Learning in Comfort

Learning in Comfort

Ergonomic considerations are an important factor in classroom furniture.

Students spend hours a day in classrooms, so it is critical to their learning to have places to sit that are healthful and comfortable.

Schools and universities should outfit their classrooms and other learning spaces with furniture that enables students to carry out their school work comfortably and does not detract from their ability to focus and learn.

Old and inflexible

Many classrooms in schools and universities are equipped with desks, tables and chairs that aren’t appropriate for the young clientele that use them. A report from the University of Manitoba, "Ergonomics for Schoolchildren," states that more than 83 percent of elementary school students sit at chair-desk combinations that are not suitable for their body height.

The report says that conventional chairs in many classrooms have a rigid seat that inclines backwards and connects to the seat, which may cause a lack of blood circulation; a rounding of the back; tense shoulder, neck and back muscles; a spinal cord that is pressed to one side; and a constriction of the digestive organs.

Ergonomically appropriate chairs, the report says, should enable students to move while they are seated. Examples include a chair with a flexible back that enables a student to change the seat inclination, or a chair with a rocking mechanism.

For desk surfaces, the University of Manitoba report recommends desks equipped with castors so that students can move around, or a height-adjustable table that can serve as a lectern where children can stand as they carry out their work.

The surface of the desk should be inclined at an angle of about 16 degrees—horizontal tops cause children’s backs to become round and their heads to bend back as they are working, the report says.

Size adjustments

Because the age range and size differences among students in a school—even within an individual classroom—may be significant, schools that have adjustable chairs and desks will be better able to provide students with properly fitted work spaces.

The website Ergonomics4schools.com recommends that seats should allow a student’s body to be comfortable and not restricted.

•The seat height should not be so high so that a student’s legs are dangling. Dangling legs lead to pressure on the soft tissues under one’s thighs, and that "interferes with the return of blood from the lower limbs, which may cause tingling and numbness in the thighs."

•The seat depth should have clearance at the back of one’s knees in order to prevent pressure on the network of blood vessels and nerves.

•The seat back and angle of a seat should support the natural curves of a person’s spine.

•When a student is seated, the main weight bearing should be taken by the bony parts of one’s bottom and the top half of the thighs.

In addition, a chair should enable a student to change posture periodically so that different groups of muscles can be used for support. The consequences of poor seating are discomfort, fatigue and inefficiency in what a student is doing.

Coping with computers

Having appropriate seating to accommodate students in a classroom has taken on new meaning in the last 20 years or so as the presence of computers in classrooms has gone from a novelty to an expected standard.

Students are not just passively sitting and listening to an instructor, or leaning forward to a flat desk surface as they write notes or complete assignments; they are tapping on keyboards and gazing into video monitors to gather information or complete assignments.

If students are not provided properly sized and aligned furniture for computer use, they could develop health problems, such as muscle soreness, eye strain or repetitive motion injuries.

The University of Manitoba report says that 40 to 50 percent of students in grades six to eight report overuse of computers; 40 percent of sixth-graders report symptoms of musculoskeletal discomfort; and 64 percent of sixth-graders who use laptop computers report neck discomfort.

To reduce the chances that computer use leads to health problems, students sitting in front of a computer should have their eyes aligned properly with the monitor and their arms and hands on the keyboard at the proper angle to type without causing discomfort or fatigue.

The Cornell University Ergonomic Website says a student’s computer workstation should have these features:

•A stable work surface.

•An adjustable chair that has chair height and back support adjustment mechanisms. Armrests should be able to pivot, and their height and width should be adjustable.

•A height-adjustable, negative slope keyboard tray that keeps the elbows at a greater-than-90-degree angle that keeps the wrists in a neutral position.

•A height-adjustable, gliding mouse platform so that the mouse can be positioned close to the side of the body, above the keyboard tray, and the arm does not have to reach to the side.

Good Posture

Even with ergonomically appropriate furniture, students need to maintain good posture when seated at a workstation, according to CergoS, a website from the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division.

Seating should support students’ feet and low back; they should lower their shoulders, relax their arms, level their elbows with the keyboard, straighten their hands and wrists, bend their necks slightly and level their eyes with the text on the monitor.

The CergoS site also offers suggestions for how schools can use inexpensive modifications and additions to adjust a computer workspace so that students are seat more comfortably. When smaller students are seated too low in a chair or their feet do not reach the ground, booster seats and foot rests can help align their bodies correctly.

Laptops and tablets

The ergonomic recommendations for computer workstations may be beside the point for education institutions that are transitioning from desktop machines to laptops or tablet devices.

The University of Manitoba report says the way many students use a laptop forces them to lean forward and put strain on their backs, necks and shoulders. In many cases, a user keeps the laptop display too low. The report recommends using an adjustable stand or an external keyboard so that a student’s body can be positioned correctly.

Similar ergonomic problems have been found with uses of tablet computers such as iPads. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health studied how people used the machines and found that tablet users had their heads and necks in more flexed positions than those typical of desktop or notebook computer users. That can lead to neck pain.

The researchers concluded that by using a case that doubles as a tablet stand, users can prop the device at an angle that keeps their heads in a neutral position and eases neck strain.

Sidebar: Standup Grant

To improve ergonomic benefits for students, the Needham, Mass., Educational Foundation awarded a $5,000 grant earlier this year to Newman Elementary School for the purchase of 15 standup desks.

The desks enable students to stand while carrying out their school work. Proponents of the desks say such desks help relieve stress on students’ backs and legs, increase circulation, and keep students alert. By standing and moving around in a classroom rather than sitting, students are more likely to stay focused on learning.

Advocates also believe that the desks will encourage students to be more active and help students combat the growing problem of obesity.

To improve ergonomic benefits for students, the Needham, Mass., Educational Foundation awarded a $5,000 grant earlier this year to Newman Elementary School for the purchase of 15 standup desks.

The desks enable students to stand while carrying out their school work. Proponents of the desks say such desks help relieve stress on students’ backs and legs, increase circulation, and keep students alert. By standing and moving around in a classroom rather than sitting, students are more likely to stay focused on learning.

Advocates also believe that the desks will encourage students to be more active and help students combat the growing problem of obesity.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

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