Learning Centers

Budget constraints often limit the ability to remodel entire spaces or change color schemes. However, there are budget-friendly options to consider, such as colorful wall coverings, artwork, or vibrant pieces of furniture. These additions not only bring color into the environment but also serve functional purposes.

The Functional Aspects of Color in Early Childhood Education Environments

Color can provide a function in wayfinding and organization within the learning environment for young learners. By defining different zones with colors, the educational space becomes well-organized and efficient. This not only aids in navigation but also helps children understand the purpose of each space and how their behavior should align.

Vibrant wall murals help identify spaces in early childhood education centers.

Drayton Mills Elementary uses vibrant wall murals to help define each grade level within the building.

Challenges and Solutions in Colorful Design

An excess of color or clutter in an early childhood education environment can have adverse effects. When early learning centers are inundated with bright and contrasting colors, it can lead to sensory overstimulation, making it challenging for children to focus on specific tasks and fostering restlessness. Similarly, an environment with excessive clutter can create visual chaos, hindering concentration and causing stress or anxiety. These conditions may also impede smooth transitions between activities and contribute to difficulty in recognizing cues or directions for effective classroom management. Striking a balance between stimulating elements and a calm, organized space is crucial to fostering an optimal learning environment for young minds, ensuring that the physical setting supports their cognitive and emotional development.

Incorporating school colors into every room can also create challenges. While school spirit and pride are essential, school colors should be balanced with creating a conducive learning environment. Finding a palette that complements school colors while ensuring a positive learning environment is crucial.

The significance of color in early learning environments cannot be overstated. Its psychological impact, often overlooked yet crucial, significantly influences educational design. Integrating colors aligned with educational goals and understanding their functional implications optimizes classroom environments to enhance learning experiences for young minds. As we advance in our comprehension of educational settings, the role of color will undeniably remain a cornerstone in shaping the future landscape of early childhood education.

Early Childhood Education spaces that are clutter-free supports focus.

Legacy Early College K4 Charter School provides a colorful but calm and clutter free classroom for a fun, active learning environment.

Different colors can evoke various emotions and stimulate cognitive functions in young children. For Example:

A Palette for Learning: The Role of Color in Early Childhood Education Design 

8 Ways to Use Color in Early Childhood Education Programs:  

1. Classrooms

Use calming colors like soft blues or greens on classroom walls to promote focus during lessons. Accent with pops of vibrant colors in learning materials and displays to stimulate interest. 

Early Childhood Learning at Legacy College, K4 Charter School

2. Creative Arts Areas

Infuse this space with a lively palette including yellows, reds, and oranges to inspire imaginative thinking. These warm colors can energize and encourage artistic expression.  

3. Reading Corners

Opt for a well-balanced palette of calming colors such as muted blues or greens to create a serene atmosphere, fostering a sense of calm conducive to focused learning.  

Drayton Mills Elementary

4. Dining Areas

Introduce warm colors like reds or oranges in spaces where children eat, as these hues are believed to stimulate appetite and create a lively dining environment.  

5. Hallways and Wayfinding

In early learning centers, use a consistent color scheme for wayfinding, assigning specific colors to different areas. This helps children navigate the space easily and understand the purpose of each zone.  

Legacy Early College, K4 Charter School

6. Play Areas

Infuse energetic and cheerful colors such as bright yellows or playful greens in areas designated for play to enhance the sense of fun and excitement.  

7. Learning Corners

Tailor color choices based on the subject matter – for instance, use stimulating colors in a science corner and calming colors in a math or puzzle area.  

8. Quiet Spaces

Select muted and soothing colors like pastel blues or lavender for areas designed for reflection or quiet activities to create a peaceful and calming atmosphere.  

Richland Cooper Library

Do you have questions about how color or other design elements can impact your early childhood education center?

Contact our K-12 Team



Michelle Smyth


Michelle Smyth, AIA, LEED AP is a Principal and K-12 Project Manager at McMillan Pazdan Smith. Recently, Michelle contributed to an article published in EDmarket Essentials Magazine and a presentation at EDspaces about a special project that may serve as a new model to address childcare deserts in the Southeast and beyond. 

Olivia Pettler, Interior Designer


Olivia Pettler is an Interior Designer in our Charleston, SC studio. She is currently working with Michelle Smyth and the design team on a new early learning center for infants through pre-kindergarten.