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Classroom Ergonomics

When children are old enough to go to school, they are presented with a serious challenge to their health: sitting still for what seems ‘like forever’ – a challenge enough in itself, but then combined with some of the worst furniture they’re ever likely to encounter. Considering the dramatic changes in physical, intellectual, cognitive, emotional and social factors during a child’s school life-time, when body heights and proportions change rapidly, school children are at special risk of suffering negative health effects due to the prolonged periods spent seated at school and the onset of poor postural habits.

‘Bad posture is not innate, but the result of slowly acquired habits, insidiously taking over our body through the years.’

After prolonged sitting the body becomes restless in the attempt to find a more comfortable position. Unfortunately, in schools restlessness may be interpreted as unacceptable behavior which disturbs the teaching process in the classroom. It may not be interpreted as the biological and biomechanical needs of the body. The human body is designed, not to remain still, but to move about. There is no one position - sitting, standing or lying - which is comfortable and painless after a prolonged period of time. Also, there is not a chair or table we use which, after some time, does not initiate body fatigue. Sitting in inappropriate designed school furniture only intensifies the discomfort.

Classroom furniture must comply with essential ergonomic and anthropometric principles; the objective in school furniture design is to provide proper and comfortable - or ‘balanced’ seating and appropriate work-surfaces for use under various conditions as determined by the curriculum, for example; reading and writing, listening and watching, team or individual work, computer work and any other ‘hands-on’ activity, as well as meeting the fundamental requirements of; functionality, mobility, maintainability, durability and , of course, safety

Static and rigid design school chairs and desks cannot support an active young person of normal growth and development. A child must be provided with ergonomically designed furniture that provides for a choice of sitting positions and matches body proportions and size. Teaching about posture and proper or ‘balanced’ sitting must start during early school years so that future Muscular- Skeletal Disorders are minimized.

If we analyze the problem, much of the furniture found in classrooms is not designed or suited to the anthropometric dimensions of the pupils using it, especially in ‘middle’ grades where there are large variances of child size within the same age group.

  • Many pupils are using unsuitable chairs and desk for a number of reasons;
  • Old technical standards still being adhered to when, in recent years, we have been faced with changing growth and behavioural patterns.
  • Traditional bureaucratic approach to the purchasing of classroom furniture.
  • Unaware of postural and ergonomic issues.
  • No defined furniture policy
  • Limited budget

Just consider the facts; between the ages of 5 and 16 a child will spend approximately 15,000 hours sitting down, and more than 60% of pupils will have complained of back or neck problems by the time they leave school.

Experts report an increase in back problems that correlates directly with the increasing number of hours we spend seated. While an increasingly sedentary lifestyle is the obvious culprit, or more specifically, the apparatus that supports the body, i.e. the chair, the undesirable effects of a poorly designed chair results in excessive lumbar flexion and a kyphosis sitting posture. This has long been recognised as a contributor to the back pain epidemic which now afflicts the population.

For reasons of economy and standardization most schools today have chosen desks and chairs that are of a regular size and shape, despite the fact that the children using them come in a great many different sizes, chairs, for instance, are often chosen for their “stackability” with very little thought being given to any postural or dynamic considerations. Those who set policy for buying furniture, even if they pay lip service to posture and comfort, often choose chairs that are stackable and cheap but not adjustable or suited to the individual. Where is the economy in chairs that cost money in lost time and back ailments now and in the future?

Good posture and muscle tone in school children constitutes a basis for proper or balanced sitting throughout life.

Correct posture is a simple but very important way to keep the many intricate structures in the back and spine healthy. It is much more than cosmetic. Good posture and back support are critical to reducing the incidence of back and neck pain. Proper posture keeps all parts of the body balanced and supported

  • Kendall (1993) states that due to posture being dynamic and variable in nature, it must meet the following criteria:
  • Minimal tension and stress on the weight bearing structures (pelvis, lower limbs).
  • Balanced distribution of stress and weight between joints – to prevent pain or deformation.
  • Maintenance of the physical state of being able to maintain bodily balance.
  • Dynamicity – an ability to alter position and activities easily, rapidly and efficiently.
  • Optimal function of the various body systems, especially the respiratory system.
  • Aesthetic posture

When sitting in a chair for a prolonged period, the natural tendency is, for most people, to slouch over, especially if sitting at a desk or table, or to slouch down in the chair, bending the back and attempting to hold the neck straight. These postures can overstretch the spinal ligaments and strain the discs and surrounding structures in the spine. Over time, incorrect sitting posture can damage spinal structures and contribute to or worsen back pain. (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety)

Experts all agree that the ‘working position’ of our children needs re-thinking!

Movement is beneficial, even while sitting, in the interest of supporting the healthy development of children. We believe that more awareness is needed about the subjects of movement and posture. Desks, chairs and tables should complement each other to increase postural support and provide for a dynamic environment.

  • To achieve maximum results, an ergonomic children’s work area should:
  • Suit or adapt to the height of the child.
  • Provide correct postural support.
  • Conform to the child’s autonomous need for movement.
  • In the course of dynamic sitting
  • The spinal column is regularly flexed and extended
  • The intervertebral discs are continuously supplied with nutrients
  • The complex back muscles are stimulated and strengthened
  • Over 100 joints in the spinal column are kept in a balance of movement

Chairs should be designed to encourage movement rather than restrict it. Ergonomic chairs for children are equipped with flexible surfaces that easily allow change of body position and invites continuous motion. Simultaneously, a swivel mechanism on a chair ensures easy turning in both directions. This encourages the natural impulsive movements of sitting children.

Sitting and working (dynamic) and sitting and listening (passive) are two different activities which require different sitting attitudes. An ergonomic chair must have these attributes.

Sitting and working demands a certain orientation to the table or desk. The forward movement of the upper part of the body is assisted by a seating surface, which is also inclines forward. This ensures that the pelvis is slightly lifted, which in turn, enables the back to be kept upright more easily. An optimal working position is achieved when the table or desk is not only adjustable in height, but is also equipped with a sloped working surface. The writing and reading surface is then comfortably positioned for the worker and the upper part of the body and the head can be held upright.

The sitting and listening position is created by the back-rest of the chair providing correct support for the back. The chair seat is used in its more horizontal position, without inducing any ‘pressure points’ on the legs and the ‘lordosis’ of the spine assisted by the ‘lumbar’ support of the chair.

If we want to improve the next generations’ health and well-being, even in an increasingly sedentary world, we have to start now in providing the most effective school furniture for our children. Ergonomically designed furniture can offer significant health benefits as well as contributing a to students’ learning success.