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EYE ON EDUCATION: Could new seats help kids learn?

September 15, 2017
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - In years past, when Allison Smith would see one of her fourth-grade students reclining in a chair during a lesson, she'd relay a token instruction.

"Four on the floor!" she'd shout.

To keep all four legs of a chair or desk on the floor was the unofficial rule for students in Smith's and other elementary school classes of years past, in Lake Placid and across the country. Seated in a school's customary rigid blue chairs, freedom of movement wasn't encouraged during lessons.

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Lake Placid Elementary School fourth-grader Mya Marshall, right, listens to a lesson while sitting on a Gaiam Balance Ball chair on Tuesday, Sept. 12. Her classmate Ava White is seated beside her.
News photo — Antonio Olivero

"A few years ago, I'd be like, 'Sit up!'" Smith said. "But then I realized, when I get home, I like to recline when I read. I like to have my feet up. I like to read like that."

Enter Smith's classroom these days, and students have an assortment of seating options to choose from for lessons and independent reading time. Rather than the typical scholastic sight of one classic blue chair after another pushed underneath individual desks, classrooms like Smith's have everything from adjustable stools to wheeled yoga balls to puzzle piece-like seats made of squishy rubber foam.

Elementary school Principal Sonja Franklin feels these choices have improved learning for her school's students.

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That, and she is kind of jealous she didn't have this assortment as a student.

"I was a wiggler," Franklin said with a smile.

"If in a traditional chair, you can't meet that sensory need," the principal continued, "but if in some of these other different seating styles, you can. And it really makes a different in their ability to pay attention."

In these Lake Placid classes, such as Jenny Winch's third-grade room, there are the Hokki stools that swivel and wiggle, made by the Kaplan Early Learning Company. They've become so popular that the school's nurse, Elise Stosiek, has asked for one to sit on herself.

There are ergonomic kneeling chairs that allow students to drop their thighs to an angle of 60 to 70 degrees, compared to 90 degrees when sitting in a normal chair. The school's occupational therapist of a quarter-century, Beth Trembly, feels seating options like this are crucial to prevent poor blood flow for students while learning.

"Anything is better than what you see, that young man right there," Trembly said while Smith's class listened to a reading of Roald Dahl's classic children's book "The Witches."

"You see he has no choice but to slouch back in that chair," Trembly continued. "And what the students end up doing is sitting on the edge of their seats to try to get that tilt and erect back that increases attention to the teacher."

And then there are the most visually striking of seating options for students: the Gaiam Balance Ball chairs.

Elsewhere in the school, teachers such as third-grade instructor Jason Leon opt to sit on adult-sized yoga or physio balls for all of each day during the school year. These Gaiam Balance Ball chairs are the closest thing to exercise balls students can sit on. They resemble a combination of a physio ball and a child's wagon, thanks to the handle and wheels beneath the plastic sphere.

And where did the school's teachers find such atypical seating?

"Amazon," Smith said with a laugh. "Isn't it a wonderful place?"

Throughout her classroom, Smith also has other seating - and lying - options for her students to learn atop of, such as, say, buckwheat-filled pillows on the classroom carpet. There are also multicolored stackable stools, a wooden bench and, of course, those rigid old blue chairs. Despite all the new choices, some students still prefer them, Smith said.

To pay for the new seating options, Smith said she spent all of her $400 in requisition money heading into this school year to purchase the new furniture via Amazon and educational catalogs. She purchased the pillows and bench out of her own pocket. In all, she invested in $700 of "new stuff."

Franklin and Trembly say the furniture cost is in the same ballpark as replacing the traditional blue chairs one by one. Looking ahead, Franklin said the school will monitor student interest and educational success with the new seating options, which will dictate further purchases.

As for Trembly's ideal vision for the school, she desires no more boring blue chairs, particularly in the cafeteria.

"I would love to see it expand to the lunchroom," she said, "and I'd love to see these chairs go away. That's my dream world."



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