Years ago, it seemed the two most common phrases once the school bell rang were “let’s quiet down” and “take your seats.” In hindsight, the latter of the two could mean that during an average seven-hour school day, it would be common for children to sit anywhere from five to six hours.
The good news, however, is that more schools and workplaces today are attempting to counter the effects of sitting for extensive periods of time. Among the educators who recognize the need for change in this regard is Rebecca Crooks, who teaches hearing and learning support for students in kindergarten through second grade at David Leech Elementary School in Leechburg Area School District.
“One of my biggest pet peeves is watching kids sit at desks for hours beyond hours, just being talked to, and having to do worksheet after worksheet and not have enough movement, freedom, flexibility or choice,” Crooks says.
For years, Crooks looked to combat this sedentary lifestyle in her classroom. This year, she took a major step by not only removing traditional desks, but also helping students become more active. Having received permission from the principal, Crooks introduced to her classroom flexible seating, which is designed to steer away from a traditional desk. These “desks” include everything from wobble stools to yoga balls that students have the freedom to choose every day. And because her classroom has smaller groups of children in comparison to other classroom sizes, everyone can choose from roughly ten types of seating.
“What flexible seating does is it enables students to try out different methods that might work for them to find their smart seats to be able to work the best,” Crooks says. “The end result is to help increase focus and attention to tasks.”
Because students are not slouching, the flexible seating helps burn calories, increase metabolism and strengthen core muscles. Crooks says even if students do choose the option of a standard desk, there is a balance disc that they can place on a chair to enable more motion.
It’s these interruptions of prolonged sitting that have also proven to increase health and wellness for both children and adults, including helping to decrease the risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and muscle weakness. Recent studies have shown that moving away from a sedentary lifestyle drastically helps improve mental health, as well. According to a study in the Internal Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, interrupting prolonged sitting helped increase energy and vigor, improved mood and decreased feelings of fatigue, which directly translated into improvement in cognitive performance.
Crooks has seen these benefits firsthand since implementing the program this year in her classroom where her students are younger and have special needs, particularly when it comes to helping them pay attention to detail.
“I have seen so far that they gravitate toward what they want, and I see more focus on their work individually as opposed to when they were sitting at a desk,” Crooks says. “As soon as you gave them independent work they said ‘I need more help.’ It seems like they’re more willing to try first on their own before asking for help.”
Giving students the freedom to choose their own seat at a variety of “desks” also gives students more confidence to solve issues, Crooks says. “Kids are expected to go out in the world and solve issues, and if we’re not giving them those opportunities to solve a problem, then how are they going to make those choices and solve problems for themselves?”
Some of those different choices include wobble and stationary stools; crate seats, which are made of plastic crates with cushions on top so students can use the area for storage; lap desks; and discs, which are placed on the chairs to help stabilize core muscle. Because these discs are inflatable, they also help students avoid staying completely stationary.
A grant helped with some of the cost, but most of it came from Crooks' pocket. Now, while some schools are starting their days with “Take your seats,” she can confidently say: “Pick your smart seat. Where are you going do your best work today?”