Designers are working incredibly hard to achieve workplace comfort for adult employees through ergonomic furniture, sit-stand desks, active spaces and touches of greenery to help physical and mental health, but what about our children’s work spaces?
In many classrooms, students still sit at wooden desks and chairs not suitable for their height or learning requirements. Children are also sitting for very long hours - up to 7.5 hours a day according to a 2011 study conducted by The Heart Foundation. This includes up to five hours sitting in the classroom, travel, homework and recreational time.
Screen time is also higher than ever, and while iPads, tablets, laptops and smartphones have been praised for conveniently replacing textbooks and offering interactive learning, they're also causing posture problems from children leaning over them for hours.
The developmental years are truly critical, and the importance of correcting posture and balancing sedentary activities in children is often overlooked.
So in a contemporary learning world, how can we ensure children are just as comfortable as adult employees?
"As the twig is bent so is the tree," said Angela Forbes, occupational therapist. "Children’s bodies are developing, growing, changing and are more malleable than adult’s bodies."
From a young age, children are learning postural habits particularly from adult role models without direction as to whether they are ideal or not.
“Research by Kapandji indicates that some health problems can be as a result of poor posture," Forbes said. "For example, with forward head position. For every 2.54 centimetres (one inch) of forward head position from neutral, the weight of the head on the spine increases by 10 pounds/4.5 kilograms.”
"This forward head position has been linked to many areas of health including decreased lung capacity, altered blood pressure, pain, headaches and digestive issues."
Like most things, early intervention is key. Forbes advises the encouragement, promotion and practice of appropriate postural habits for children. This should then be complemented with the support of appropriately selected furniture and equipment.
"Education needs to be delivered by professionals with an understanding of the human body, biomechanics and how postural changes occur and can be managed," she said.
She would like to see the same thoughtfulness that is regularly placed on children’s sport and after school activities applied to classrooms. In these activities, coaches and parents are encouraged to teach correct technique and invest in the best fitting/sized equipment to be used for the right ages and skill levels.
"Investment in assessments, education, task specific equipment and furniture inside the classroom is also a worthy investment for the health and education of children," she said.
There is also a need to get children on their feet, as they spend more and more time in sedentary activities greatly prompted by the rise of the electronic age.
"Coupled with this sedentary behaviour is often a lack of appropriate learning space design, ergonomic furniture and fixtures to accommodate the introduction of IT devices, plus a lack of awareness and education on the implications to health as a combination of these factors," Forbes noted.
Furniture for children should be designed to grow with the child.
Choosing the right furniture in the beginning offers long-term health and cost benefits.
“Different tasks require different postures to maximise the ability of a child to perform them with ease, comfort and health,” Forbes said. "For example, the desk height needed for a writing task (after the seat is set up correctly) is slightly higher than elbow level. However, for IT tasks using a keyboard, the desk needs to be slightly lower."
"When the physical environment cannot adjust to meet the needs of the child in relation to the task at hand, the child's body is immediately compromised, having to make postural compensation with losses in performance and symptoms the result. "
It is predominantly about adapting the classroom environment to suit the student.
"From a furniture perspective, chairs, desks, lighting and other equipment that supports a child's individual size proportions, abilities, healthy postures and tasks being performed can enhance engagement and learning," said Forbes.
She identified a few basics that could be implemented:
- Height adjustable desks and chairs that also allow for standing tasks
- Tilting desktops, screen raisers, separate keyboards, separate mouse
- Task appropriate flexible lighting
- Cable trip free and easy access to power/data for IT/ electronic devices
- Footrests if needed
"Assessment, education and facilitation from professionals who understand health and the differences between the products on the market and their related benefits is very important to implement this effectively and to ensure that the correct furniture/ equipment is sourced," she noted.
Children with bad postural habits, those seated in unsupportive chairs or at the wrong desk height will experience immediate and cumulative effects over time according to Forbes.
The following signs and symptoms can result from improper furniture:
- Decreased core stability necessary for fine motor tasks
- Discomfort and pain in the lower back and neck and shoulders
- Greater effort and difficulty learning fine motor tasks such as pencil grip and writing
- Increased fatigue due to the demand on the body to maintain less than appropriate posture
- Poor postural habit development with associated underlying structural change of bones, joints and muscle imbalances.
- Reduced ability to concentrate and achieve a state of flow due to discomfort, excessive fidgeting or re-positioning
- Decreased blood flow in the legs
Undoubtedly, there are sceptics when it comes to ergonomics, especially for children.
"Parents often think that they never had access to ergonomic equipment and they turned out all right. But did they really?" asks Forbes.
As an occupational therapist, Forbes will often see adults with poor working posture, musculoskeletal conditions and associated pain and discomfort. She often hears "I know my posture is bad, I have always had bad posture!"
These adults most likely didn't have access to preventative equipment and postural advice in their early years.
Forbes believes educators don't always understand the appropriate posture for children learning to write and perform other desk-based tasks.
"We may need further development past instructions of flat feet on the floor and sitting up straight," she said.
She adds that the awareness sometimes only begins once having a child reviewed by an occupational therapist or physiotherapist.
While the adult furniture ergonomic market is inundated with options, Forbes acknowledges that the children's ergonomics market is in its infancy.
While there is a growing supply of children’s desks and chairs, an untrained eye may not be able to see that they may not all be what they seem.
"For example, a height adjustable chair on castors featuring a bucket shaped seat/lumbar area that is not able to be separately adjusted, is not going to address the postural needs of children adequately," Forbes said.
"Chairs without adjustable seat pans pose the same issues. So too do desks that have a limited adjustability range, or are required to be tipped over to adjust the legs, lack safety features or have lesser levels of quality workmanship.”
Forbes forecasts ample growth in children's ergonomics.
"The world is becoming more competitive for study and work and good health is the foundation for success," she said. "Parents are looking to provide more opportunities for their children, and many have high expectations and hopes for them also."
She believes parents, educators and health professionals will help drive the message.
"Promotion via professional education and demonstration is very important," she said.
The workplace sector has certainly placed a strong emphasis on implementing correct ergonomics.
"Companies understand the return on investment from increased employee comfort, efficiency, concentration and ultimately effective productivity," Forbes noted. "The corporate market is full of adjustable desks and chairs for adults, with companies investing sizeable funds to support the health of their workers and to prevent injuries and related losses of revenue.
"Adults know and accept these benefits and would be well placed to translate their understanding of these benefits to that of children also."