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Pain in the Class: The Ergonomics of the Classroom Desk

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Pain in the Class: The Ergonomics of the Classroom Desk

Close to a decade ago, when I worked in a cubicle-littered office along with a few dozen other fledgling journalists, an ergonomics expert paid us an obligatory visit. This came after many of us, who had logged countless hours pawing at our mouse and hunched over our keyboards, were finding ourselves with debilitating repetitive stress injuries, and making us feel less 20-something, and more octogenarian. After a few days, and a few visits with the ergonomics guru, she told us that we all “sat like a bunch of restless 6 year-olds,” despite our age and our fancy ergonomic furniture. We had essentially held on to the worst posture and study habits dating back from our elementary school age imprisonments at ill-fitting cramped wooden desks, and it was starting to destroy our bodies.

For anyone that has made their way through the American public school system, you are, no doubt, all to familiar with the long list of shortcomings and the hazards of being subjected to the rigors of the classroom. But nowhere are these shortcomings more apparent, and more inarguable, than on the subject of classroom furniture. Sure, some might say that the substandard cafeteria food might pose a greater and more lasting health risk, but you could always bring your lunch to school, you can’t bring your desk.

The physical comfort of the student, in relation to the classroom setting, is a long neglected topic that seems ready for a reevaluation. Linda Perlstein’s article on, “Rethinking the School Desk,” asserts that while children spend about as much (if not more) time at their desks as your average office denizen, why are their chairs, desks, and tables so damn ill-fitting and uncomfortable? She goes on to further protest, “School systems give short shrift to the physical needs of their students in other ways—they use school buses without seatbelts, send backpacks home filled with weighty textbooks, cut gym class to the bone, run jocks through sometimes life-threatening football drills, and serve junk food as part of the federal nutrition program.” All in all, we perpetuate a culture of discomfort and bad ergonomics for our young students, even though it has been proven that the right chair, the right posture, and the right fit can greatly improve performance across the board.

Perlstein’s article goes on to pull some wisdom from the experts on the subject, namely Jack Dennerlien, a senior lecturer on ergonomics and safety at Harvard University. If a chair is too big for a child, his or her feet dangle and the hard edge of the seat digs into the hamstrings, both of which, Dennerlein says, forces the brain to pay attention to something other than schoolwork. On the other end of the spectrum, if the chair is too small, children slump forward, pressuring the spine, and sit with their knees higher than their bottoms, which (especially in hard plastic) puts undue pressure directly on the butt bones. This is not to say that for that 20% of children, who actually fit in their chairs, are the pictures of comfort. They too suffer, but to a lesser extent.

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Read more: Children, Family, Fitness, Healthy Schools, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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9:02PM PDT on May 14, 2015

And before you all scream at me, think about it. Comfy = sleepy.

9:01PM PDT on May 14, 2015

No harm came to my generation from desks. Indeed they need to be somewhat uncomfortable so students don't nod off.

8:58PM PDT on May 14, 2015

Hi Dear, have you been certainly visiting this site daily, if that's the case you then will certainly get good knowledge. Yoor Wellness

10:44AM PDT on Apr 13, 2015

Checkout our selection of ergonomic chair from world’s top ergonomic furniture manifacturers at:

6:54AM PST on Feb 8, 2011

In our country a huge percentage of people have bad backs- I think it is over fifty percent. I wouldn't mind betting that it started with nowhere to leave their books.
However the desk problem and chair problem is evidently of some concern too for the contribution it makes to ill health there.

In our country facilities are so bad on most jobs that bad and uncomfortable furniture at school is a worthwhile preparation for the childs working situation quite literally

1:34PM PST on Feb 7, 2011


2:09AM PST on Feb 4, 2011

I am pleased this has been brought to the attention of education authorities. there is a serious need to consider this. Also the damage done to young people carrying heavy bags etc full of school books to and from school, and around the building.

2:01AM PST on Jan 31, 2011

Thanks for the article.

9:17AM PST on Jan 27, 2011


9:47PM PST on Jan 21, 2011

But solving that would cost time and thought and, OMG, money!

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