Kids and the science of color perception

Here at Schreiber, we think quite a bit about color perception. Occupational therapists and other medical professionals have long studied the effects of different colors on our behaviors. Children who have hypersensitivity to light often become “overstimulated” in bright colored environments. Turning off the light in the room, or using sunglasses or large brimmed hats can make a noticeable difference in improving attention to task and lowering anxiety levels. For example, research has shown that painting a prison room pink significantly decreases the aggressive behaviors of the inmates.

Sunlight has all the colors and associated color wavelength frequencies. When sunlight falls on an object, certain light frequencies are absorbed. The light waves that bounce back from the object are the ones that are perceived through the retina of the eye. The cells of the retina will send electrical impulses to the brain, which has to decipher the color. Studies have shown that colors trigger emotional and psychological responses. The color red, for example, will stimulate appetite, a fact not lost on restaurant owners. Blue, on the other hand, reduces heart rate, lowers body temperature and reduces appetite.

Using different lighting facilitates reading or close work. Handcrafters buy special full-spectrum light bulbs. Research also suggests using color overlays can improve reading for some children, (please refer to for more information). Children often have difficulty in calming themselves or focusing in situations with loud noise, lots of people and bright lighting. Intensely bright colors emit more wavelength frequency per unit than a softer version of the same color.

When you think about the amount of information the brain has to process or make sense our environment, it only makes sense to be wise about use of color with children in learning and home situations. Here are five tips for making sure the places your kids go have the right kind of lighting.

1. Reduce the amount of color intensity and the sharpness of color differences in rooms that should be calming to children, such as bedrooms.
2. Reduce the amount of color contrasts in areas where children have to sustain attention to a task, such as classrooms or homework areas.
3. Increase the “warm colors,” including red in areas where children are expected to stay and eat, such as cafeterias or kitchens. It could be as simple as using red placemats or red-and-white checked tablecloths.
4. When the room or the lighting cannot be changed, have the child wear sunglasses or a large brimmed hat to reduce the intensity of the lighting.
5. When selecting paint, decorating colors and lighting, consider the intensity of the color and the energy of the wavelengths being emitted. Try to match the amount of energy in the lighting and the color perception of the room with the tasks being performed in the space.

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Bernie Hershey is an occupational therapist at Schreiber Pediatric Rehab Center in Lancaster, Pa. She has been helping kids slide on scooters, balance on balls and climb on ropes for more than 30 years, all in the name of helping improve the quality of their lives.