The Chair-Free Classroom.

This article appeared originally in German "So geht Schule ohne Stühle." on March 19th 2015 at http://www.gobeyondtraining.net/blog-1/2015/3/16/so-geht-schule-ohne-sthle

This world can be quite confusing - at least when it comes to sitting: On the one hand, there is tons of evidence about the negative impact of too much sitting; on the other hand, there is probably nothing else as persistant as the usual all-day sitting at school and at work. And on a third side, there are the positive effects of sitting - the focus and concentration on the task at hand.

Most of my life, I did not care that much about all this. I did have a largely sitting-based life (school, university education, desk-based jobs), but at the same time I always had a quite active and athletic lifestyle, so that I did not really feel the impact of the time spent sitting down.

That changed, quite quickly. There were two incidents that triggered a significant mindshift for me:

  1. I left my (office-based) job and started to work from home.
  2. My son started elementary school.

And these two incidents had two main effects:

  1. I did all my computer/office work on the floor - and was amazed how this changed my hip mobility.
  2. My son started sitting on chairs more than ever before.

I realized: Sitting was not the problem. The problem was sitting in the same joint configuration on the same chairs at the same desk heights all the time.

Sitting in itself can actually be incredibly valuable. It's the peaceful middle in between lying down and standing/being active. It's a position of concentrated focus on a task - no dozing off or running away.

And just sitting can get your body in an incredibly high number of joint postions and load - if you just let it. Which essentially means: Letting go of the very thing that keeps your sitting in the same position: chairs and the accompanying tables. I deliberately say "letting go" and not "getting rid of" - because chairs can be one of many options. Just not the only one.

I won't lie: It won't be easy when you have been used to sitting on a chair all your life. It will take you through some initial discomfort, and it will take time, consistent effort and sensible progressions (just as sleeping without a pillow does not happen from one day to the other (sorry-German only thus far)).

It would be much easier if, as children, we would just not unlearn all the different sitting positions that we were capable of.

And that's exactly what I would like to give to my son. Especially since his cerebral palsy makes it even harder for him to sit properly and to maintain his joint mobility compared to kids without handicaps.

The question is how - when he spends most of his time at school? Overhauling the whole school system was not an option, too labor-intensive; so I needed a more pragmatic solution. Which I found in the person of his wonderful class teacher.

Here is what happened: I had a conversation with her where I told her about my thoughts and experiences regarding sitting and asked her straight out whether she would be interested in trying something different for a change - a chair- and table-free classroom environment. She said YES right away (!) and was enthusiastic about this idea from that moment on. To keep it simple, she suggested to do it in the frame work of a project week, then we would be quite flexible regarding themes and content. So that's what we did.

I had all kind of fantasies running through my head beforehand. That it would be a great succes. But also that it would turn into complete chaos, the kids would be totally uncomfortable and that it would be hard to keep the usual classes going.

And here is how it turned out:

Redesigning the Classroom

Background info on the students: Second grade of a regular elementary school (age group 7-8 years) in Munich/Germany; 14 students (10 boys, 4 girls); 17 school hours in the new classroom setting over the whole week

Our ambition for the re-design of the classroom was: Use only what was available in the school building anyway - so anything we could borrow from other classrooms or the gym. The students helped with removing the chairs and tables and getting the equipment that we would be using instead. After that, I arranged the new "furniture" based on a structure that I had thought out beforehand. Basically, I tried to integrate the following:

  • "Desks" in three different heights, in order to accomodate the students' different physical requirements (body height, joint mobility)
  • Enough work/desk space for all kids
  • The new set-up should allow for four different learning situations: individual work, small group work, lecture-style teaching facing the board ("theatre"), and Circle sitting.

Kick-Off/Introducing the Chair-Free Theme

The students were informed beforehand and were really looking forward to the new-set up (see pictures - in German). The parents received an info letter about the background of the chair-free theme; we asked them to let the kids wear comfortable clothing and robust socks (they usually wear slippers in class); and to let their kids take a small pillow (for sitting and/or support) to class.

On the first day, we used the Circle Time at the beginning of the first class for a short introduction of the week's chairfree theme. It was important to us to let the kids know that that the classroom was not a gym, even though we used gym equipment for the new learning environment. We let the kids set rules for the week and discussed them. We also let them know that they could choose their own work space and were not confined to it - we encouraged them to move over the course of a day and the whole week in order to try out different settings. We also reminded them not to stay in one sitting position all the time and that it was rather ok to transition as much as they needed to feel comfortable, and that I would support them with this if needed.

As I did not know whether it would be easy for the kids to find a good "seat"/work space, I put little marks on possible sitting spots. It turned out that this was not necessary - they did not have any trouble with arranging themselves and their school stuff at suitable spots.

Introducing Sitting Positions

I deliberately did not give any input with respect to sitting positions at the beginning on the first day - I was curious what they would do. It did in fact turn out that the kids went through different varations of sitting quite naturally and intuitively, in each of the four teaching formats and depending on the task they were working on.

The second day started by making them more aware of sitting positions that are used all over the world. For this, I had prepared an enlarged print-out of an image from Gordon Hewes' publication on "World Distribution of Certain Postural Habits" (see below). We kept it simple: I pointed at different postures and asked one kid at a time to demonstrate it. Since I had observed the kids's individual sitting habits the on the day before, I knew what postures each of them was good at and picked them according to my observations. The teacher told me later that she saw how they appreciated that - because each of them got a sense of their strengths.

Aus: World Distribution of Certain Postural Habits, Gordon W. Hewes, American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 57, No. 2, Part 1 (Apr., 1955), pp. 231-244 http://www.jstor.org/stable/666393

Aus: World Distribution of Certain Postural Habits, Gordon W. Hewes, American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 57, No. 2, Part 1 (Apr., 1955), pp. 231-244 http://www.jstor.org/stable/666393

We repeated this kind of short demo session on the fourth day of the week.

On the third day I introduced them to sensing their sitting bones - i.e. I guided them to roll their pelvis while sitting on the floor and to notice when the bones where in most contact with the floor. That was quite difficult for most of them. My goal was not to show them how to sit "correctly/well" - but rather to make them more aware of their pelvic position. Since they were changing positions quite frequently I was not worried that they might sit too much on their tailbone (with posteriorly tilted pelvis). Still, for a longer period of chairfree sitting I would definitely repeat this session in regular intervals and maybe add cues to remind them during class. Again - not in order to single out a "most correct" sitting posture but rather to encourage variety and awareness in their sitting habits.

Attention/Concentration in Class

This project week was mainly concerned with adding variety to sitting in class. Nevertheless, we were also curious how this kind of set-up would also impact students' interactions and attention spans in class. There were also logistic aspects - e.g. where kids would have their class material and how hand-outs would be distributed during class. Here are our observations:

  • In general, there was not that much difference in attention and the students's ability to focus on a task. The teacher noted that those kids who had generally more trouble with paying attention had similar trouble in the new set-up - but not more. And those able to focus more easily were just as attentive on the floor. However, we agreed that one week is definitely too short of a time period and a longer duration (2-3 months) of such a set-up would be needed for a more conclusive observation.
  • The biggest challenge with attention and noise level was during transitions from one teaching format to the next, i.e. from the Circle to individual work spaces, or from their work spaces to the "theatre".
  • A big advantage was that there was much more space for and much easier transitions in and out of movement breaks during class.
  • Starting on the third day, we nominated three children that would be responsible for making sure the noise level would not get too high. This way, the children were asked to take care of the kind of learning atmosphere they needed for concentrated work. This actually worked sufficiently well, although it was still very dependent on which kids were nominated (some got easily absorbed in their tasks and just forgot about reminding the other kids).
  • Bags and students' school supplies were kept in the periphery of the classroom, close but not necessarily next to where students were sitting. This way no bags would block the space they needed for sitting - and kids may have to get up and walk a few steps to get their stuff or stow it away. This worked quite well and also kept the classroom atmosphere "visually" clean.
  • Distributing hand-outs and students' textbooks, which was usually done by two kids, took a little more time due to the lack of fixed seats (so the kids had to look where everybody was sitting). It was not a big deal - but it might be worth thinking about alternative ways of doing this, like passing stuff from two sides and let each student take their own stuff from the pile.

Inclusive Classroom

One of the students (my son) has a physical handicap (cerebraly palsy; spastic muscle tone in his legs, and weak tone in his lower back) and has therefore limited joint ranges. For him the new set-up was a big opportunity, but also had its challenges. Because he was not restricted to a chair, he was much more flexible in accomodating his hip joint in different positions which was a real benefit for him. At the same time, it required a little more creativity and additional pieces of support to help him tilt his pelvis more anteriorly. It would be really interesting to see whether a longer period of chairfree sitting on the floor would have a measurable impact on his hip mobility and muscle tone.

But even more generally: This kind of classroom design is in itself inclusive, as it adapts to each individual student's strengths, limitations, body size and anatomical differences.

Learning and Work Autonomy

If there is something like "sitting autonomy" (I hereby announce a new term!) then this type of classroom set-up would be a prime example. In particular:

  • Individual work and sitting space is not as confined as in the regular chair/table set-up. Therefore, the kids are able to choose how they orient themselves in space (e.g. with respect to the board or to the rest of the group), whom they sit with and how close to the next students. As kids go through their school day, these "parameters" remain dynamic and can accomodate the students' changing needs (e.g. distance to others or to the teacher)
  • Changing where they sit in the classroom in a self-directed manner

The question that is really exciting to me: Does sitting autonomy have an effect on the students' self-perceived work autonomy? Is a more self-directed sitting arrangement conducive to a self-directed learning experience? The teacher's observations were promising - but again, the time frame was really too short for a more conclusive feedback.

Cost Comparison

Here is a rough back-of-the-envelope comparison of furniture/equipment cost for a class of 15 students in a regular vs. chairfree classroom (all prices in EUR and based on German price levels):

WP_20150306_11_32_10_Pro_heller.jpg

Initial cost for a regular classroom:

5x4 Triangular desks at approx. EUR 200,- = EUR 4000,-

15 Chairs at approx. EUR 80,- = 1200,-

= total of about EUR 5200,- for  15 kids

WP_20150306_13_25_43_Pro_heller.jpg

Initial cost for the equipment we used:

2 Gym benches at approx. EUR 350,- = EUR 700,-

2 Gymnastic mats at approx. EUR 150,- = EUR 300,-

4 Yoga mats at approx. EUR 20,- = EUR 80,-

2 Small wedge-shaped mats at approx. EUR 70,- = EUR 140,-

about 5 carpet tiles at about. EUR 5,-? = EUR 25,-

= total of about EUR 1250,- for approx 15 kids (i.e. about one forth of the regular cost) - and it was no problem to accomodate four more kids that came from other classes during this week

Students' Feedback

The kids were absolutely grateful for the new sitting experience. There was only one kid that noticed some slight back pain and found it uncomfortable to get down and up from the floor - this might have to do with this kid's usual movement habits. All other kids did not have any problems and enjoyed the greater sitting freedom. Verbal and written feedback (see pictures for examples - unfortunately German only) was excellent and it was fun to see how much they got out of it.

Conclusion - and: How will it stick?

The main objective for this week was to answer the question: Is it possible to let elementary school kids sit in a much more varied way - while keeping the quality of teaching and learning at least as good as in a regular classroom setting? For this particular class, I can answer with a definite YES. Although the change required quite a few adaptations and adjustments from the kids - which would slow down classes at times - it was actually very impressive to see how naturally the kids made the transition within such a short period of time.

The kids' enthusiasm made me once again aware how important it is to create learning environments that allow for a greater range of (sitting) postures. I think that this can empower and strengthen kids on several levels:

  • It increases self-confidence and self-efficacy - just by letting them choose their own seat and posture in a self-responsible manner
  • In their body awareness and competence with respect to their body - by letting them experiment, on their own and based on supportive input from others, with different sitting positions and explore what they are capable of and what they are able to learn
  • as a group - due to the less structured classroom space, the kids have to be more considerate and attentive of others
  • and physically, of course - more varied sitting and getting up from and down on the floor (vs. onto a chair) strengthens the whole body

It also showed me how simple it would be to maintain hip mobility into adulthood if such a sitting culture could be established as part of school culture and beyond. In my experience, a healthy hip joint is crucial to our structural and functional state - problems with the hip joint often trigger a whole spectrum of ailments that most often manifest above and/or below the hip. Or, to put it the other way round: If the hip joint is working, things will ususally not get too bad.

At the same time, it is not necessary to burn chairs and desks. I am envisioning an environment where chairs and desks are one option of many others on the floor and in between. In the case of this class, the teacher came up with the idea of using the hallway next to the classroom as floor sitting space - and the coatrack benches as desks.

I can now definitely say that equipping a floor-sitting classroom can be done with quite simple means. The challenge lies in giving the students the right input at the right time, and not more than necessary, so that they can smoothly adapt to the new environment - both mentally as well as physically. It would be interesting to have more time for such an environment in order to see what happens after the initial adjustment phase. From this experience, I and the teacher found it important to have someone help with implementing an environment like this - this should be someone who is considerate of the biomechanical, pedagogical and psychological aspects that need to be balanced.

There are significant benefits for schools in implementing a (largly) chairfree classroom environment:

  • They would be able to do a much better job of accomodating all kids' sitting needs/requirements and thus ensuring a more functional and healthy school career - independent of physical abilities and differences in body size within one age group
  • Equipping classrooms becomes much cheaper
  • The furniture/equipment used in such a classroom setting is much more versatile (think movement breaks) compared to chairs and desks that can be used only for sitting
  • The implementation can also be cost-efficient if a school decides to let several classes at once go chairfree (I can give you more details on this if you are interested)
  • It would give regular schools a new edge with respect to inclusion: By removing chairs and desks, they are essentially removing barriers for kids that fall outside of physical/motor ability norms (and, if you think about it - inclusion is all about "no one is the norm"). So every student can find ways of sitting, possibly supported by additional equipment/devices, without being singled out as "special".

It was encouraging to see that it is possible to learn from the chair-critical scientific evidence and add much more variety to sitting, thus making it more compatible with the body's needs - all the while not loosing the concentration and attention that comes only in sitting. Which makes the world, again, a little less confusing.

And if you know of any schools that may be interested in hearing more about this - I would be more than happy to share our insights and learnings with teachers and parents.

(If you want to hear more about how the teacher lived through this new environment - there will be a webcast with her soon, so stay stuned!)

HUGE thanks to Class 2a of the Helmholtz School in Munich/Germany: To the kids for their enthusiasm, curiosity, playfulness and cooperation; to the teacher Barbara Meder for her innovative mindset, the insightful conversations on chairfree pedagogics and opening her classroom to me; to my son's classroom assistants for their practical help and valuable observations; and to the parents for the support, interest and the permission to use the pictures and videos made in class during this week. I wish everyone all the best and lots of variety in their (school) days!

About the author: Patricia Pyrka is a former physicist, strength and conditioning coach, and also the former Exectutive of the European Rolfing Association. She is now the owner of Beyond Training - a start-up dedicated to teaching and coaching individuals and groups about the power of adding movement to the most mundane everyday tasks and activities. Patricia has started to run the Beyond Training Facebook page entirely in English now - and you're welcome to the party!

Links

"Dream Classroom" by Katy Bowman http://www.katysays.com/dream-classroom/

"Thinking Outside the (Classroom) Chair" by Katy Bowman http://www.katysays.com/thinking-outside-the-classroom-chair/

"For Back to School, Reimagine Classroom Design" http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2012/08/for-back-to-school-reimagine-classroom-design/

Mayo Clinic obesity researchers test 'classroom of the future' http://psychcentral.com/news/archives/2006-03/mc-mco031006.html

"Students Stand When Called Upon, and When Not" http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/25/us/25desks.html?_r=0

"A Lifestyle of Movement: The Best Healthy Lifestyle Tip" http://totallifestylemanagement.com/a-lifestyle-of-movement-the-best-healthy-lifestyle-tip/