Movement Matters: Kinesthetic Seating in Classrooms
Movement Matters: Kinesthetic Seating in Classrooms
Posted on 05/29/2018
A student in Ms. Gebhard's classroom uses a new pedal desk during a lesson.By: Benjamin Rickert, Communications Dept.

In classrooms across the county, students are pedaling, walking, standing, and bouncing their way through the day. It’s part of an ongoing effort to find alternatives to conventional classroom chairs that allow more physical activity during instruction.

Teachers know their students - especially younger kids - need plenty of movement as part of their development. Furthermore, research indicates that incorporating movement in learning maximizes retention for people of all ages.1 So, teachers strategically plan lessons requiring physical activity in the classroom, outside, and around the campus. Younger students also take regular “brain breaks” - a fun and active way to stay engaged through songs, dancing, and group interaction. Some learning activities are not as inherently active as others - such as practice with writing or mathematics - leading teachers to explore new tools that let students focus on academics while still exerting physical effort. This is why students have seen new types of desks called kinesthetic seats appear in their classrooms around the county.

Last fall, Buncombe County Schools (BCS) teachers were invited to apply for a share in the Carol M. White Physical Education Program federal grant. Thanks to the grant, thirty teachers were able adopt and test drive one of three models of kinesthetic seats, including two sizes of desks outfitted with bicycle-styled pedals, and a “strider” desk, which operates like an elliptical exercise machine. In their applications, teachers described their intended use, proposed methods of data gathering, and how the desk would support teaching standards. So far, the benefits have been striking.

“Our major intent with the project was to increase physical activity time during the school day outside of Physical Education classes, but also to conduct a little research on exercise, brain activity, and academic/behavioral success,” said Ms. Debbie Bryant, BCS Healthful Living Coordinator and director of the Physical Education Program grant.

Mr. Quigley teaches a math lesson at Avery's Creek Elementary.Avery’s Creek Elementary
Mr. Jesse Quigley has been a BCS teacher since 2003, and works with Exceptional Children at Avery’s Creek Elementary. His half-hour class time involves between three and seven students, and they generally have a high need for movement. He was interested in learning how kinesthetic seating could help meet his student’s needs and maximize their instructional time.

“Thirty minutes per class is pretty short,” he explained. “And if a student struggles to be on-task for even half of that, that’s fifteen whole minutes.”

When the pedal desk arrived, he assigned it to a single student per class period. As part of his research, he tracked to the minute how long his students could stay on task, as well as how long a student would remain seated when required. Right away, he found that a student’s ability to stay on task increased by 10 to 30 percent when using the pedal desk, and that their ability to remain seated when required increased by 15 to 60 percent. Quigley was floored. In all of his years of teaching, this was his first year experimenting with seating and now he wonders, “How did I wait so long?”

The benefits of his single pedal desk were so noticeable and immediate that Quigley set out to modify all of his existing desks to make them more versatile. He affixed exercise bands to the legs of his desks, allowing students to mimic the pedaling action, while still able to focus on their reading or writing.

“It’s business on top, but underneath they are pedaling away,” he said with smile. “Because the pedals and bands are below the desks, they don’t distract us from the other activities we need to focus on.”

A student writes while pedaling away in Ms. Gebhard's classroom at Glen Arden Elementary.Glen Arden Elementary
Ms. Rebecca Gebhard of Glen Arden Elementary was already convinced of the value of alternative seating when she applied and received the grant. Gebhard is in her sixth year of teaching, and said a lot has changed since she was in elementary school. Her classroom involves a lot more dancing, moving, stretching, brain breaks, and group exercises than she remembers as a child, and she welcomes the recent movement toward alternative seating.

Gebhard invites her students to move “wherever they are most comfortable” during independent work time. She provides alternatives to conventional desks and chairs including stand-up desks, exercise balls, and even bean bags and reclining chairs when less movement is ideal or rest is needed. Now, a new pedal desk decorates the corner of the room.

“Not every student can be successful glued to a chair,” said Gebhard. “With other options, more productive work is happening.”

She described a student who was struggling to complete anything on a project, but after a turn with the pedal desk, he completed everything he was working on.

Ms. Gebhard uses the pedal desk to teach her students about sharing resources and being in-tune with their own needs.

She lets them decide whose turn it is to pedal and how long they will use it. Ultimately, the desk is always in use, and students communicate with each other about when they feel the need for more movement, and when they are done.

In some classrooms, standing desks provide economical means for movement during stationary activities.Beyond Elementary
Interest in kinesthetic seating extends into the middle, intermediate, and high schools -- where students not only benefit from the exercise, but also incorporate the pedal desks into their coursework. At Nesbitt Discovery Academy, for example, Math 1 teachers teach functions by collecting and correlating data for time spent on the bike and heart rate acceleration. In the more advanced Math 2 and 3 classes, students use the desk data to create and test quadratic, exponential, and logarithmic functions.2 At Erwin High, CTE teachers support Interior Design competency with projects about creating furniture designs for the future.3

Schools are continually experimenting with seating options that promote movement, and the BCS grant recipients will collect data through the the end of the school year. The jury is technically still out, but the feedback so far indicates that kinesthetic seating is here to stay.

“We are looking forward to seeing what data we receive from the schools in June. From the number of grant proposals that were received in the fall, there seems to be a lot of interest in our schools for alternative seating options,” Bryant said. “Who knows- we may be able to use the data to support moving in the direction of having full-out alternative seating in our classrooms in the future.”

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1SPARK - The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain, by Dr. John J. Ratey

2 F.IFF.4, A.CED.1, F.LE.3. The Math Teaching Standards are available on the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction website.

3 Competency 5.0. The Career & Technical Education Teaching Standards (CTE) are available through the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction.

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