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The rise of the standing desk may appear to be a response to the modern, eat-at-your-desk, hunched-over worker chained to her computer, but history paints a different picture: Hemingway, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson all stood while they worked. Donald Rumsfeld had a standing desk, and so did Charles Dickens. Workplaces are moving toward more standing desks, but schools have been slower to catch on for a variety of reasons, including cost, convenience, and perhaps the assumption that “sit down and pay attention” is the best way to learn.

Mark Benden, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Texas A&M Health Science Center, is looking to change all that. Too much sitting is bad for our health, he said, and students are now facing a host of challenges that may stem in part from too much time in a chair, including obesity and attention disorders. So five years ago, Benden and his team began studying what happened to students when they got out of their traditional seats and moved to standing desks.

Their findings, published in a new piece in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, come from a group of 374 elementary school students in College Station, Texas. Students divided into a (traditional desk) control group and a standing desk group were equipped with biometric monitors – what Benden described as “research-level Fitbits” – attached to their arms, which tracked several measurements, like heart rate and intensity of movement, and then calculated their caloric burn. The desks were designed and built locally at Stand2Learn, an A&M faculty-led startup of which Benden maintains part ownership.

“We quickly realized they [the students] are more active, they are burning more calories, at the standing desks,” Benden said. “And they’re not necessarily standing the whole time. There’s a stool, too, but even sitting in a stool is different from sitting in a chair. It’s really not sitting or standing – because it opens up your trunk-thigh angle, you’re able to breathe better, and you’re able to swing your legs.”

A Stand2Learn standing desk and stool. (Courtesy of Stand2Learn)
A Stand2Learn standing desk and stool. (Courtesy of Stand2Learn)

Benden said they found that children in the study who were overweight or obese burned more calories at the standing desks than their normal-weight peers, a result he found surprising. “It’s interesting,” he said. “When you’re thinking about intervention, the children who are normal weight don’t experience a significant change from being in a seated classroom. But overweight kids get a bigger bump, and they’re the ones who need it the most.”

In reality, Benden said it’s not about either sitting or standing all the time, but instead about keeping moving. He wants to spread the “gospel of movement,” where kids and adults understand they need to be up and active, free to move around. For the modern student or office worker, standing for part of a day is a good way to keep moving. “We used to be more active, but over time we got conditioned to being inactive,” Benden said. “It’s not normal, and it’s not how we were intended to be. When schools tell children to sit still and be quiet, you’ve almost wounded them. They want to be wiggling and fidgeting and moving.”

The Impact of Standing on Learning

While burning calories is certainly important, the real question in classrooms is whether standing desks improve learning. Benden said he brought in Texas A&M’s educational psychology department through a special grant to study whether students were more engaged with the teacher and with their work when they were standing. The psychologists, who were blinded to the study, sat in classrooms for two years watching students and measuring their attentiveness and engagement using a series of markers like how many times students looked at the teacher, how often they wrote on their papers, and how often they were distracted by a neighbor.

The results of the study, to be published later this fall, were significant: students were more engaged in activity permissive learning environments than in traditional seated environments. And once again, the children who were overweight and obese showed larger improvements in attention than normal-weight children.

“When you look at overweight, and especially obese, children in the study, they were twice as engaged in activity permissive learning environment classrooms,” Benden said. “And that amount of engagement was actually higher than normal-weight peers in normal classrooms. And that just doesn’t happen, this was kind of eye opening.” He mentioned a limited body of research showing that obese students may get lower grades than normal-weight students; the standing desks may have an opportunity to alter that. “Maybe those overweight kids aren’t less capable academically,” he said. “Maybe they just need to be more active.”

Standing Desks in the Classroom

A family of standing desk users at home. (Courtesy of Sandor Weisz)
A family of standing desk users at home. (Courtesy of Sandor Weisz)

Educator Katie Caritey has two standing desks for her 24 second graders, but believes that all her students would benefit from using them. She dreams of having more. The desks were provided by a grant six years ago at Mary Lee Burbank School in Belmont, Massachusetts, and for now students take turns.

“I have found the standing desks to be a fabulous tool for students that tend to be more active, fidgety or even more tired,” Caritey said. “Movement breaks are an essential part of learning in my classroom, and I have found that the best learning takes place when students are able to move their bodies throughout the day, consistently and frequently.”

Caritey’s 7- and 8-year-old students get two 15-minute recesses per day, and 30 minutes of physical education twice a week. Each day, Caritey chooses the students who are particularly energetic or are having a challenging time completing their work to use the standing desks. She also interviewed her students for this story so they could explain how they felt about having them in their classroom. She reports:

“In the words of my second grade students, the standing desks ‘help me concentrate without even thinking about what others are doing.’ They also help because ‘being able to stand or swing my legs helps me calm down my brain so I can think better.’ In the words of a more serious, less active student, ‘I would be perfectly fine without the standing desks, but when I can sit at one, it makes the time go by faster and my work gets finished right away.’  Another child reported that ‘when I get to school in the morning, my brain is tired and not ready for learning yet. When I sit at the standing desk, it wakes up my brain and helps me get ready for thinking.’”

But what if standing desks — and yoga balls, bicycle desks and movement breaks — are only part of the solution? What if they won’t fix the underlying problem, that today’s children don’t get enough whole body movement to be attentive and engaged in school?

Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom has railed against what she calls the “constant upright position” in which children spend too much time, limiting their ability to pay attention because their core muscles aren’t developed enough to keep from fidgeting. “It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees, and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past,” she opined in The Washington Post. According to Hanscom, one of the keys to maintaining attention in school is the development of the vestibular, or balance system, located in the inner ear. “In order to develop a strong balance system, children need to move their body in all directions for hours at a time,” she wrote.

Whole body movements like spinning in circles and rolling down hills do much more than burn calories; Hanscom said that they engage the hair cells in the inner ear, helping to develop balance, vision and attention. All three are desperately needed for kids if they are expected to pay attention to learn.

“Standing can be just as bad as sitting,” Hanscom said about students using standing desks. “From an OT standpoint, it’s still an issue — if you’re just standing, you’re not getting rapid vestibular movement. You need to move your head in all different directions. If you’re standing still, you’re not moving your head left and right.” Until children get meaningful movement, and lots of it — she recommends multiple hours a day, whether in or out of school — their attention will not improve.

Mark Benden doesn’t disagree. “There is no replacement for running and playing. Motor skill development is so critical for young children, and it’s very vital that that happen, no question about it,” he said.

  • Antoine

    I know of a number of students I have had in the past that would benefit from this..great article.

    A in Maine
    edu568

  • Alexandria

    Hey! My name is Alex and I am a student at the University of South Alabama in class EDM310. This is a new thing to me. Growing up in Mobile, Al I have never heard of standing desks. I believe that some children would definitely benefit from this but others not so much. I believe that children should always have their free time to run around and use their motor skills as Mark Benden stated above. P.E. and recess are vital to our health, especially small children because they are still growing and developing. This is a really great post and has brought this to light for me! In EDM310 we each have a blog and the class shares a class blog. If you would like to check it out here is the class blog http://edm310.blogspot.com/ and here is my blog http://growalexandriaedm310.blogspot.com/. I hope to hear back from you!

  • Anne M. Beninghof

    Great article! An inexpensive way for a teacher to get started with standing desks is to use an ironing board. You can easily adjust it to different heights, and fold it up to put out of the way when you aren’t using it! Here’s an explanation

    http://www.ideasforeducators.com/idea-blog/is-movement-good-for-learning

  • silviaherrerae

    I think this is worth trying!

  • Eric

    I work with Saudi students in their 20s. Many of them fall asleep because they stay up at night talking with friends, partying. They wear jackets and warm clothes because they don’t like the air conditioning in the building. They also slouch and get too comfortable. In my current teaching situation I am not allowed to discipline students and there are no consequences for their behavior because school administrators want the students’ money, so they refuse to enforce standards. I’ve tried to take away the chairs and raise the tables in my classroom using PVC pipes to fit under the legs of the table. It made the table unstable and easy to tip over sideways. To stabilize the table I would need more material and basically need to redesign the whole table all at my own expense. Any ideas on how I can do this safely and cheaply?

    • Cynthia Virtue

      Bed risers, sold in furniture stores. I use ones a foot high to convert my computer desk to a standing desk.

  • Jan

    In our school we have a few of these desks available for a very small population of students. I think that it would be great to have more of these desks in each of the classrooms. As an adult, I know that it is difficult for me to sit still for long periods of time. For example, I know on those teacher workshop days can be difficult when you have to sit for an extensive amount of time. The longer I sit the more exhausted I feel. Students are being asked to attend to tasks in their seats and it really isn’t giving them the movement needed to focus or the activity to stay alert.
    Anne, I think that using the ironing board as a way to remedy the standing desk is a great idea; thank you for sharing. It would be great if there were more of these desks/workspaces available in every class.

    • Karen

      I have an ironing board in my classroom, and I also use a regular desk that I have placed a podium on as a standing desk. Both are used constantly throughout the day. I just wish I had more room to bring in a couple more for my students.

  • Gail Weaver

    Kids have been telling us this for years and years. They are the kids who will kneel at their desk or stand at their desk and lean over and do their work…and get yelled at because they are not sitting. Somebody is finally listening.

  • Angela

    Movement while learning was already something discovered by Maria Montessori. The kids are moving purposefully around the classroom. They go to different areas to work, to sit with other children, and to find the material they need to help with their work.

  • Becca Lee

    How do we get kids moving when parents and teachers are sedentary and overweight?? We need to shift focus in this country. We need to look to the top countries in the world for guidance in our educational system. I am sick and tired of classroom study. I hate that my poor kids are in a seat for eight ours a day. I’m graduating with a degree in Biology next year and I fully intend on homeschooling. I’m tired of the tired old school system. It’s failing them. They need fun and play and they need to explore the world. We have no free time with public school. They work all day and work in the evening, play for maybe an hour, then go to bed. It’s terrible. It’s like locking their little minds away. And I’m sick and tired of it.

    • Mary

      AMEN! I am a Montessori teacher where children get to move all day long. When my children aged out of Montessori, I homeschooled. Love your post.

    • mike4ty4

      “We need to look to the top countries in the world for guidance in our educational system.”

      Yes. Look at Japan, for example:

      http://www.oecd.org/japan/46581091.pdf

      Their education system is much more disciplined, parents are involved with education, there is a lot more work they do, standards are set very high, focus is on work and effort not on innate ability, much more in-classroom activity than just being at the desk, and Japanese culture is more “collectivist” than “individualist” (probably the hardest pill for Americans to swallow).

      Japan outranks the US in educational achievement.

      • Jennifer Evans Rengger

        They also score high in stress and suicide.

        • mike4ty4

          And America is not a stress country? Do you know how much

          anti-stress medication is doled out every day in the US?!

          This here:

          http://www.bloomberg.com/visual-data/best-and-worst//most-stressed-out-countries

          gives a stress ranking for different countries. The US is 54th most stressed, Japan is 60th most stressed, meaning Japan actually has somewhat LOWER stress levels than the US.

          With regard suicide, that’s not because of the educational system but in part because of a cultural idea that suicide is the way to deal with social shame. The Japanese society has it’s flaws too. I didn’t say it was perfect. I was just pointing out what is done in those “top” countries with specific regard to education, which was the topic at hand and what the OP asked about, to stimulate discussion as to what might be useful here in the US.

  • Johnna

    We are so focused on test scores that we have decreased the amount of time for recess and P.E. I”ve taught for more than twenty years. Students need physical activity every day, and they are not getting enough of it.

  • Christine

    I found that a tailgate table works great as a stand up desk. They are small, fold in half, and have adjustable legs. They have them at stores at the beginning of football season for about $25. I also have my kids moving on reading balls. I bought cheap yoga balls and put them in large plastic beach baskets. Keeps them moving, but they don’t roll around the room. I made them for $10.00 each and my 1st graders love them!

  • Darcy Hudjik

    This is an awesome idea! I had heard these desks exist, but the schools in Edmonton that I’m familiar with don’t use them yet.

    • qihawk

      I am a high school teacher with over 40 years of experience. Three years ago, I purchased a dozen weighted exercise balls for my 11th/12th grade students. Most students love them and even arrive early to class to get a ball and a few never choose to sit on a ball. There is no doubt in my mind that the students on balls are more engaged and learning more in my IB classes and, for the students that are ADHD (etc.), they are essential to learning.

  • cristal

    Very interesting article. It makes a lot of sense in my opinion and correlates with the concept of brain gym and movement activating our brains. I have also heard of another approach – using exercise balls as the “chair”. Students can “bounce” and it also works their core which helps to keep them more engaged.

  • disqus_G29G5m6HT9

    Is there any evidence that the kids learn more while using a standing desk? BYW, why do they refer to sitting at a standing desk?

    • Karen

      I made my own standing desks using an ironing board in one area of my classroom and a regular desk with a podium on it in another area of my classroom. I don’t know if learning has improved, as I don’t have specific data, but I can tell you that behavior issues have decreased.

  • TinaBina

    As a future educator I am liking this! Will reference this for my future classroom. As long they stay quiet during the times needed I am all for it to break up the monotony of sitting too long.

  • Olympia

    Where can we buy these?

  • Diana

    Just wanted to point out that the primary source in this article – and the one who led the “research” – is the same person who partially owns the company that makes the standing desks. Feels like a PR-driven story to me. I am completely in favor of getting kids out of their desks and getting them actively engaged, but not sure I would trust this research or this article as any kind of support for a pitch to a district or to a school.

  • Henry Hoser

    This whole concept is about saving money for the school districts. Don’t buy it. As someone else pointed out, the person the guided the ‘research’ has an ownership stake in the company that makes the desk.

    My son was part of the study. He is a bright student, underweight, energetic and highly engaged in learning. He hated these desks. The stools were uncomfortable, and he couldn’t sit comfortably if he wanted to (no backrest). They need to be adjusted individually for each student, and since the students changed classrooms, the desks were set in average positions, meaning they were not ideal for most students who used them.

    There is something to be said for changing the mindset – i.e., not all material needs to be gained or received in a sitting position. However, these standing desks are NOT a one size fits all solution.

  • I like this! I like how people starting to realize the importance of movement especially for our kids. To be always in action/move (like sitting to standing positions), this helps not only professionals but our kids at school as well. This helps them more effective and attentive and I believe, like me, there are a lot of things that can be done. Thus, sit to stand desk is really a perfect solution for all issues relating to neck pain, back pain, not productive, being unhappy and haggard at work and some others.

  • Harold Garcia

    Teachers can also get items donated at DonorsChoose.org. I now have bean bag chairs and ball chairs for my class room.

  • Brendan Everingham

    Standing all day was a trend probably 4 years ago yeah. It shouldn’t be a continuing trend however. The human body has nor evolved to stand all day and stare down at your books. It has been demonstrated in the workplace to exacerbate arthrosclerosis and to cause varicose veins. The neck gets damaged from hours of staring down at your work and you get uncomfortable and lean leaving to soft tissue and musculoskeletal injuries.
    To insist a child stand at their desks all day because some students find it hard to concentrate is like getting a heart transplant because knee got scraped. It’s a cruel and demoralising practice that causes a great deal of harm without fixing the problem.
    Higher reasoning and increased motor skills come when you are sitting down and comfortable. Forcing kids to sit down and stay still is also an issue.
    Getting up and moving when you feel tired or uncomfortable is a better way of doing it, however that would reduce the authoritative stance in the classroom wouldn’t it.
    Studies suggest getting up and moving for a short period of time and returning to your chair is the best method, going for a walk for 10 minutes between each class would dramatically reduce issues of a sedentary lifestyle. Smokers get smoke breaks, having a few treadmills at work or walking kids around the footy oval at school is a pretty simple fix. That and ergonomic work places. I’ll bet the con artists that thought up standing desks are laughing at all of you stupid fools.

    • Karen

      I have two standing desks in my classroom that are “homemade.” One is an ironing board, and one is a regular desk with a podium on it. My students choose to use the desks when they feel like standing for awhile. The rule is, they are quiet, don’t argue about who is next, and continue to be engaged in lessons. Both desks are used almost constantly throughout the day. I have seen a great reduction in behavior problems from certain students. Some kids use the standing desks for only five or ten minutes; some use it for an hour. It is completely up to them.

  • This is an awesome idea! I had heard these desks exist, As a future educator I am liking this! I will reference this for my future classroom.

  • I like this! I like how people starting to realize the importance of movement especially for our kids. I will reference this for my future classroom.

Author

Holly Korbey

Holly Korbey's work on parenting and education has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Babble, Brain, Child Magazine, and others. She lives in Nashville with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @HKorbey

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