Visitors to teacher Lisa Puckett’s classroom at Black Forest Hills Elementary School in Aurora sometimes tell her, “It’s like a jungle gym in here.”
They’ll see her fifth-graders leaning against chest-high café tables, sitting on bean bag chairs, or balancing on yoga balls, peg-leg stools or wider-based “hokki” stools. In fact, there is so much unconventional seating in her room, one of her students is assigned the job of “equipment manager” to make sure everyone has a fair shot at using the most sought-after items.
Puckett is part of a small but enthusiastic group of educators who believe that kids, especially the restless, high-energy kind, shouldn’t have to spend their school days sitting still with their knees tucked under desks. Instead, these teachers and administrators feel student should be allowed, and even encouraged to stand, bounce, shift, twist and wiggle.
“They’re constantly in motion …and we try to make them sit still,” said Puckett. “It’s like putting a cork in a bottle of soda you just shook up.”
For some kids, the inevitable explosion manifests as increasingly off-task behavior, from fidgeting and arm-flapping to falling out of chairs. Kelley King, a master trainer for the Gurian Institute, which provides training on brain-based differences between boys and girls, said she always suggests standing desks and other alternative seating when she conducts professional development sessions for schools.
“If it helps kids be more productive, it makes the teacher’s job easier,” she said.
While Puckett, who is fortunate to have the space of two adjoining classrooms, offers her 27 students more than a dozen unconventional work stations and seating options, many teachers typically offer just a few. Sometimes space constraints play into the decision and sometimes there are fewer students who seem to need alternatives.
And while some schools have invested in relatively pricey standing desks, other teachers are implementing alternative seating arrangements using tools they already have in their classrooms, like podiums, laptop stands or counter space.
A look at the research
While there isn’t a large body of research on the effects of alternative seating in classrooms, there are some studies on the positive effects of standing desks and, more generally, the benefits of moving around while completing challenging tasks.
A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that first-graders with standing desks chose to stand about two-thirds of the time and burned 17 percent more calories than classmates in traditional seated classrooms. Overweight and obese students burned 32 percent more calories while using standing desks than seated students. In addition, teachers surveyed in the study noted that students using the standing desks were more alert and attentive and demonstrated less disruptive behavior.
King, who has conducted Gurian Institute training in Colorado districts including St. Vrain Valley, Garfield and Cherry Creek, said the potential for reducing obesity is a plus, but her real focus is on closing gender gaps and ensuring quality learning.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology demonstrated that children, especially those with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, tend to move around more when they are using working memory to solve problems. The upshot is that fidgety behavior in children may look like distraction but can actually facilitate the learning process by helping them maintain focus.
Since most current teachers, principals and parents grew up with traditional four-legged school desks and chairs, accepting alternative furnishings — not to mention new ideas about acceptable classroom behavior — can be difficult.
Suzie Johnston, Director of Elementary Special Education and Behavior Development Programs for Cherry Creek Schools, embraced a variety of alternative seating when she was principal of Buffalo Trails Elementary School and went through Gurian Institute training with the rest of her staff. Soon, students were using one-legged stools, counter-height tables, or sitting on the floor with clipboards.
But she’s heard teachers say, “Oh, I’m afraid to do that because I’ll have chaos.”
The key, Johnston said, is establishing rules and putting forth a sustained effort, “because at first kids will be silly with it.”
Teachers who have made the switch are typically passionate about the positive changes they have seen in their students, especially boys. They talk about longer attention spans, less disruptive behavior and higher quality work, particularly in subjects like writing.
Puckett describes her experience using unconventional seating as “wildly successful.”
“I will always continue to do it,” she said.
It’s so much a part of her classroom culture, she said, that a number of parents have purchased peg leg stools for their kids to use at school. Others have sent in yoga balls or “trampoline chairs.”
Desha Bierbaum, principal of Wamsley Elementary in Rifle, said some parents worry that their child will feel singled out if they stand at a desk, or use another fidget-channeling outlet like chewing on a straw or kneading Sticky Tack in their hand. When those fears arise, she invites parents in so they can see how common such interventions are throughout the building and how they impact children.
One dad started out adamantly opposed to any alternatives, but Bierbaum said, “Seeing his child able to focus, he was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’”
Students themselves have similar revelations, she said.
“Once they realize, ‘I can get my work done and I won’t get in trouble’…then they will definitely ask to go to that standing desk.”
Like other educators who have added standing options, Bierbaum said Wamsley started out using what was readily available and free: counter space and regular desks that had been raised to their highest level.
In 2009, Bierbaum purchased actual standing desks using special education funds as well as general school funds. The desks were around $300 each.
“You kind of have to have this paradigm shift,” Bierbaum said. “It’s OK for them to stand. If they’re learning what does it matter?”