Design, Color, and Children in Education and Healthcare Environments

Designers intentionally choose colors to promote calming and healing environments in education and healthcare spaces accessed by children.

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us,” giving a large responsibility to designers in creating spaces and consequently shaping the people that use them now and in the future. We’ve evolved to live in industrial societies whose members spend an increasing amount of time in enclosed areas under artificial lighting, so any effect of color and light becomes vital to our mental and physical health. Environmental factors such as these play an essential role in the nutrition, growth, development, and education of children, so it is even more crucial that design applications targeted for and used by children are thoroughly considered. The goal in my research was to create a referenceable body of knowledge for designers at DC and to spread an understanding of the impact and implications that architecture, interior design, and engineering have on children in these environments as it relates to color.

Color Doesn’t Technically Exist

Color is actually wavelengths of light that the brain interprets for us. There are photoreceptors within the eye called cones which decipher the different reflected wavelengths of visible light and send signals along pathways to the brain. The two pathway options are red-green and blue-yellow. You’ve probably heard of people who are red-green colorblind. This means they have issues with that specific pathway. Once the signals reach the brain, we can determine the hue, value, saturation, and temperature of the color, but factors such as lighting, materials, and textures can also affect your perception. Different parts of the brain are responsible for different parts of your vision. The thalamus responds to form and motion whereas the V2 allows us to understand the relationship between form and color. Damage or malformation to parts of the brain can affect color perception, as well. Color is important for our sight because it helps us discern spatial features, highlight specific items, and set interior moods as it begins to affect our physical and emotional responses.

We Involuntarily Respond to Color

Physiological responses to color are predominantly involuntary and include things such as increased heart rate, perspiration, appetite, eye blinking rate, and blood pressure. The light waves our bodies absorb carry minute amounts of electromagnetic energy which then affect neurotransmitters in the brain. Because that energy is absorbed by the body, even blind and visually impaired people are affected by color changes. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry messages from nerve to nerve to muscle, and often cause the hypothalamus (which controls the nerve centers) to release various hormones and chemicals within the body. On an emotional level, those hormones, such as melatonin, can affect responses like anger, depression, anxiety, and happiness. Other emotional ties to color stem from cultural associations, learned traits, and individual tastes.

Our Vision Develops Over Time

Our tastes develop over time, as does our visual acuity and sensitivity to color. A child cannot see the full color spectrum until 2 months old and even at that point vision is still blurred and underdeveloped. It isn’t until around ages 5-7 that the links in the brain are fully completed, but children still predominantly use physical methods of communication and expression. Due to their lack of experience in the world in conjunction with their physical development, children are often more sensitive to and perceptive of color than adults. By ages 10-12, the eyeball has reached its full size and the cognitive visual pathways have fully developed. At this age, children are more capable of expressing themselves verbally, however they still tend to use a lot of color in physical expression. Children develop their preferences and comfort levels mainly from their environments, one of which they spend the majority of their time in growing up.

Colors Uniquely Influence Various Children

Schools help children grow academically, socially, mentally, and physically; as a built environment, they are shaping our foundation. Color plays a significant role in these developments and various recommendations have been discovered for different age ranges. For example:
Preschool and Elementary levels
  • Warm and bright color schemes
  • Colors of opposite temperature for accents
  • Reducing visual noise and over stimulation
Secondary and Upper levels
  • Cool color schemes for concentration
  • De-intensified warm colors
  • Full spectrum lighting with UV content
Students with learning disabilities and ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) often experience distorted color discrimination, and schools need to take this into consideration. Distortions in these students’ spatial perceptions can also manifest in letters that appear to move on the page, but the use of colored lenses can aid in improvement of reading and a reduction of headaches in those cases. Many children with autism spectrum disorder have photoreceptors that allow for greater visual acuity, making colors appear more intense. This could cause them to act out disruptively in search of a less stimulating visual field. Ideally, education environments aid in the growth of children, so it’s better to have fewer physical obstacles that are out of their control.

Color Can Influence Healing

Healthcare environments aid in development and wellness, and this offers many opportunities for thoughtful design. Designers need to be aware of the users of the spaces they create, including patients, staff, and visitors, as well as the ages, health, and abilities of those individuals. Some people with neurological disorders can be triggered into seizures or self-harm by busy patterns or highly stimulating colors. Healthcare professionals should be consulted in the design process to avoid these types of issues. Warm colors with high illumination encourage increased alertness and outward orientation, making them good choices for areas where muscular effort or action is required, like physical therapy rooms or gyms. Cool colors and low illumination encourage less distraction and more opportunity to concentrate on difficult tasks, which are good for use in areas that require quiet and extended concentration or high visual acuity. Many of the age-related recommendations for education can also be applied here to help younger patients feel more at home, and feeling like a kid despite being in a vulnerable space.

As more information and research is found, insights on the effects of color on the human body will continue to develop. As designers, we will be able to make even more educated and informed decisions as we improve people’s worlds.

Katie Haines
Architectural Intern