The Bare Walls Theory: How Much Stimulation is Too Much?

By Mara Cortona




Enter the toy aisle at a department store, and closely observe how your body responds. What words and phrases come to mind?

For me, those words are, "manic", "cacophonous", and "soulless".

During the precious early years, children are literally absorbing every stimulus they're presented with and using it to construct their psyche. So how did an entire culture come to allow glaring colors, manufactured plastics, and empty electronic voices to dominate their collective image of what a child's space and materials should be?

Montessori classrooms have always operated on the opposite end of the spectrum. Light neutral colors, natural materials, and sparsely adorned walls are hallmarks of a traditional Montessori children's environment. Like so many of Maria's ideas (see Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius), the research is in:

We know how to do it best.

A 2014 Carnegie Mellon study ( revealed that "children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed."

One of the issues with near-constant sensory stimulation is that an object's threshold for interest is set impossibly high. For a child who's become accustomed to environments and materials that flamboyantly compete for attention, the educator's task is that much more daunting as they seek to interest the child in simple tasks that are intrinsically rewarding. An ability to self-regulate, to create order and beauty where it isn't obvious, and to find joy in work are some of the best predictors of success. When we overstimulate, we are robbing children of the deep satisfaction of this higher level of human function -- of experiencing meaning beyond mere pleasure and satiation.

This principle, central to Montessori, can be summed up as: nourish the child with rich food, and not too much of it.

A young infant in our Nido classroom (Nido: Italian for "nest") is presented with a simple mobile, handmade of natural materials -- perhaps black-and-white, perhaps with gradations of color, depending on the child's carefully observed level of visual development. It hangs at the precise distance the newborn's eyes are known to focus. The mobile sways gently -- just enough to attract interest, but slowly enough that her eyes can track it.

The Montessori guide observes the infant from a distance, careful not to disturb. She uses hushed, gentle voices. If any auditory stimulation is present, it is quiet classical music or sounds of nature. The wall behind the mobile is a subdued, soothing color. The infant has come to trust that when she chooses to focus on something of interest to her, she will not be interrupted

In this way, we offer the very young child, still constructing herself, the tools she will need to learn the arts of stillness, silence, simplicity, and serenity. Unnecessary stimulation is a limit and a constraint upon the imagination -- we offer her freedom.