Room for Adjustment

Oct. 1, 2006
School furniture needs to be flexible to accommodate students of all sizes.

In classrooms across the nation, students spend untold hours sitting at desks and tables working on their lessons or listening to their teachers. That lack of movement might not have been a concern years ago, when children's time away from school typically was spent outdoors playing and exercising.

But as children spend more time in front of a video screen than on a ball field, greater numbers of them are becoming overweight. The time they are tethered to their classroom chairs and desks only accentuates their sedentary habits, and the prolonged lack of body stimulation can make it harder for them to concentrate.

The right kind of furnishings in a classroom won't by themselves turn a generation of inactive, out-of-shape students into physically fit health buffs, but schools can provide seats, desks and chairs that are better suited to keeping students' bodies active and their minds alert.

Measuring up

If children are getting bigger, the classroom furniture they use should get bigger, too. In some cases, a child's growth spurt can make a right-sized desk a confining and uncomfortable place. If a chair or desk is too small for a student, his or her discomfort could make it difficult for them to perform in the classroom.

“The kids are getting bigger,” says Celestine Hart, director of purchasing for the Lansing (Mich.) school district. “I have seen where we've ordered furniture advertised for kindergarten and first grade not being large enough. Now we are looking a little closer and measuring to make sure what we are getting is big enough.”

The size issue also comes up at the high school level, where the desks available aren't a good match for some beefed-up football players and other large students.

“Some of these students don't fit into some of this furniture,” says Laura Sarelis, an interior designer with Kingscott Architects in Kalamazoo, Mich. “They aren't children anymore. They're full-grown men.”

The solution to accommodate these students is more flexible classroom furniture. Instead of attached desk-chair combinations, many schools are using chairs that are separate from desks or tables. Adjustable desks and tables can be matched to the size of a particular student.

Instructional benefits

Furnishings that enable teachers to explore different methods of instruction can enhance a student's learning experience and provide more movement and stimulation than a day stuck in a desk and chair.

That means furniture that is flexible — tables that can shift from sitting to standing height; desk surfaces that can be placed at different heights and angles; and tables, desks and chairs on casters so they can be moved easily and quickly.

“Whether you are obese or petite, a football player or a piccolo player, everybody is different,” says Sarelis. “In our workplaces, we expect that our chairs are adjustable and our desks are adjustable. Why shouldn't we expect that in schools?”

In some cases, Sarelis says, teachers have to be convinced that giving students the ability to adjust their tables and roll their chairs won't lead to anarchy or just be another fad that fades away in a few years.

“You're giving students the opportunity to move from a sitting to a standing position,” she says, “just like workers in an office might walk to the water cooler or the coffee area to change their environment.”

Price is a critical component of school furniture purchases, but the staff members who are buying the chairs and desks should be weighing more than just price.

In Lansing, Hart says the purchasing department meets with staff members to determine what kinds of furnishing would create a better classroom environment.

“Working in groups is a lot more prevalent,” says Hart, “so we have been purchasing more tables. You can't have desks bolted to the floor anymore.”

In deciding what to buy, Hart says she has to be convinced that what teachers or staff members want will enhance the learning environment.

“We have to try to figure out what is a teacher's personal preference vs. what is truly an instructional issue,” says Hart. “It's a balancing act.”

Standing room only

Most people's image of the typical learning environment includes students sitting at desks or tables. But history has shown us that sitting is not the only position that results in creative successes. For instance, Ernest Hemingway's preferred position when crafting the novels and short stories that became American classics was standing up at his typewriter.

Earlier this year, researchers from the Mayo Clinic wondered whether a classroom where children didn't sit all day could be not only a successful learning environment, but also a place to fight the increasing incidence of obesity among U.S. children.

The “classroom of the future,” as envisioned by Dr. James Levine, an obesity researcher at the clinic, would encourage students to move around as they learn instead of staying seated throughout their lessons. Fourth- and fifth-grade students from the Rochester (Minn.) school district took part in the research. They were outfitted with “posture and activity detectors,” and their activities were measured in their regular classroom for one week, then for two weeks in the experimental classroom, which was built at a local athletic club.

Instead of desks with seats, the experimental classroom provided students with “standing” desks on wheels. Other equipment, such as wireless technology, laptop computers, iPods, personalized whiteboards and “learn-and-move” bays, enabled students to complete their work without having to remain anchored at a desk and chair.

“Children … are adaptable and actually love to learn,” says Dr. Levine. “We just have to let them move naturally.”

The researchers still are analyzing the data they gathered to see if a classroom set up this way can help combat obesity among young people.

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

The right move

by Dr. Dieter Breithecker

Today's children are less active than they were 20 years ago. Many spend inordinate amounts of time sitting in front of a monitor watching television or playing video games. Human bodies, especially those of growing adolescents, require a steady flow of blood and oxygen. Movement is fundamental to this process; this is why people should not maintain a static body posture over a long period of time. This is particularly important in the classroom, where students are required to sit for extended periods. To make the problem worse, many schools require these growing bodies to sit on prehistoric furniture with outdated designs that enable only rigid sitting. Teachers shouldn't be concerned about students that rock in their chairs. They are trying to keep alert physically and mentally. The once commonly held opinion that movement detracts from attention and concentration is no longer valid. Movement is beneficial, even while sitting. So we need “ergo-dynamic” solutions and teaching methods that encourage students to move. One recommendation is that students should divide their days this way: 50 percent sitting (dynamic sitting); 25 percent standing at a desk; 25 percent walking around (schoolyard activities). This periodic movement will lead to these benefits: Change the spinal column's wave patterns. Supply the intervertebral disc with nutrients. Stimulate the complex back muscles. Optimize blood circulation and thus the oxygen supply. Maintain brain metabolism and thus attentiveness and concentration. Breithecker is director of the Federal Institute on the Development of Posture and Exercise in Wiesbaden, Germany, and a member of the International Ergonomics Association's Ergonomics for Children and Educational Environments Technical Committee.



Recommended percentage of time a student should be walking around during a school day.

Source: Federal Institute on the Development of Posture and Exercise, Wiesbaden, Germany.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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