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 Slate.com, “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.
Seemingly, there are two main reasons why school furniture is so lousy: price and indestructibility. Schools are notoriously under-funded and need cheap and durable furniture to last years, if not decades. And children are not always so kind and careful with this furniture.
All things considered, the future is not utterly bleak. There have been some grass roots, and rather ingenious, attempts at reforming and remaking the classroom set up, while addressing ergonomic and educational concerns (see below):
But really, we are residing in the remedial stage of this development. We may be generations away from real progress. But in the age of iPads and eReaders infiltrating the learning process, aren’t our children primed for something a little better and more comfy to sit upon than molded plastic and nickel-plated bolts?