Why Do Most Daycare Classrooms Look Alike?

Imagine visiting Times Square for the purpose of trying to think.

Or talk.

Or learn something new.

Crazy idea, of course.

Because few of us could focus among the jumbotrons and 50-ft billboards.

Kids, too, find it hard to ignore visual distractions while using their brains.

Which makes it very strange that so many daycare classrooms are as dense and crowded as they are.

visual clutter daycare classroom

Daycare staff and kids see their classrooms differently

A classroom space overloaded with signs (in clashing fonts) is not ideal for true learning, rest, or creativity.

Small children, like adults, don’t multitask well.

Studies have shown that visual stimulation detracts from a child’s ability to comprehend and retain information.

So, what gives?

Why do daycare directors choose sensory jamming over more subtle classroom design?

I’ll explain below.

But it’s not malice or indifference.

(Angry or detached directors usually move on to other jobs.)

It has more to do with an inability to see their daycare as it really is.

Or, more importantly, how small children interact with it.

The blinders are there because directors are busy.

There’s always stuff to do.

(Ask me how I know.)

Some of it, like renewing a license, is urgent.

Carving out enough time to observe your daycare without distraction means pausing the daily busyness.

How many directors are willing to do that?

Hard to say. Many probably think they can’t afford to do it.

But the busyness maintains the status quo.

Daycare classrooms: cluttered by design

No director of a daycare wants to limit the growth and development of her children.

She (daycare workers are 92% female) wants them to be healthy and successful in the next stage of life.

So how did it come to this?

1. Child development standards

Public-school education in America is built on standardized testing.

A teacher’s job performance largely depends on how students do on certain exams (including exit exams).

These tests contain a lot of information, much of it without context.

But instead of keeping the information stored neatly, teachers often keep it out like a post-it note on a fridge.

Because… well, the kids might learn by seeing it for the 35th time!

The emphasis on teaching widely, to pass a test, in grades K-12 has trickled down to daycares.

Daycares often have an educational component.

And while they don’t have to worry about kids passing a test, the director often tries to provide them with basic knowledge:

The alphabet, primary numbers, primary colors, days of the week, months of the year…

You can see how the clutter starts.

The simple things that a kid “should” know require visuals to remember.

Those visuals have to go somewhere.

Where else could they go but the wall?

2. Best practice

Daycare classrooms tend to look alike because there’s a strong bias in the field towards visual clutter.

Of course that’s not how it’s phrased. However, that’s where broad curriculums lead.

Both early-childhood education professors and credentialing groups like the NAEYC encourage daycares to teach kids many subjects.

Naturally, directors want their classroom spaces to look like the ones recommended by the professionals.

The thinking is that more content in the early years gives kids a head start in school.

3. Function

Daycares, unlike grammar schools, are not usually tied to an academic calendar.

This provides great flexibility, which is needed given that kids come and go frequently.

But the revolving door, in which there’s always a new kid, can encourage keeping stuff on the walls.

It seems practical. Why take down the poster that the older kids gloss over but might help a new 2-yo learn something?

What’s one more decal anyway?

It’s also quite possible that some directors of daycares like their walls and floor space covered with art.

For those who enjoy clutter… well, no.

Nobody enjoys clutter. What happens is they get used to it.

More important is what clutter does to kids.

It makes it harder for them to play, learn, or rest.

crowded daycare classroom
via Pinterest

How less clutter can transform a daycare’s classroom space

Free space is one decorative touch both adults and children enjoy.

When it comes to floors, the space advantage is obvious. Kids can wiggle and waggle without getting hurt or breaking things.

(It makes it safer, too, for teachers to get around while caring for them.)

But it’s wall clutter that seems to afflict daycare classrooms in particular.

Here’s how less stuff on the wall can help students.

1. It encourages deeper learning

Young children have a tremendous capacity to learn. They can memorize dozens of songs, facts, letters, numbers, Bible verses, etc.

That’s why they leave content pinned to the walls. They know that kids can memorize by sight.

But kids won’t memorize anything unless they’re taught. Many daycares take a very loose approach to teaching, thinking the kids aren’t ready to sit and learn.

The hope, then, is that the kids will learn simply by seeing words, numbers, and pictures on a wall repeatedly throughout the day.

In other words, learning by osmosis!

A better approach is to scale back what’s taught to students.

With fewer “subjects” to teach, a teacher will have more time to provide context.

Better still, she can begin to declutter her classroom space.

Less visual distractions make it easier for the students to sit still and pay attention.

2. It feeds creativity

Kids often look like they’re zoning out when they’re solving problems internally.

They look away from hard tasks to organize their thoughts.

But they’re eyes have to land somewhere.

A cluttered wall provides no room for a tired brain.

An understated wall in a classroom can be the focal point for processing information and creative thinking.

3. It makes managing the classroom easier

Simply put, the less stuff on the wall, the less you have to worry about anything ripping, collecting dust, or falling down.

Another bonus is that when you have extra wall space, you can change designs more often.

The impact of the content on the wall becomes clearer. You’ll find that formerly hidden content becomes attractive to kids once it’s visible.

(Likewise, content that you may have assumed was popular may not be.)

You’ll find that a quieter wall helps you relax, as well.

preschool learning
First Things Child Care, Billings, MT

Simplify your classroom with a few changes

Design and decoration reveal priorities.

Very often, the daycare classroom’s appearance reveals what the director believes to be important.

But it may be that what you thought was most important for the kids in your care–isn’t.

Why not remove one thing from your classroom’s wall this week to see if anyone notices?

If they do, you can always put it back.

If they don’t? Well, maybe that tells you something.

At First Things, we formally teach three subjects; reading, writing, and numbers (counting and comparison).

Our tools for teaching are simple: an easel, pencils, paper, number blocks, and an abacus.

In total, class is no more than 15 minutes in the morning, and 10 minutes in the afternoon.

Could we do more?


But why?

A child who leaves us with the ability to read, is in a great position to excel in kindergarten.

Another rule at our daycare is that we clean up toys after using them and put away our classwork.

That’s not unique, obviously.

But the kids don’t challenge the cleanup process because they see a neat and tidy interior space.

When a daycare’s classroom is organized well, kids want to keep it that way. It’s only when it’s chaotic that they develop a “what’s the use?” attitude about cleaning up.

Images:, Pinterest, Pinterest, Pathway Montessori, First Things Child Care.