Learning environments: A question of light and air

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With the darker days drawing in and winter upon us, Fiona Aubrey-Smith considers two issues that do not often make it to the top of school improvement plans – light and air

Take a light walk...

Have you ever walked around your school specifically focusing on the nature of light? Research shows us that good lighting significantly influences attainment and that poor lighting is a significant barrier to learning, reducing attention, engagement and recall. It also has a negative impact on behaviour (Heppell, 2019; Münch et al, 2012).

You will have heard of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), for example, whereby the winter’s lack of sunlight creates problems in part of the brain called the hypothalamus, affecting hormones, sleep, appetite, mood and concentration.

Most of us would agree that light intensity influences our cognitive performance and how alert we feel – that is why we fall asleep in the dark and have our most active days outside in the sunshine. But, as school leaders, we do not often stop to think about what we can do about it in our schools. Now is your chance – here is what you need to know.

There are two parts to measuring light – lumens (how much light is coming out of the light source, e.g. a bulb), and lux (how concentrated that light is given the area that it is shining in).

Outside is often many thousands of lux, and indoors we should aim for 500 to 1,000 lux. Below 500 is where learning and behaviour starts to be negatively impacted (Heppell, 2019).

You can download free apps if you would like to measure precisely, but you do not need to know the precise levels to be able to make improvements. Try these top tips...

  • Stop using windows as display boards. Many schools do this (I certainly did when I had classrooms with huge windows) – but every little bit of window you cover removes natural light from getting into your learning spaces. Ask all staff to review their classrooms and shared spaces, and free the windows to fulfil their natural purpose – letting valuable light into your learning places.
  • Swap fluorescent tubes for LED. This kind of lighting is cheaper to buy and maintain, it is better for the environment, and best of all provides a higher level of light and more natural, outdoor-style light.
  • Rethink your use of colour. Longer term, when you redecorate your school be sure to use lighter colours and more reflective paints which will spread light around your indoor spaces more efficiently. But you do not need to wait. In the interim, look at what else is on your walls and around your rooms. The colour of backing paper on displays for example (why are so many displays backed with black, brown and navy blue?). Ask staff to use lighter colours which do not absorb so much of the light. Consider adding mirrors or reflective elements to displays – these are more eye-catching to look at and will increase the light.
  • Top up your dark spots. Look carefully and critically at each learning space – each area of each classroom or intervention space, each desk or table. Where are the dark spots? Where are you naturally drawn to sit or to avoid? Consider adding standalone lights – particularly LED natural daylight lamps – to brighten these spaces. And do not forget spaces where your staff spend a lot of time – office desks, PPA spaces, your finance officer’s desk...).

A breath of fresh air

Have you ever thought about what is in the air within your school? Carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide cannot be sensed by the human nose, but as we all know both have the potential to kill.

But at lower levels, evidence shows that carbon dioxide reduces concentration and has a direct correlation with behaviour, illness, absence, nausea and abnormal heart rates (Allen et al, 2016) – all of which will have a severe impact on learning...

Air quality is not something we often think about, but now is the time to change that. Here are a couple of simple tips to make an immediate positive change to air quality for your children and staff.

  • Make every room a green room. Get as many green plants into your classroom as you can – they remove the carbon dioxide from the air and replace it with oxygen. Many schools are introducing a “Bring Your Own Plant” day to get this started, with children then responsible for watering their own plant throughout the year – giving them a sense of ownership and avoiding the cost of mass plant-buying. Local garden centres with out of season plants and friendly green fingered neighbours are another great way of sourcing lots of plants without the financial burden.
  • Keep the classroom windows open. It is very easy to forget to open classroom windows in the winter months – it is dark when we arrive in the morning and often cold. But try opening the windows early and get the air flowing around your learning spaces. Even if it is cold, do not be put off. The optimal learning temperature is between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius. Any higher and research shows that performance declines – indeed, a small one degree hotter-than-average year reduces learning outcomes by about one per cent (Jisung Park et al, 2019). Also, once your children arrive the number of bodies and movement (and heat generated by electrical equipment, etc) will all warm the room up. Do not let the air get too stale throughout the day – keep that fresh air circulating.


Why not review the light and air in your school. Perhaps each member of staff could be tasked to review the spaces they work within and collectively commit to improving these vital elements of our learning environments.

  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is a former school leader and now Doctoral researcher who facilitates a number of national networks. She sits on several MAT boards and is chair of governors at a maintained primary school. Email fionaaubreysmith@googlemail.com. Read her previous best practice pieces for Headteacher Update, go to http://bit.ly/2IPHfe4.

Further information & resources

  • Lighting and learning, Professor Stephen Heppell, May 2019: http://heppell.net/lighting/
  • Effects of prior light exposure on early evening performance, subjective sleepiness, and hormonal secretion, Münch et al, Behavioral Neuroscience 126, 2012: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0026702
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), NHS guidance: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad
  • Associations of cognitive function scores with carbon dioxide, ventilation, and volatile organic compound exposures in office workers, Allen et al, Environmental Health Perspectives Vol 124, June 2016.
  • Heat and learning, Jisung Park et al, forthcoming publication in American Economic Journal: http://bit.ly/33cMTRG (accessed October 2019).
  • Heat wave: Air conditioned schools would narrow the racial achievement gap, Jisung Park, USA Today, August 2019: http://bit.ly/32JhoOV

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