When you’re a kid you don’t think about why you don’t like the chairs at school. If asked, you might say that they’re hard, or maybe really old if your school hasn’t been renovated in years. As an interior designer who has specialized in education (pre-k through college) for the past fifteen-plus years, I have spent a large amount of time thinking about chairs in schools. The problem was I wasn’t focused on the right things.
In fact, years ago I felt pretty confident that I was specifying good chairs for students. Multiple sizes per classroom were used to accommodate the increasingly varied sizes of children. Hard plastic was out and soft plastic was the norm. As long as I picked out some cool colors everyone was happy. Teachers talked about desk shape and size (one person vs. two) or tables vs. desks. If there was any discussion about chairs on the part of the school staff, it centered around which glides were better so as not to mar the floor (Tip: it’s the cheap vinyl composition tile, not the glides that are the problem). And never hearing any complaints afterwards, I assumed everything was fine.
Now designers – and most everyone else – have come to expect that any adult task chair will be ergonomic. After all, it’s common knowledge that everybody is different and thus chairs should be adjustable to prevent strain, etc. Also, most of us probably know that the reason this has become so important is, in part, because our society is so sedentary (it is suggested that everyone get up multiple times during the day to stand and walk around). I also was well aware that elementary school students spend the majority of their time sitting in one classroom, and that recess has been shortened to 15 to 20 minutes in many school districts. While middle and high school kids do get up to change classes periodically, obesity rates are on the rise among all school children, so it was clear to me that students would benefit from more movement. Despite this knowledge, my classroom chair selection remained basically the same throughout the years because I didn’t see what the function of a chair itself (i.e. sitting) could have to do with activity.
That changed about five years ago when I attended a lecture by Dr. Breithecker, a German Health and Kinetics Scientist. Citing research, he asserted that physical activity for children is not just important from a healthy heart, healthy weight perspective, but also that brain development in children is affected by movement. Giving students increased opportunities to move while seated stimulates increased levels of attention and concentration. In fact, having kids sit still while they are learning actually hinders their ability to learn. He pointed out that this was true for children of all ages but much more so for those who were not yet fully developed. He proved his point by involving us in mini bouts of activity during the lecture: and this did keep me more alert and engaged, and to my surprise, I still remember that lecture better than many that I have attended since.
The take-away from all of this is that classroom chairs for children need to facilitate a range of natural movements, not hinder them. The best chairs are those that can be sat in forwards, backwards, rocked in, swiveled in, and perched on – because activity needs to take place in the classroom during the learning, not just between lessons or outside at recess.
Images and chairs shown above are from VS America