Whether or not we can quite put a finger on why, we all have an emotional connection with light. There’s a reason why we illuminate our bedroom with lamps and candles instead of industrial floodlights.
But have you ever stopped to think about the way you’ve lit up your Early Years setting?
If you haven’t, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’ll look at how you can use lighting to help direct children’s moods and energy, create new spaces within a room, and help the little ones feel more at ease at your child care setting.
Like all of us, children have an intuitive response to light— and research suggests that it can help shape the way they learn. So let’s shed some light on the subject.
Throughout your day, you’ve got to help children through different moods and energy levels for the activities you’re doing. We’re all used to using our voice, our gestures, and our instructions to help guide children — but you might not think of lighting as a part of your toolkit.
But according to Imke Wies van Mil, lighting has a whole lot to do with how we feel and act.
Imke is a lighting designer based in Denmark, who is working towards a Ph.D. from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in architectural design. Much of her work focuses on how different lighting makes us think and feel, and how we can use that to change behavior.
She says that children as young as two can recognize different emotional and atmospheric qualities to light, and that you can use this to shape more comfortable classrooms.
“Lighting helps us create different atmospheres — by changing the lighting, you can create a change in the room,” Imke says. “Maybe you want children to settle down and be quiet, or have them be active and playful, or draw them in as a small group. For all of these, you can use lighting as a tool.”
Our response to lighting is intuitive, coded into our basic brain instincts. Whether we can really explain it or not, we recognize that light has a certain emotional value to it. Just think about the difference between a cozy lamp in a little reading nook, and the bare bulb buzzing in your garage.
Why do those two lights feel so different? Well, we could point to concrete factors, like the color of the light, how bright it is, or where it’s coming from. But then we’ve got to talk about how our brains, and children’s brains, process that light.
As Imke explains, light affects our brain in three key ways:
Right, enough theory. How can you make this work in your own early learning environment?
Here are three examples of different lights you can use in your child care setting, and how they can support the activities you do every day.
Much of Imke’s focus on lighting and learning comes from a 2018 study she led in a Danish primary school in the city of Aarhus. The project looked at how interior lighting influenced children’s ability to focus in classrooms, measured by the noise levels produced under different lighting setups.
“We focused on what teachers saw as their biggest need — to be able to have children calm and focused, and to decrease the amount of disruptive behavior,” Imke says. “Basically, we tried to see if classroom lights could support gentle environments, where children would feel more settled when it was time to concentrate.”
The experiment focused on classrooms of children aged 6 to 11, measuring the difference in classroom noise levels when children had to work on quiet tasks under bright overhead lights, and under the focused light of a hanging pendant lamp. In the majority of cases, the team found that using the pendant lamps’ focused lighting resulted in a measurable drop in classroom noise levels, and more positive feedback from both children and teachers.
“We found that light can intuitively encourage different behavior, especially when trying to create a quiet, peaceful atmosphere,” Imke says. “It was a way to help children feel the same sort of mood from their environment, which helped them move and act in the same direction.”
We use things like furniture or wall decorations to change our sense of space, and to make smaller, purposeful areas within a larger room. But light can be a big part of this, too. If you get on the floor to play with children, why not bring the light down with you too?
“Adults design buildings on a scale that’s based on a 5’11” human being. When you’re a tiny person in these spaces, everything seems much larger, which can be a lot to handle,” Imke says. “But you can use light to help bring that space to their level, so they feel more like the space is designed for them.”
That’s what good lighting in the Early Years is about, really — just helping children feel more comfortable in your space. Lighting doesn’t need to be expensive, or complex. What’s important is that you think of lighting as one more tool in your toolbox to help create the best environment for the little ones to learn.
“Lighting design can become a part of how you teach if you use it to create spaces that draw them in, and help them feel focused and calm for your activities,” Imke says. “Ultimately, it’s about giving children this intuitive understanding that they are important, they are seen, and this space is about them.”
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.