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Up and at ‘em: In some school districts, standing desks offer students a new approach to learning

‘Active learners,' others can burn excess energy
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Posted at 12:00 PM, Oct 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-23 12:00:18-04

CINCINNATI -- Some students won’t be taking their lessons sitting down this school year. As school officials around the Tri-State search for new ways to engage kids, some teachers are exploring the possibilities of standing desks for pupils.

While the trend is mostly limited to one or two classrooms in a building, Sycamore High School has two standing desks each in 25 out of approximately 120 classrooms. The school also features a classroom full of FitDesks, which allow students to pedal a stationary bike while doing their work. Some FitDesks are available in the school media center as well.

“We’ve made a major focus on trying to incorporate collaboration within every classroom and everything that we do,” said Sycamore High School Principal Doug Mader. “Having active learners is part of that initiative.”

In the second school year that the standing desks and FitDesks have been available to the district’s high schoolers, students are still eager to put them to use.

“If you walk in the classrooms, you typically have two kids standing at the stand-up desks,” Mader said.

Similarly, the four standing desks in Kimberly Beard’s fourth-grade math and science classes at Mercer Elementary are typically occupied.

As a “different learner” herself, she wanted to help her students understand their own learning needs and differences by presenting them with various options. In addition to the standing desks, she also offers rolling chairs and exercise ball chairs.

“I was trying to give my students more choices in their working environment,” she said.

Although she’s less than two months into her first full school year with the alternative seating options, Beard has already noticed a difference. The alternative furniture is itself partly to thank, but so too is the act of honoring students by recognizing their individual needs, she said.

“It shifts the whole dynamic of what is going on,” she said. “It increases motivation.”

Cincinnati isn’t alone in the growing trend of standing desks in schools. Chair Free Project founder Kathleen Hale said she’s heard of four schools in the Washington, D.C., area that are adding standing desks.

In addition to providing an outlet for energy and accommodating different types of learners, standing desks can be beneficial for students’ health.

“We don’t think about the way that our body posture impacts what’s happening inside our body, but really, it has a significant impact,” Hale said.

When seated in a chair, an individual’s metabolism drops, blood and oxygen flow more sluggishly, and some of the body’s core muscles aren’t engaged, she said.

Sitting less is also linked to lower body mass index, a common indicator of obesity. A study by Texas A&M University researchers published in August in the American Journal of Public Health presented evidence that standing desks can slow increases in BMI in children by an average of 5.24 percentage points.

While more teachers and school officials are beginning to incorporate standing desks into the educational setting, classrooms without seats aren’t necessarily around the corner.

“It doesn’t mean they’re going to be standing all day,” Hale said.

Beard hopes to add a couple more standing desks to her classroom, but she anticipates that a total of six will be plenty.

“The kids who need it naturally gravitate towards it, and the other kids are fine,” she said.

Even in schools like Sycamore High School, where one-fifth of the building’s classrooms have standing desks, the majority of the desks still have seats. Mader said he anticipates adding standing desks to more classrooms for the 2017-18 school year.

In addition to the schools and districts making the leap to standing desks, many teachers are exploring alternative classroom furniture.

In conjunction with districtwide building renovations, Forest Hills Schools are incorporating more flexible, movable furniture to make classrooms adaptable for different types of lessons.

“The idea behind it all really is for our students to have a personalized learning environment, where they can own their learning,” said Mike Broadwater, assistant superintendent for Forest Hills Schools.

Pilots have been done at all nine buildings, and new furniture already has been purchased for three schools. Some of the new items include café-style tables, movable couches and exercise ball chairs.

“We need to be thinking about how we can move more, and it’s not just about sitting less, it’s about sitting in different ways,” Hale said.

Milford Junior High also is piloting new types of furniture, including adjustable height desks, mobile chairs with desks attached and swivel stools.

“It is very fluid,” said Renee Vander Veen, media specialist for Milford Junior High. “It’s always changing all day long.”

For now, the furniture is being tested in the school’s media center to gauge the possible impacts on student achievement.

“We hope to see more focused work from the students and more time on task,” Vander Veen said.

If the alternative seating options are deemed beneficial, school officials hope to incorporate the new furniture styles into a new junior high building in the next few years.