How your school’s lighting design affects students’ health, happiness, performance, and sleep

Proper school lighting design isn’t just about the brightness or dimness of a space. It changes how students think and feel.

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_ Lighting design is practical, but it can also drive specific outcomes.
_ For example, some lights keep you alert while others support restfulness.
_ It’s important to consider how your school lighting is helping or hurting your students.

A lot happens the moment you flip a light switch. 

Believe it or not, you don’t just make that room brighter. You also create the conditions for how you’ll think and feel in that room—because lighting is one of the most critical, yet overlooked, aspects of a space’s design.

When it comes to education, certain kinds of school lighting will energize students, while others prepare their bodies for rest. Some elevate their mood, while others worsen it. And some kinds of light will actually make students more creative and intelligent, while others restrict learning and performance.

For any space you design, consider the kinds of lighting that will support students best. 

How light works

On a basic level, there are receptors in our eyes that pick up different frequencies of light. These receptors send signals to our brain, which then releases chemicals that make us feel a certain way. Change the light you see, change how you feel.

For example, morning sunlight is extremely cool in terms of its color temperature. It’s on the far blue end of the red-blue spectrum. This blue light signals the brain you’re in the early phase of your circadian rhythm, and it’s time to wake up. (This is also why using your smartphone before bed can disrupt your sleep, as it emits a similar blue light.)

Meanwhile, candle light is much warmer in temperature, which you can easily see in the color of the flame. Warmer lights tell the brain that it’s time to prepare for sleep, such as when a sunset casts a warm glow over the sky.  

Alongside a light’s temperature is its intensity. The main thing to know here is that brighter lights promote wakefulness, and dimmer lights promote restfulness. How your school lighting design combines these four elements will determine how students think and feel in that space—and sometimes in ways that may surprise you.

Picking the right lighting for you

Have you ever noticed how some bathroom lights make your reflection in the mirror look amazing, while others reveal blemishes you didn’t even know were there? It’s the difference between a dimmer and more forgiving warm light and an intense fluorescent one. For many people, this key difference can mean the day is started with confidence or insecurity.

Does your bathroom light fill you with confidence or insecurity?

If you work from home, like many of us do these days, an office that faces north (in the northern hemisphere) will enjoy even sunlight all day long. However, if you face south, you’ll experience harsh full sun, frequent screen glare, and possibly headaches from squinting.

No matter what, though, offices and schools with more access to daylight increase cognition and performance (so make sure to take frequent walks if office windows are in short supply).

At school, kids have been shown to perform far better when they have access to natural sunlight over any kind of artificial light. One study showed the difference in test scores could be up to 26% in reading and math, just from the change in light source.

Students have also been shown to be calmer and less fidgety when classroom lights are warmer and dimmer—a major factor in overall achievement given students spend more than 15,000 hours of their most formative years in school by the time they graduate high school.

When we partnered with Google to build a student STEM lab called Code Next in Oakland, it was this exact body of research that compelled us to maximize natural light and install warmer lights throughout the building. In other projects, when natural light is more scarce, Kurani will install technology that mimics the exact temperature of sunlight to help regulate students’ circadian rhythm and keep them alert.

And when it’s nighttime, consider keeping lights lower and minimizing screen time. Each screen you put in front of your face adds to the conversation with your brain that it’s not yet time for sleep.

Making the most of your school lighting design

Keep in mind, light is just one environmental factor that affects mood and performance. Things like sound, visual stimuli, textures, and air flow all contribute to every space’s overall effect on people’s mood and brain power.

But as predominantly visual creatures, our brains are hard-wired to have a sensitivity to light. If your students occupy spaces that are always sending their brain the wrong signals, they’ll always be a little bit (or a lotta bit) disoriented. 

Unchecked, these effects can then spill over from one day to the next, in an endless cycle. Or, if you optimize your spaces to get the right kinds of light when you need them, they can support all aspects of daily life.

Something to think about before flipping that switch.