Our childhood classrooms, with their long rows of stationary desks, are gradually disappearing. They’re being replaced by rooms thoughtfully designed to incorporate more movement into the daily student experience. Teachers are also working to include kinesthetic activities into their lessons, as research is proving a powerful connection between movement and learning.
The special education community has long known the benefits of allowing varied movement options. Modifications were implemented for special education students who had trouble sitting, focusing or shifting into learning mode. While these alterations helped special education students, they often helped many other students as well. That anecdotal evidence, along with proven research, has led to a shift as schools are recognizing the health and learning benefits for all students.
Movement has been found to activate multiple areas of the brain, and stimulating those varied neural networks can lead to increased learning, focus and attention. For some students, increased blood flow to the body and brain leads to better recall. Not all movement is created equal, however. While vigorous movement might help one student expel excess energy, for another student that type of movement could be overstimulating. The latest in classroom design and instruction provides for differentiated movement options to address students’ varied needs.
Many school districts are working to give students control over how comfortable they feel when working, often through the use of adapted seating, also called flexible seating. The most common types of flexible seating options found in Austin area schools are wobble stools, ball chairs, floor or cushion seating, bouncy bands and standing desks.
Wobble stools allow active children to wiggle the lower halves of their bodies while keeping the upper halves mostly steady. Picture a regular stool that can sway from side-to-side or back-to-front, and you have the idea. Other classrooms use yoga balls for similar reasons. Another option is the bouncy band: a flexible band that attaches to traditional chair legs. Students can push against the band with their feet to release anxiety and tension while working. Allowing a child to dispel nervous energy through the lower half of her body enables her to stay seated and focus on her work, instead of regularly popping out of her seat or tipping it back and forth. We all remember when a classmate — or maybe it was us — tipped just a little too far!
Some students struggle to learn while sitting at a traditional desk. To meet the needs of these learners, classrooms are offering soft cushions on the floor for laying down or bean bag chairs for more relaxed sitting. A pricier option is the standing desk, which can be placed at the back of the room so as not to block the view of other students.
Fidgets are another way to bring movement into a classroom. A fidget is a small object that students can manipulate with one hand to release tension. Simple fidgets are best, and the occupational therapist’s (OT) rule of thumb is, “the more boring, the better.” Pipe cleaners that can be folded back and forth, stress balls or even two paper clips clipped together fit the bill. The best fidgets don’t require the user to pay attention to them, so they’re not a hindrance to learning. Many teachers will set out a basket of approved fidgets for students to self-select.
School districts are also working to include breaks in the day to tap into the link between movement and increased learning. Teachers are asked to consider how long their students have been sitting and to implement a “state change,” such as going from sitting to standing. These movement breaks can be incorporated into a lesson or can be a standalone break between lessons.
As with many things in life, there is no one-size-fits-all. Districts are recognizing the need to maintain quiet spaces with traditional desk seating, even as they introduce alternatives. Effective teachers learn which arrangement works best for each student and modify appropriately. The ultimate goal is that students will eventually learn to tune into their needs and self-select their optimal arrangement.
Some parents have raised concerns: How can children learn to sit still in a college classroom if they never have to practice? Certainly, you can’t bring a beanbag chair to your first job! This is absolutely true, and OTs are quick to reassure – it’s all about balance. Students will learn to identify what their bodies need when they’re in a more restrictive seating arrangement. As adults, we do this all the time. We expel our excess energy by crossing and uncrossing our legs, chewing gum, shaking our foot or visiting the water cooler. Our kids will get there in the end, but in the meantime, admit it – don’t you wish you could bring a beanbag chair to the office?
Alison Bogle is an Austin-based freelance writer and mom of three.