Furniture that improves child concentration

Dimensional misfit between pupils and classroom equipment can often cause poor posture and lead to an increase in loss of concentration and poor productivity, writes Jim Taylour of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors

As an adult have you ever been to a conference and felt restless because of the uncomfortable chairs? Have you ever dined out where there is minimal legroom and the acoustics prevent you from hearing your fellow diners properly? Or have you ever sat on a neighbours’ sofa and thought how deep, low and ill-fitting the experience was, and how it impeded your concentration?

Now consider revisiting these scenarios on a daily basis for a period of 14-plus years, and that’s just beginning to paint a picture of the unintentionally hostile environments we expect children to survive and thrive within our schools. Imagine your adult thought processes in a six-year-old’s body and what you would be saying to the authorities if you were expected to sit for much of the day without fidgeting when your feet are dangling off the front of the chair.

You can’t reach the back rest, your chin is on the table and your mentor is suggesting that your handwriting could improve, whilst your elbows are up in the air and you cannot quite see the page. Then also consider your reaction at starting senior school aged 11 and the suggestion that you will need to lift 25 per cent of your body weight in books around school every 40 minutes, as well as getting them safely home and back to school daily.

You get the picture; dimensional misfit between children and the equipment provided often causes poor posture, which in turn increases the risk of error, accidents, discomfort, loss of concentration, and poor productivity.

BETTER FLEXIBILITY

Thankfully, since the 1960s we have got used to flexible reconfigurable furniture, which is colour coded to match the age and approximate size of the child, but how often does this get specified correctly? In addition to this, some classes have become more adventurous in the way teachers get the children to move and collaborate, but with pressures on space, curriculum and budgetary targets, it’s not easy to deliver creative solutions.

We are being told in the adult world that sitting is the new smoking and being tethered to allocated desks is reducing our life expectancy. The problem therefore gets worse at secondary school age where classroom physical activity drops year-by-year, concentration demands increase, and the reliance on technology locks students into motionless postures – all on furniture that is non-adjustable and considered ‘non‑compliant’ in the contemporary office.

RESPONSIBLE FURNITURE SELECTION

Furniture procurers should be sensitive to the size matching of chairs to suit Primary, which is size mark 2, 3 and 4 according to BS EN 7179 and Secondary, which is size mark 5 and 6.
Think about investing in more sophisticated dynamic chairs for notoriously static lessons like maths so that the chairs reflect the variety and nature of tasks. Look out for features such as a forward sloping element to the seat to encourage a more open natural posture and the option for a tilt inclined writing surface for the tables to reduce neck pain and increase hand coordination skills.

Think about the degree of flexibility you need and the group options you can create according to the shapes of the tops and insist on user trials before you purchase. There are furniture guidelines to reassure schools that the chairs have been designed for 90 per cent of the user population and won’t let you down structurally. There are at least adaptations on the market for schools and the home if budgets are limited, so furniture can be adapted to encourage more productive happier studying, be it seat wedges for improved posture or sloping writing surfaces to support paper.

The Scandinavians have mastered the trick of fully functioning spaces that work well for both children and teachers. The students are allocated perch height sitting workstations, which adjust and grow throughout their life at school, promoting excellent posture with provision for school bags. The added bonus is a more comfortable standing position for teachers too when interacting with children.

We know the application of ergonomics works in the office but it is sadly lacking in education establishments, where there is no health and safety legislation to protect growing limbs and ligaments – which incidentally are more at risk of injury during growth spurts.

HEALTH & SAFETY

According to the charity Back Care, back pain affects 60 per cent of adults and is a major cause of absenteeism at work. The problem spiked with the advent of computers in the 1990s because in part we became very static.

There is now a second spike due to the impact of mobile technology, coupled with increasing weight-related ill health globally. Graduates and their dependence on technology are suffering from “laptop hunch”, “cyber sickness” and “dry eye syndrome”, to name a few.

Occupational health departments have seen their spend on ‘special equipment’ such as orthopaedic chairs and assistive technology rise across all the generational groups within corporate organisations. It is no longer a midlife symptom but a very real issue for young recruits.

Therefore, the furniture in schools has to work even harder if we are preparing students for the outside world of work and in theory, if the classroom were to replicate the workplace, there would be provision for the following: appropriate rests and docking stations which elevate the screen to avoid flexed necks; a choice of input devices depending on the task, duration and preference of the user including ambidextrous mice, sensible positioning of keyboards to avoid flexed wrists and raised elbows; hands-free browsing slots in table tops for tablets; and speech recognition and other assistive technology tools for more inclusive and accessible learning.

We know in practise this is difficult and costly to apply, and some furniture manufacturers have been slow to step up to the challenge of improving the interface between young users and their technology, but there are a few exceptions.
For independent advice, the Furniture Industrial Research Association has an ergonomics department that can help.

DIGITAL NATIVES NEED NURTURING

Unlike the rest of us, Generation Zs – people who are born from the year 2000 – have been immersed in technology from birth, and the tablet revolution has certainly opened up lots of opportunities and learning experiences for the young.

Much of the research around children and mobile technology use in schools has concentrated on attainment, but very little has been published on the potential health consequences.

The teenage entertainment centre (we used to call them bedrooms) are places of increasing concern for the experts. We understand the consequences and dangers of cyber bullying and gaming addictions after ‘lights out’, but the Sleep Council and others are becoming increasingly concerned with the effects of disturbed sleep, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. The blue light from our devices affects levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin more than any other wavelengths. In addition, mobile phone alerts get answered at night and best friends are being forged online, and in different time zones.

Studies in the USA amongst teachers have recently reported high levels of perceived sleep deprivation amongst high school children and increasingly at elementary stage too.
Potential hearing and visual impairment from excessive headphone use and staring at screens are in question, and longitudinal studies are under way to help understand the potential risks in more detail.

Education leaders, health practitioners and parents have a responsibility to educate children in best practise technology use, from understanding the recovery times, being distracted during homework, the physical set up tips to avoid discomfort, sensible duration times in front of the screen, and spelling out the health consequences of nocturnal device use. Even outdoor use from a safety perspective needs highlighting as pedestrian fatalities have reportedly jumped due to walking whilst texting and browsing.

HEALTHY ENVIRONMENTS

The increased popularity of ‘mindfulness’ is a great vehicle to combat the pace of technology over dependence. Schools could revisit underutilised spaces internally and externally to support meditation and contemplation. This becomes increasingly important in large open ‘plaza’ style schools where acoustic challenges and visual distractions become stressful for children and teachers.

Personal booths, high back enclosed sofas and pop up meeting rooms are now available as shelters for people to go and concentrate or rejuvenate. These enclaves provide flexibility and are more cost‑effective than constructing rooms. The more sophisticated ones can start to address lighting, thermal and acoustic comfort too.

The use of ‘sound masking’ is popular in the States for drowning out unwanted sounds in open plan offices. These systems are increasingly being used in schools as ‘sound showers’ to help dampen unwanted noise, but also to motivate children with positive soundscapes.

Other natural sounds, textures and materials, biometric forms, vistas, air quality, vegetation and even odours, are all being deployed under the relatively new science of ‘biophilia’ to help promote a better sense of wellness for the occupants of a building. With a strong environmental emphasis the ‘Well Building Standard’, directed at architects and specifiers, wraps this up with other measures including fitness, comfort and nutrition.

INSTIGATING CHANGE

The Jamie Oliver effect in the school kitchens did a lot to highlight our nutritional ignorance, but despite this, today nearly a third of children aged between two and 15 are overweight or obese, and this figure is set to rise.

The London 2012 Olympics helped to nudge the other side of the simple equation, “eat less and move more”, and it has taken initiatives like the Stirling Primary School Daily Mile to underline the mental, social and physical gain of getting children motivated to exercise more. Schools can turn stairs and corridors into walking gyms and incentivise children to get moving more outside through creative and interactive playgrounds.

A perfect storm of change is hanging over the corporate world in a similar way and the subject of wellness is moving centre stage as a means of attracting and retaining young talent and addressing the growing concerns of ill health and hampered performance.

Government initiatives are moving from rehabilitation to prevention with an emphasis on companies taking more responsibility for employee’s wellness. Relatively new terms like ‘presentism’ are being measured with a better understanding of the consequences of stress and disengagement, and reports suggest a three-to-10 fold return on investment for companies who invest in measures to improve wellness. Psychological factors and neuroscience research applied to work, combined with the more established physical ergonomic principles, are unearthing a goldmine of ideas for designers, and these discoveries and initiatives are being reversed into schools.

Leading the charge in education with joined up wellness strategies, is the Mayor of London sponsored London Health Standard. Based on the workplace Well-being Charter, schools can benchmark themselves against a list of healthy objectives and have access to resources and expert advice. Awarded bronze, silver and gold for escalating wellness initiatives, schools focus on five key areas which include:
personal social health & economic education, healthy eating, physical activity, emotional health & well-being, and the environment. To date, close to 2,000 schools have signed up with some very tangible improvements coming through.

THE FUTURE AND A CALL FOR ACTION

There is scope to change perceptions at the Department for Education (DfE) if schools and teacher training colleges put forward good pedagogic arguments that can be linked to the need for flexible ‘wellness’ centred spaces and strategies in schools.

There is a danger that the DfE remains focused on replacing the old school building stock with environmentally efficient replacements but with little thought for the occupants, especially if there isn’t an appetite for exploring alternative ways to deliver the curriculum from the teaching profession.

The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (CIEHF) has a special interest group of expert volunteers who are collating research and developing a ‘Well Learning Charter’ to help raise awareness of the role of ergonomics in protecting and enhancing children’s physical and mental development.
The group aims to increase the knowledge of good ergonomics among those working with and designing for children, and establish best ergonomics practice across a range of topic areas such as furniture and postural health education, technology, and environmental factors.

If you’re passionate about making a change and would like to take part in field studies in schools, or have access to education or academic establishments which would be willing to participate in further research, please contact the group to help collate existing research.

Jim Taylour is a member of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) and co-chair of the organisation’s Children’s Ergonomics Interest Group, and head of design and well-being at Orangebox.

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