By: Lori Woellhaf
In the early spring of 2009, several news reports proclaimed about the innovation of the ‘stand-up desk’, the desk that allows school children to stand while they work. The desks were the idea of a teacher who had observed that one boy preferred to ‘shift his weight from one foot to the other as he figured out his fractions’, and another who ‘liked to lean on a high stool and swing his right foot under a desk’.
There appears to be a recent awakening in education to the benefits of movement in the classroom. Lori Woellhaf explores.
Teachers who decided to give the desks a try were stunned at the impact on focus and improvement in classroom behaviour. There was a rush of orders and positive feedback – ‘We’ve probably been inhibiting their learning because of how we’ve organised classrooms in desks and rows’ reflects Amy Hamborg, principal of E.P Rock Elementary School in Hudson. ‘You get these 15 minutes of recess and that’s it, you have to be still. We’re realising how important it is for kids to move.’
The growing movement of teachers in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota report greater attentiveness, fewer behavioural problems and more enthusiasm in the students, with the most noted improvements in children habitually fidgety or those diagnosed with attention disorders. These observations are backed by educational researchers who believe the new desks may help children stay more alert and feel more energetic, burning off energy with a resultant reduction in behaviour problems as well as contributing to fighting childhood obesity.
Many teachers are responding as well to a research project of James Levine, M.D., Ph.D, of the Mayo Clinic, that explored the question ‘Do children really need to sit at desks to learn?’ The prototype ‘school of the future’ that he designed, inspired teachers to experiment with using children standing up at workstations in the classrooms or bouncing on stability balls instead of chairs. Dr Levine believes that the most significant advance comes from giving the children the chance to move at school. ‘Children are so amazing. They actually love to learn, we just have to let them move naturally.’
A 2009 Mt Sinai study revealed that as recess time increased, less trouble making was recorded. Dr John Ratey calls recess the body’s natural Ritalin, and attributes the results to the role of exercise and movement in fuelling and driving the mind. He noted the effects of movement in helping prepare the learner, control impulses, improve attention, lessen fatigue, lighten the mood and combat stress. He joined in the chorus for standing desks and gym balls for chairs, going so far as to suggest ‘treadmill conference tables’.
It is a little sad, though, that given the recognition of how important it is for children to be able to move, and the proven benefits on both behaviour and academic achievement, the furthest traditional classrooms are able to go is a longer recess, a bouncing ball for a chair, or a standing desk. It seems very difficult to develop a method that not only allows movement, but embraces it. The freedom of movement that is proving so important to children’s optimal functioning seems to be something very difficult to accommodate in conventional classrooms.
We are very lucky that over 100 years ago, Maria Montessori observed this need in the child. She designed a method of education that not only respected the child’s drive for movement, but used and harnessed it to aid academic learning. In the Montessori classroom we find not only freedom of movement, but children using movement to enhance their learning and understanding. In the Children’s House, we find children independently walking about, carefully avoiding floor mats that friends are working on, transitioning freely from indoor to outdoor space, choosing to go to the toilet or have a snack without needing to ask permission. One child heads into the cloakroom, pulls on his Wellington boots and goes outside to rake autumn leaves. Another child finishes off one last sum at a table, pushes in his chair and replaces the Addition Chart on the shelf, then takes a mat to begin counting the Hundred Chain on the floor. A little girl rubs out the last trace of the letters she has been writing on her chalkboard, and executes a joyful flamenco step as she goes to replace the Sandpaper Letter on the stand. A little boy breathes heavily as he with the greatest effort, heaves the lunch trolley up the step and drags it towards the scrubbing table to be cleaned – saying to all who try to help him carry it ‘No! I want to do it myself!’
But Montessori went even further than this freedom of movement. She observed that when movement was part of the learning activity, children were focused and engaged, and understanding deepened. And thus, in the Children’s House, we find a little girl reading an Action Card that says ‘jump’, and jumping energetically around the table before she returns to read the next card that instructs her to ‘gallop’. We find a boy taking ten trips back and forth from the shelf to his mat to bring each cube of the Pink Tower before attempting to grade them in sequence – and in those ten trips absorbing a clue about the workings of the decimal system. Another child listens intently to a Sound Box on one table, and walks halfway across the classroom to another table, where he listens to several before deciding on which is the pair. A couple of children count out the quantity of beads they have added together on the mat, and head off to another mat to fetch the cards to match 5,793.
Many have remarked on the spontaneous self-discipline that arises in the Montessori environments – many have remarked with wonder at how it is possible these environments are calmer and more peaceful than traditional classrooms where children are made to stay seated and immobile, and where there would seem to be less potential for noise or disturbance. It seems many are now discovering the paradoxical secret about movement.