Wall displays: products or processes?

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By Fe Luton

In this article, Fe Luton examines how you can give your children ownership of the displays in your setting.

Wall display

There is nothing more satisfying at the beginning of term than that feeling of having all your boards backed in fresh brightly coloured paper, waiting to be adorned with children’s work. As a new teacher, the first few weeks of term always felt rushed, but once the displays were up, it felt like a big box had been ticked. From that point, I just needed to remember to update them regularly enough to keep management and parents happy, and, of course, to allow the children to see and take pride in their work. This is how my first few years of teaching went. However, as I became more experienced, I began to question who exactly the displays were for? And what precisely were they showing and achieving?

The reality was that I was creating displays to keep adults happy, without really considering the children. My displays were either exhibiting an end product (work sometimes even re-done ‘for the wall’) or were mere filler, sat stagnating for weeks on end.

The fact is that displays need to be part of and reflective of the learning process. They should also not be there to appease adults but to engage and excite the children who should own them. So, if you feel the walls of your setting could benefit from a refresh, here are my top tips for creating a learning environment bursting with child-centric, process-centric, progress-centric displays.

The undercoat – how should displays be prepped, planned and positioned?

We are all a bit partial to a splash of colour and creating a bright, vibrant classroom is always done with the best intentions. However recent research from Salford University suggests that perhaps we should be enjoying our colour fixes with an air of caution. The authors of the Salford study suggest that:

‘The visual features in the classroom may tax [children’s] still-developing and fragile ability to actively maintain task goals and ignore distractions.’

Their research concluded that the optimum amount of ‘stimulation’ for promoting pupil progress was essentially neutral, white walls with splashes of colour, perhaps on your display boards.

As adults, we often assume the brighter and sparklier the better, but perhaps it is time we step away from the carnival colours and think more about how splashes of colour in the context of a calm and neutral environment may be more conducive to a productive learning space. This ‘undercoat’ is part of the visual noise you create in the classroom, and hence it is essential to think about its impact on the learning process.

Of course, we also need to think about the height of our target audience and to remember that we don’t all walk around with our heads looking upwards. At 5ft 4, I certainly couldn’t tell you what is on the top shelf of the aisles at my local supermarket; so at 3ft 7, your average 4 year old will struggle to see displays that are positioned up high on the walls.

Top tips for the undercoat:

  • Think ‘interior design’ and which colours work well together without creating too much ‘visual noise’
  • Think neutral calm walls (if possible) with splashes of colour on our boards, or even neutral calm backing paper – the children’s work can add the colour
  • See if you can have boards moved to a lower level, or create temporary displays at a level that the children can access more easily (for example on the back of tray racks, on table tops or doors)
  • Think about how much you have on the walls – does it remind you of an open road or a depressing traffic jam? Less is definitely more when it comes to display

Whose displays are they anyway? What are they showing and who has the ownership of them?

We are all guilty of producing ‘en mass’, near-identical end products for a quick-fix display – think Van Gogh reproductions and paper plate portraits. Usually, these display items result from an adult dictating the process from beginning to end and end up showcasing low-level skills that barely challenge children. By displaying this kind of work, you are not celebrating children’s achievements or reminding them of the processes they went through, but are merely demonstrating that they can follow instructions. Or even worse, where you have had to contribute significantly to the ‘correct’ end product, you are highlighting that you can do it and they can’t. There may even be children who feel they haven’t produced the ‘correct’ end product, and may actually be horrified seeing it up with all the other examples.

It is also essential for our displays to highlight pupil progress, focusing not simply on the end-product, but on the processes and learning experiences as well. By including the child’s voice and photos of the learning in displays, we are celebrating and reminding children of those important characteristics of effective learning – ‘I didn’t think I could do that, but actually after trying I managed it really well’; ‘I came up with my own design for a dinosaur house – no one else had one like mine’. Children also love a bit of egocentricity, so putting up a photo or a ‘quote’ from the child about their work will also likely engage them.

Of course, it is not just about what is in the display, but about who puts it together and how it is ‘owned’. If displays are going to be effective, then the children need ownership of them – they need input, but also the displays need to be child-focused, not adult-focused. You need to remind yourself that the displays in your classroom or setting are purely for the benefit of the children – not to keep management, parents or even inspectors happy. Try not to lose sight of this, and learn to defend your choices when adults around you challenge your display decisions.

Other key aspects to consider are gender and cultural inclusion. Try to keep displays gender neutral where appropriate – I include in this the images you may have added to pegs in order to individualise them. And think about the backgrounds of the children in your class – your displays should reflect this. You also need to consider the amount of print you are filling your room with – can and will children read it? We need print ‘rich’ not print overkill.

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