“Watching a child makes it obvious that development of the mind comes through movement.”
- Maria Montessori
Spaces in Motion
Earlier this year, VMDO was pleased to host German health and kinetics scientist Dr. Dieter Breithecker, Head of the Federal Institute on the Development of Posture and Exercise in Germany. Dr. Breithecker’s research and publications explain the connections between movement and brain development – also known as Healthy Bodies Healthy Minds. We were lucky to collaborate with him on the design and research of Physical Activity Design Guidelines for School Architecture (PLOS One, 2015).
“Sitting is the new smoking”
The human body is designed for movement. Cave dwellers did not have couches or laz-y-boys – their survival relied on continuous movement as they searched for food and shelter. In today’s western society people (including students) are now sitting on average 10 hours a day. In the past 80 years, we’ve gone from an average of seven hours a day in motion to one.
The long-term effects of sitting all day are now being compared to smoking. We cannot compensate for 10+ hours of sitting all day with an hour of exercise in the evenings. Dr. Breithecker’s research says that we should spend no more than 6 hours total of sitting each day (this can be broken into smaller segments), including time spent at home in the evenings with our families.
In the classroom, he recommends the following breakdown:
- 50% sitting (dynamic sitting on flexible chairs)
- 30% standing (e.g. standing at desk)
- 20% walking around (e.g. teaching methods like active learning organization methods and breaks which involve movement).
“Sitting is making you stupid”
Many people may have noticed that their best ideas come to them while at the gym, hiking on a trail, playing sports, or during some other physical activity. This is because movement and neurological activity are interconnected. Positive chemical reactions occur in our brains when we are in motion, and when we feel good, we are more productive. Motion not only increases productivity, but it has also been shown to improve memory and learning.
The average time children between the ages of 6 and 10 years old can sit still is five minutes, and the average for ages 11-15 is 15 minutes. Traditional classroom furniture has been designed counterintuitively to how our bodies and brains naturally develop and function. Chairs and desks are combined together in one fixed, assembled unit; seats are rigid; chairs and desks are non-adjustable, static, and come in one size for all age groups. Students are expected to sit still, stay in their seats, unmoving for hours upon hours. This stillness results in slowed neurological activity.
“Inactive sitting places greater stress on the tissues and systems of developing bodies. Students forced to remain still in a physically static environment become more uncomfortable, more tired, and less productive. In fact, the number of students who develop sitting-related musculoskeletal symptoms and disorders continues to increase.” – Dr. Breithecker
Source: VS Classroom Museum in Tauberbischofsheim, Germany
Alternatively, increases in level of attention and concentration have been observed when students are allowed some freedom to move. Learning occurs when neurons are fired off repeatedly over time to build strong connections – also known by the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” If sitting still leads to sluggishness and boredom, then it makes since that the opposite activity – movement – would lead to opposite results – increased learning. Because bodies in motion fuel our brains with oxygen, dopamine, and neurostimulation.
Designing for Active Learning at VMDO
Allowing students some freedom to move in the classroom can be a challenge for teachers; however, it supports both active learning and personalized learning concepts, and doesn’t have to result in total mayhem. Selecting the appropriate furniture pieces can make a big difference. For example, a classroom designed for personalized learning includes more than just chairs and desks. Group tables, stools, soft seating, and even floor options for K-5 students such as mats or area rugs support a variety learning styles and activities throughout the day. Student chairs should have some flexibility in both the back and seat while wobble stools like the VS Hokki allow for 360-degree movement. Providing these options and encouraging students to either stand or move from one seat type to another during different lessons promotes active learning without resulting in complete chaos. Adding height adjustability and casters to chairs, desks, and group tables further allows for easily movable and flexible classroom configurations for individual work, small or large group work, presentations, and lectures.
VMDO recently continued a long-standing relationship with VS Furniture on a modernization project at Jackson Via Elementary School, a K-5 school in Charlottesville where we applied personalized and active learning concepts. VS’s flexible, movable and adjustable furniture allows teachers to quickly and easily reconfigure their classrooms to meet the needs of different curricula. Teachers’ desks and chairs, as well as furniture in shared learning commons areas have sit-to-stand capabilities. Student chairs have flexible seats to allow for natural physiological movement, as do an array of Hokki stools. The chairs are also scaled appropriately for different age groups:
In the "before and after" transitions below, you can see how the flexible arrangements support adaptable and agile learning environments that simultaneously give teachers and students a greater variety of options and autonomy both inside and outside the classroom.