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Are you sitting comfortably?

The importance of ergonomics in Education - By Jan4 Sandwood
| 19 June 2019
Are you sitting comfortably?
Are you sitting comfortably?

New research published in the European Spine Journal shows an alarming upwards trend in the number of children with lower back pain, making them 3.5 times more likely to experience back pain as adults.

Establishing good posture and movement habits from a young age is a crucial part of child development, as the skeleton is still growing and needs to form correctly in order to support the body for life.  Moreover, an uncomfortable child can’t fully focus on their learning. Educators can play a vital role in this; children spend a significant part of their day in the classroom environment, so ensuring that they have access to practical, good quality furniture is almost as important to their learning as providing the correct books or mathematics equipment.

One size can't fit all
Traditional classrooms are often set up with standard issue chairs and desks arranged in clusters, with some carpet space for story time.  The problem is, children don’t grow or behave quite so neatly! Every child grows at a different rate, and in fact, children are actually reaching some stages of physical development more quickly than they used to.  As an example, a Dutch study has found that puberty is taking place earlier (at under 13 years of age) across Europe; in the US the difference is even more pronounced, with biological changes beginning before the age of 10 in some cases.  This is where the Montessori principle of recognising each child’s uniqueness is of particular practical importance; classrooms need to be designed with differing needs in mind.

Making adjustments
When a child isn’t able to sit comfortably, they can end up rounding their back, which decreases blood flow and puts pressure on their spinal cord, often resulting in discomfort and distraction.  If, however, they can sit with their back straight, with their feet squarely resting on the floor or a small box, this creates better circulation, meaning better blood flow delivering oxygen to the brain.  Sitting correctly also improves lung capacity - one study found that the ability to breathe effectively decreased by nearly 10% when slouching.  Efficient circulation and breathing help children to concentrate and focus on the learning at hand.  This is especially important in a Montessori setting, where those three hours of dedicated work time are really precious.   This is where adjustable furniture comes into its own; it offers a tailormade solution for each child, and in fact for the teacher too.

Encouraging movement
The Montessori commitment to movement, exploration and discovery encourages children to move regularly, which also helps to relieve back problems and re-energise concentration levels.  Studies reinforce the value of outdoor play for children; for example, researchers in Portugal found that outdoor play exposed children to sunlight, natural elements and fresh air, which contributed to bone development, greater immunity and physical activity. Being on the move also boosts blood flow to the brain, which makes learning more effective when children return to the classroom.  Regular physical breaks should therefore be very much a part of the plan when it comes to designing an ergonomically friendly classroom.

Sensory focus
For children with sensory issues or conditions such as ADHD, sitting bolt upright for long periods of time can be particularly difficult.  In this case, adjustments such as bean bags, carpet squares or fidget spinners can be really calming and help the child to sit comfortably and concentrate more easily.  Again, regular breaks and outdoor play can help to refresh mental energy and also burn off a little physical energy if needed.
If a child is unable to sit comfortably, they will either end up in pain or fidgeting in order to fix the problem.  This distracts them from their learning, and potentially affects those around them too. By designing your classroom with the uniqueness of each child in mind, you can choose furniture which is adjustable, or so well designed that it encourages good posture, as well as making provision for those with sensory needs.  Finally, regular breaks give everyone a chance to straighten up, re-focus and enjoy the sunshine on their faces.