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Display Board Backing: More Important Than You Think!

By Gregg Bottrill, author of “Can I Go Play Now?”

“What are your opinions on display board backing? I’m seeing lots of hessian, but I’m not sure it looks bright enough. What does everyone else do?”

No matter what issues may be raging in and around Early Years, whether it be Covid-related or not, one question seems to be a constant: what backing do you use for your displays?

It perhaps feels like it’s a trivial question, but it may just be one of the most important, simply because underneath it there lies a hidden question that is perhaps central to our very practice itself.

I’ll come straight out with it - I love hessian. And I love grey walls. I’m also completely in love with wooden parquet flooring. Whenever I’m on Facebook and I see people’s photographs proudly presenting their continuous provision, I have to admit that I’m secretly more interested in seeing the flooring that it sits on rather than the actual provision.

One of the things that is often levelled at hessian is that it full of dust and can contribute to poor air quality. Although life is short and we often feel we want to get displays up as quickly as possible, laying the hessian out and running a Hoover over it a couple of times before putting it up can make a significant impact on its potential to irritate breathing. Of course, if we don’t trust this as a solution then perhaps it’s worth considering looking for alternatives such as brown paper or even painting the backing board itself a mute colour. Because it’s not actually the material itself that’s important, it’s the ‘feel’.

I’m a great believer in creating settings and classrooms that are ‘home-like’. A home should be a place of security, calm and ‘warmth’ and unfortunately for some children, a setting might be the nearest that they get to these three things. The backings we choose for our displays certainly can play their part in feeding into this ‘home-like-ness’, subtly creating a sense of emotional belonging and of ‘there’s no other place I’d rather be’. The Adult World seems to associate childhood with bright primary colours however – it’s as though it unconsciously links the phrase ‘primary colour’ with ‘primary school’. It is often quick to splash red, blues and yellows across everything as though they are the pantones of childhood itself.

In our own homes we may have brightly coloured walls and contrasting colours and we may find these relaxing somehow. When we bring these colour schemes into our setting, however, we have to ask the question: who are we creating a space for? Are the children coming into our space or are they coming into their space? Or indeed are they coming into a ‘shared space’ where both adults and all children feel at home? Environmental over-stimulation for some children can subtly undermine their ability to feel at home; this is crucial because, arguably, the moment children begin to feel that they are not at home in their environment, they can very quickly begin to feel ‘not at home’ within themselves.

So the question isn’t necessarily about hessian or about alternatives to it. It’s about the way we view children, our role within their day, and whether we consider them as protagonists in their own lives or whether they are merely fitting in with ours. More tellingly, it’s about what we actually choose to put up on the hessian. For me, this is the real question that is worth asking, giving rise the following:

  • Are all children’s outcomes celebrated or are displays only for ‘good work’?
  • Do children see representations of themselves in photographs and posters (not just on a Welcome Board or in Black History Month, but across the whole year)?
  • Does an all-White setting or class see positive representations of BIPOC celebrated and displayed or do we wait to share Handa’s Surprise and some ‘African fabric’, further entrenching stereotypes?
  • Are visible behaviour charts pinned up? These risk teaching children that extrinsic individual rewards are what they should strive for, subtly yet powerfully teaching them that they are primarily in a setting to gain the approval of adults.
  • Is what we display an authentic expression of our practice and the richness and adventure of childhood? A richness and sense of adventure that I would hope all of us as practitioners want to share each and every day?

So questions about displays aren’t about what other people do and they aren’t about what colours they might choose. The question itself raises its own questions: who is your space for? Who do you acknowledge within it and how is it a home for them? This is how you’ll find your answer.

PRO TIP: If you do go for hessian, pin it up don’t staple it. It makes it a whole lot easier to stretch out, so that it’s nice and tight when you first put it up. Just don’t forget to Hoover it first!