From darkness into light: some tips for the trip


Remember that old log cabin where Abe Lincoln strained his eyes trying to read in the dim candlelight?

As far-fetched a scenario as that is today, it's still possible in this electrical age to strain the eyes by toiling under poor light. Find a child under covers reading with a flashlight, and you get the idea.

Autumn is the ideal season to inspect home lighting. Darkness falls earlier at this time of year, due in part to that annual ritual -- the reversal of daylight-saving time to standard time. This year it's Sunday, Oct. 25, when the clocks in most parts of the country are turned back an hour.

Besides cutting short daytime play, what standard time spells for a child is more indoor activity like homework at night. Before that happens, bone up on the lighting available in the room your resident student occupies.

Since natural light aids vision, it's always desirable to locate work and play areas near a window to take advantage of daylight. No matter how much natural light pours in, however, there are times like overcast days or evenings when artificial light is necessary. Some activities such as reading need direct light; others such as exercising need fill or ambient light.

To evaluate your lighting needs, assess the basics:

* General lighting: Sometimes referred to as fill or ambient lighting, this is the main light source in a room. In choosing general lighting, look for something like an overhead fixture that provides not only a wash of soft light but also a diffuse spread of illumination.

* Task lighting: This illuminates an area where a visual task like writing takes place. Lamps with movable arms that direct light onto a work surface are ideal for students.

* Accent lighting: Primarily decorative, this highlights treasures like a prized picture or collection. Because it focuses only on a certain area, accent light isn't meant as sole illumination. Its dramatic touch, however, contributes to a child's sense of pride when cherished mementos are spotlighted.

More than meets the eye

Once you know what kind of lighting is suitable, determine the amount of brightness needed by checking the level of light in the room. This is affected by the room's predominant colors, ranging from decorations to coverings on the floor, walls, ceiling and even decorations. A white space, for instance, reflects a larger amount of light than a dark space that absorbs light.

In other words, the illumination in a room with light walls is distributed farther and more evenly as the light is reflected from surface to surface until it gradually diminishes. Were you to paint a pale yellow nursery dark green, therefore, you would need bulbs in higher wattage and/or more light sources to achieve the same light level as when it was yellow.

Texture has an impact on illumination, too. Matte finishes diffuse light while smooth, glossy finishes bounce light directly away, reflecting it onto other surfaces. A room with wallcoverings requires brighter light than the same room with painted walls.

Beware of glare

Look directly at a bare light bulb when it's turned on, and you know what glare is and how discomforting it can be. Because it may cause headaches, avoid this kind of light when possible. To cut glare, bypass fixtures with bulbs in direct view or fluorescent fixtures that cast a harsh light. Also avoid putting flat, shiny surfaces like a mirrored dresser directly under a light since they can deflect glare into your child's eyes. Repositioning a fixture may be all that's needed to remedy a glaring situation.

Along with growth spurts come changes in tastes and habits. That's why flexibility is an important issue when you choose lighting. The most adaptable fixtures in kids' rooms include:

* Clip-on lights: Illuminating tight spots, clip-ons clamp to a shelf, the edge of a desk or a headboard. The clip should grip firmly so it won't fall and pose a fire hazard. A clip-on may be ideal for sharing bedtime stories with Mom or Dad. It can also provide the older child with a suitable reading light.

* Dresser and nightstand lamps: Decorative as well as functional, lamps suited for children should be easy for them to turn on and off. Those with three-way bulbs act on the highest setting as reading lights; on the lowest, they serve as night lights.

* Gooseneck and drafting lamps: These adjustable free-standing task lights adapt well to desks or other work spaces. A pint-size Picasso can use a gooseneck to shed light on a drawing surface. When he or she matures, a gooseneck can then be pressed into duty to concentrate light on a study area.

* Track lights: The most versatile of all systems, tracks come in varied lengths accommodating one or more fixtures ranging from round, square or rectangular cylinders to clip-on lamps and low-voltage spotlights. They allow many illumination effects because they can tilt in any direction. For a younger child they may be focused on a bookshelf that houses a rock collection. For an older child, they can spotlight a favorite poster. Tracks can be mounted, suspended or recessed into a ceiling or wall. Take note: More than one track fixture means more than one light source using energy. Combat high-energy use with a dimmer switch a child can manipulate.

* Retractable lights: A fixture on a retractable cord brings lighting down to child level. As growth and need dictate, it can be raised or lowered, whether mounted independently or on a track.

The correct wattage

A bulb is as relevant to lighting as a fixture. Incandescent bulbs work with most fixtures, but heed the labeling. Always use the bulb type indicated and never exceed recommended wattage.

Although readily available and inexpensive, fluorescents may trigger fatigue and headaches. They give a green cast to whatever they illuminate. A better option for fixtures requiring fluorescents is a "full-spectrum" tube such as Vita-Lite, which duplicates as nearly as possible the natural spectrum of outdoor sunlight. It shows black, white and colors more accurately than other bulbs and has tested in schools and hospitals with positive results.

For a quick change of environment or to evoke a certain mood, allow a colored bulb to be used on special occasions. Let your child pick the color he or she prefers, but limit use to playtime since colored light is inappropriate for work or study.

Going to bed often holds no interest if the dark is frightening. For comfort and safety at sleep time, supply a night light. A flashlight also offers security in case of emergency. But check batteries periodically so there are no unpleasant surprises if things go bump in the night. Also be sure reading or writing isn't done on the sneak with a flashlight.

Energy conservation often translates to dimming the lights or using lower wattage than intended. While it's important to conserve electricity, don't do it by sacrificing good health. Poor lighting frustrates the performance of simple tasks. Abe Lincoln knew all about that.

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