March 9th, 2009

Active Furniture for School Children Could Combat Obesity and Improve Learning

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The iconic picture of a classroom shows children seated and mainly immobile, with heads bent over their work. Research is under way that could make that picture obsolete.

A team of obesity researchers in Minnesota recommends giving young children the freedom to be active as they learn. They say the activity promotes health by warding off obesity. And a teacher in Minnesota is convinced children learn better if they are free to move around. With the help of a local ergonomics company, she has designed a desk that makes it easier for pupils to be active. New research will marry and test the two ideas.

In a recent New York Times (NYT) article, James A. Levine, MD, director of the Active Life research team and a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester advocates what he calls “activity-permissive” classrooms that include stand-up desks. He is one of the team of researchers who have tested the activity hypothesis for an article published recently in the journal Obesity. The team led by Lorraine Lanningham-Foster, Ph.D., monitored 24 children in a traditional school with chairs and desks, in an activity-permissive classroom, and finally, in their traditional school with desks that encouraged standing. They found that school children in the activity-permissive environment were as active as children on summer vacation, who were also monitored. “Strategies to increase the activity of school children may involve re-designing the school itself,” the researchers wrote. 

The desk designed by teacher Abby Brown at Marine Elementary School near Minneapolis allows pupils to stand while they work. It comes with swinging footrests, and with adjustable stools that give the children the ability to switch between sitting and standing as their moods dictate.

In the two years since she designed the desk, the idea has caught on at other schools, according to the NYT article. Orders for the desks are being filled for school districts from North Carolina to California. The article reports that teachers using the stand-up desks endorse them as a way to give children the flexibility they need to expend energy and, at the same time, focus better on their work rather than focusing on how to keep still. 

Two studies at the University of Minnesota are using data collected from Ms. Brown’s classroom and others in Minnesota and Wisconsin that are using the new desks. They will test the calorie-burning and scholastic benefits of the concept. Children using the stand-up desks are being compared to pupils using traditional desks for differences in physical activity and academic achievement. 

The idea that furniture should be considered as seriously as instruction has sound ergonomics underpinnings. The research that will expand knowledge about the benefits – or possibly ergonomics-related drawbacks of stand-up desks – promises to expand the thinking about what constitutes an ergonomically-sound classroom environment. 

Sources: New York Times;  
Lorraine Lanningham-Foster, Randal C. Foster, Shelly K. McCrady, Chinmay U. Manohar, Teresa B. Jensen, Naim G. Mitre, James O. Hill and James A. Levine: Changing the School Environment to Increase Physical Activity in Children: Obesity (2008) 16 8, 1849–1853. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.282



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