When envisioning the classroom of the future, virtual reality and robotic teachers might come to mind. But while technology is certainly transforming the way we learn and the spaces where learning takes place, a much more subtle trend is slowly taking hold of classrooms around the world.
Standing desks are all the rage in modern offices, and companies like Microsoft and Google are giving their employees the option to work standing up instead of sitting down. What is already a big trend in offices is now slowly making its way into schools.
As it turns out, standing desks have been around for longer than you’d expect. Many famous authors and politicians chose to work standing up instead of sitting down—Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and Winston Churchill were all standing desk proponents.
Standing for Health
The standing trend isn’t just another fad. Too much sitting has been shown to have serious implications for our health. Experts have even gone as far as calling sitting the new smoking.
Some of the health risks associated with prolonged sedentary behaviour in children are obesity, increased blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and reduced cardiorespiratory fitness. But prolonged sitting has a negative impact on not only the physical well-being of children but on their self-esteem and academic performance as well. Unfortunately, it is not enough to go to for a walk or hit the gym after school, as short amounts of strenuous exercise can’t counteract the negative effects of too much sitting.
Both adults and children spend increasing amounts of time every day sitting down. According to studies, school aged children spend as much as 60-70% of their waking hours sedentary. In the US, students spend an average 4.5 hours sitting at school and an additional 7 hours sitting in front of a screen. It’s been shown that children who spend long amounts of time sitting also carry this behaviour into their teens and adult life, increasing their risk of obesity and other health problems.
Standing Against Childhood Obesity
Evidence suggests that school children spend more time sitting at school than at home, which means there’s a lot of potential to change this behaviour by changing the way classrooms are set up.
A recent study conducted at three schools in Texas investigated the effect standing desks have on the BMI (body mass index) of students. Across the three schools, 24 classrooms were fitted with standing desks. The standing students and a control group of seated students were monitored during third and fourth grade.
While the students in the control group saw a 2% rise in BMI, the standing students saw a 3% decrease over the same period. The results were consistent across both female and male students, and among students of different races.
Students burn an average of 15-25% more calories when standing compared to sitting, and the results are even more impactful among obese kids, who burn 25-35% more calories.
Sitting and ADHD
In addition to helping combat obesity, standing at school may also help students struggling with ADHD. Recent research suggests that ADHD is linked to physical inactivity and that a sedentary lifestyle can aggravate ADHD symptoms. For children suffering from ADHD, moving and fidgeting is an important and natural way to relieve symptoms.
However, when seated there is no non-disruptive way for them to fidget. Standing desks allow children to move more, and many are even equipped with moving foot rests that allow them to fidget while standing.
An All-Standing School
One school in California has taken standing to a whole new level. Vallecito Elementary in San Rafael in the San Francisco Bay area is the first school in the US, and possibly the whole world, to replace all traditional desks with standing desks.
The project was initiated by Kelly and Juliet Starret, parents of a student at Vallecito, who also happen to be owners of a Crossfit Gym in San Francisco. For years they had been warning their clients about the dangers of sitting too much, until they realised that the problem starts well before people begin an office career.
After doing some research on childhood obesity and coming across the results of the Texas study, they decided to approach their daughter’s school principal, who was immediately on board. The school trialed standing desks in one classroom for a year, after which both teachers and parents pushed to make the switch across the entire school.
However, chairs haven’t been completely banished. Stools are readily available in case the kids get tired, while the desks are fitted with “fidget” foot rests and can be individually adjusted to the child’s height. The teachers at Vellecito reported increased concentration, less fidgeting, and less distracting behaviour when the students were standing up, supporting what researchers have observed in studies.
The Starrets have since founded a non-profit organisation called StandUpKids that aims to equip all US schools with standing desks within the next 10 years.
While standing desks are a large investment for schools, the benefits are obvious. And who knows, in the future students might be walking miles each day while studying on a treadmill desk.