“Designing on a dime” is usually music to a teacher's ears. After all, we definitely don't get into teaching for the dollars – “dimes” rings a bit truer! All you need is a bit of scrappiness, some creativity, and some elbow grease to design a truly inviting classroom space. (And if I'm being completely transparent – quite a few trips to Hobby Lobby, Home Depot, and Target!)
First Year Kindergarten Teacher
As of this year – my 10th year teaching kindergarten – I have had two classrooms. My first classroom had those nondescript painted cinder block walls – you know what I'm talking about? About 3/4's of the walls were covered with bulletin boards, cabinets, whiteboards, or cubbies. The summer I got hired, I sat alone in the middle of that room and had NO IDEA where to begin! Overwhelm took over and a slight anxiety attack started to creep up my throat.
Thank goodness for a crafty friend and a more-than-patient mom. Perhaps the fact she had taught elementary music, 3rd grade, and 4th grade played into that.
We attacked that room.
I was a little underwhelmed by the lack of color, and at the same time overwhelmed at all of the bright items I had to put up around the room. You know – alphabet posters, number posters, etc.
I decided to put up material on all the boards – mom said it would last longer than paper – per usual she was right. However, when I went to pick the material out, I kept drifting back over towards the…black burlap.
The main reason: it was cheap.
The second reason: I decided that it would contrast against that unknown/unnatural cinder block color nicely, and provide a good “base” for all of the bright colors to “pop”.
Best Colors for Kindergarten Classroom
After a few years, I switched schools because of a move to the other side of Nashville. And that is when my ‘Ms. Bolls' became ‘Mrs. Scott'. Believe it or not, there was already a Mrs. Boles in kindergarten at my new school!! My new husband thought it was pretty awesome 😉
My new and still current school is tucked inside a historical district surrounded by homes built around the 1900s. This means a few things:
- I am a sucker for “old” and “restored” and it's right up my alley and at the heart of my aesthetic
- The building is….”old”. Until last year I had a screen that I pulled down – no Smart Board
- There is real hardwood flooring in parts of the school – and my baseboards and trim are real wood
- Painting is allowed, encouraged even. There are layers upon layers of paint on the walls in those classrooms.
When I got the go-ahead from my new principal to paint, she asked what color I was thinking. My reply:
“Well, I know this probably isn't going to sound too “kindergarten-y”, but….well…..BLACK.
Honestly, I can't believe she didn't fire me on the spot.
She gave me a tight-lipped grin, a small nod of her head, and backed slowly out of my classroom.
Spoiler alert: I did keep my job even though my room color choice was questionable! Sometimes you just gotta go for it and be honest about what's in your gut!
Speaking of which, kindergarten teachers – have you ever had parents ask you questions that are HARD to answer truthfully? Or, have you ever wished they'd asked you certain questions? Check out my free download.
I'm happy to be your wingman here and say the hard things they probably don't even KNOW to ask! Feel free to print it out and share it with them.
First Day in Kindergarten
Now, I won't lie and say I was 100% confident. When the time came to drag the first paintbrush full of what can only be described as Halloween Cat listening to ACDC's Back in Black album BLACK – it almost made me fall out cold.
It was a STARK contrast to the previous mint green walls. But I gritted my teeth and went for it. To cover the bulletin boards, I chose an old-school chalkboard green duck cloth. It was the only thing that I could envision next to the thick milk chocolatey baseboards – and I didn't want to paint all of that trim too.
But the wall space? Black. I went all in.
The look of shock that usually accompanies the grown-up faces of all who visit on their first day in kindergarten – almost always turns into a broad smile and a, “WOW. BLACK? I would have never in a million years…but I LOVE it.”
Me too. I've heard, “I feel like you should get a margarita mixer and hold Happy Hours in here!”
And most importantly, the kids love it. They call it their kindergarten cave. When I put the shades up and let in sunlight – they ask me to pull them back down and turn on all the lamps.
Should everyone paint a kindergarten room black? NOPE. Are there other color combinations that 5-year-olds love? SURE. Should you ask yourself what feels right to YOU? ABSOLUTELY.
You are going to be spending MOST of your time – for about 10 months out of the year THERE.
Let's get to it.
If you are way more into muted tones – keep reading. Designing on a dime basics still hold true whether you are into primary colors or pastels!
Creative Ways to Decorate a Classroom
When you are thinking about designing on a dime, keep in mind that there will be some moments when you still have to spend….dollars. I have had quite a few moments standing at the checkout with beads of sweat on my forehead and an elevated heart rate.
My dimes were mainly spent on material, paint/spray paint, trim & washi tape, and vinyl/contact paper.
These are the CORE FOUR items that can really make a big difference in the overall feel of your classroom.
However, once you get the MAIN things set up – you honestly don't need to change things year to year! I've had my main classroom layout and design for five years, going on six. I tweak now instead of overhaul. Things to keep in mind:
- You may be reimbursed for some of the cost with PTO or other money allotted for teachers. Some schools even have a ‘new teacher' fee set aside
- Your family or friends may contribute to your classroom setup
- Keep your eyes peeled for SALES. Hobby Lobby has different department sales – and I planned my purchases around those! ASK THEM when they are!
- Tell people you are a teacher setting up a classroom – there are good-hearted souls who would love to contribute!
- Did you student-teach? Are there teachers leaving, retiring, or clearing house who would love to help you?
- Yard sales. Garage Sales. Goodwill. Thrift Stores. Shall I go on?
Designing on a Dime Ideas
One of my favorite design on a dime ideas is to use MATERIAL. We're talking about the heavy-duty upholstery kind. It will give you YEARS of use, as it's made to be more durable. I use it to cover my bulletin boards, as I've mentioned, and here are three more ways I use it in my kindergarten classroom.
1. Use it to hide storage, shelving, or supplies you don't have a door for – but want hidden
2. Crate seating serves a dual purpose – use your material to cover the cushions (yes – you'll also need a board cut to the top of the crate size and some stuffing/foam – but EASY to do)
3. Measure out enough to lay flat against the back of a boring bookshelf – hot glue on! Voila!
Remind me…Why material?
It lasts longer. Designing on a dime also means stretching a dollar. Some teachers choose a new theme each year and if you have the money and the drive – go for it! I, for one, do not. 😉 I like to be able to go a good long stretch, love my classroom, and spend my time and dimes at home!
Here is a tip from a bargain hunter:
- Go to the upholstery section of a fabric store – where the bolts are (sorry….anyone else now singing, “where….the boys are”? Nope? Just me?)
- Look for clearance bolts
- Upholstery material is stronger and more durable – and you NEED that in a kindergarten classroom
- I found something I loved, then found different ways to use it throughout my space – which ties the whole room together
Don't sew? Me neither. I have your answer:
Staple gun. Hot glue gun.
Badda bing. Badda boom.
How Can Teachers Create a Warm, Welcoming Learning Space
Ok, this is quite honestly my favorite thing to do. I LOVE to find trim that just makes me smile. Once again – look in the upholstery area of a sewing/craft store, or you can look at some of my idea picks here.
As a reminder, if bright embroidery and tassels aren't your thing – there are plenty of neutral options out there. Having lamps and curtains may not seem like a big deal, or appear to make a big difference.
I beg to differ.
In a kindergarten classroom, I've found that these two things make our space feel more ‘homey', and my kids even clamor to have the job of the “lamp lighters”.
4. Use hot glue to add personality to lamps
The white lamp in the above picture was one my great-great aunt had. I bought the lampshade on sale at Target and added the trim with some hot glue. The other two lamps were found in the “dorm room” section at Target – I think $10 each. Here are some other options I found if you aren't into thrifting.
5. Add trim to curtains to make them pop – put your own spin on them
I'm about to blow your mind. It looks like I have twelve curtain panels on my six very large windows. I don't. I bought SIX curtains, on sale at Target. And I…
CUT. THEM. IN. HALF.
Wait, what? Yup. I mix and matched the pieces and made sure the hemmed edges were in the middle, and the cut edges were on the outsides, turned under. In 5 years…no one has EVER noticed.
All of those white curtains were nice – they brightened up the black walls. BUT….they were….meh.
I added trim!! Hot glue! Now they are FUN and FESTIVE and my windows look like they're wearing their party dress every single day!
I also use a tension rod and a shower curtain to hide the very tall bookshelf where I keep all of the required curricula hidden.
6. Add washi tape to the edge of a bookshelf. You can also layer it for a bolder effect.
I had used washi tape for the many end-of-year kindergarten memory books I'd made – but I hadn't used it for or on…furniture! I had no idea how long it would hold up. But after five years of use, I'm just now starting to see some wear and tear on the shelves where my kids keep their book boxes.
BONUS TIP: Always buy an extra roll of what you use the most of – then you always have what you need for quick fixes and tweaks without having to redo the WHOLE thing!
7. Use vinyl or contact paper to freshen up countertops, old metal bookshelves, or fronts of cabinet doors
Covering my countertops and cabinet doors has been one of the biggest impacts on my room. Every crafty teacher friend who comes into my room usually ends up looking closer at my countertops, then looks underneath, runs their hand over it, and ends up saying, “how did you do this??”
The answer: A patient friend who helped me unroll and smooth it down – like wallpaper!
Speaking of…now that self-adhesive wallpaper is everywhere (including my home office – I'm in LOVE with it!) I wonder if that would work, though I'm not sure how durable it would be for a countertop – for cabinet doors – I bet it would be great!
How to Set Up a Classroom
8. A fresh coat of paint can transform those accent pieces that make your classroom special.
Every piece of furniture you see here was either repurposed, given to me, or found. When setting up a kindergarten classroom, I love to create little nooks and spaces where they can settle in with their book box.
I didn't realize how much they loved these little areas – but when we were in the middle of strict covid restrictions – all of the ‘extra' furniture was stored in another room, as I had to make space for an extra table of kids – while keeping as much distance as possible.
Last year, the 1st graders would stop by and just walk around the room, discovering it all over. They would tell the kindergarteners, “You're lucky you get that purple chair to sit in. It looks so cozy”, or “Which chair do you get to read in today? I think I'd choose the red one.”
Don't underestimate the power of a tired chair energized with a coat of paint. See it through the eyes of your five-year-old self. Which color would you choose?
9. Switch out existing drawer pulls and kick up the personality a notch!
This is probably the quickest fix – switch out drawer pulls for some flair!
A Kindergarten Classroom
10. Garden art can be an unexpected and whimsical pop of personality for your kindergarten classroom
I have always loved walking down the garden aisles at stores like Hobby Lobby, Home Depot, and Michaels. The bright, kooky, over-the-top art they have for gardens…doesn't necessarily fit my home garden aesthetic. (Could be because I don't actually have a garden at home…)
When setting up my room, I saw these metal animals for 66% off and knew I had to have them. My kids LOVE them. They give them names each year and makeup stories about them.
The wind chimes make me happy. Period. I think that putting up things that make you smile is important – not selfish.
If YOU smile. THEY smile.
When YOU feel at home and happy. THEY feel at home and happy.
If THEY feel at home and happy – guess what.
The classroom environment you create will allow for a better community and in turn – better learning.
Easy Ways to Decorate Classroom
BONUS TIP: Save your favorite kid art from the year, and frame it!
As a kindergarten teacher, you KNOW you get a lot of kid art. Sometimes multiple pieces from the same child each day! But you also know the ones they've worked extra hard on, are super funny, or make your teacher heart grow bigger – frame those.
I also keep a file folder for each year of my favorite – can't let go of – art and notes. I'm sorting through that from the nine years I've taught – I'll let you know what I do with them in year 10!
Creating a Good Classroom Environment
So there you have it. 10 designing on a dime tips (plus a bonus) to create that classroom that is special, unique to you and your school, and to your group of kids.
However, the classroom environment is about much more than paint, pillows, and curtains. It's about creating a welcoming space for your kids to feel seen, safe, and LOVED. Design is something that I personally find helps me present that to my kids.
Bright decor is not more effective than muted boho chic, nor is neutral more successful than bold. Make sure that whatever you decide, you put a bit of your heart into it – and it'll be perfect.
If you liked this – try these!
For some amazing advice and activities from 8 kindergarten teachers – check out this post. It's an “all-in-one-stop-shopping” place for the first day and weeks of kindergarten!
And for the alter-ego part of my existence…check out my kids' music here! Fun and SEL-focused – good for the classroom & car! 😉