Visit a typical primary school learning hub or classroom and you will probably see children curled up in a beanbag or sitting on a couch – there’s a good chance they’ll be working on electronic devices but they are just as likely to be using pen and paper, too. Some might be working on the floor. It looks relaxing and kid-friendly, but how good is it for their posture?
It’s arguable that we could all do with adopting better posture when using smartphones and tablets. However, in a workplace, employers are required to provide safe working arrangements under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.
Worksafe advises setting up workstations to minimise risk wherever possible. This includes providing adjustable furniture and equipment, placing monitors directly in front of workers and no higher than eye level, and ensuring chairs are as close as possible to the work desk. These sorts of set-ups help to avoid leaning and reaching, and straining the head and neck.
No similar standards exist for children in schools. Parents say their requests for their children to sit on chairs when working – instead of beanbags or the floor – are being ignored.
Blenheim mother Kia King says the lack of chairs in modern learning spaces means children are constantly sitting in un-ergonomic positions and that there is not enough consideration for how this may be affecting their fast growing bodies.
At his last school, her Year 4 son continually sat “on a grubby carpet with a laptop” as there was nowhere else to sit, she says. “That was how I always found him, crouched over a laptop.”
Out of around 50 children working together, only 10 could sit at tables and chairs at any one time. There was a couch but the same three students sat there every day.
King’s concerns about the lack of ergonomic furniture – and a shortage of standard chairs – in the eight-year-old’s classroom were dismissed.
“His teacher and then the principal told me it was his choice where he sat and if that was on the floor with a laptop on his knees, then that was obviously how he liked learning.”
King, who is now homeschooling her two oldest sons, has started a posture care campaign on her Facebook page My Child is not a Guinea Pig.
It calls for parents to “stand up for your children’s right to sit up until more sensible rules are put in place that ensure a safe work and learn space for all New Zealand residents”.
The argument that it is up to eight-year-olds how they sit, and that they don’t need reminders about adopting good posture, is “ridiculous”, says King. “When he plays guitar, for example, I have to remind him to sit in a certain way.”
Parents say that this is not just about technology, but also a simple lack of chairs. Schools are failing to ensure children have good posture, they say, and flexible learning spaces are exacerbating this.
Lucy’s* son, also in Year 4, has suffered severe headaches since moving to an innovative learning environment (ILE) last year. These usually occur when he sits on the floor or in a beanbag; regardless of whether he is using a device or writing with pen and paper.
There are 60 children in her son’s hub, but only 20 chairs. If other groups were already using them, then he had to sit elsewhere.
Lucy asked if she could provide two standard chairs for her son and younger daughter to ensure they always had somewhere to sit. She was astonished when asked if her kids had “‘special requirements’, I just thought it was a sensible requirement. All I requested was a chair.”
She was later told her son would be given one. Yet when he did ask, the teacher refused.
Lucy is worried that, if she can’t get any action, she will have no other option but to home-school.
“These are frustrating and not very empowering times in our schools. When adults bang on about the importance of posture, but refuse to allow the same right for our children’s learning, it seems very hypocritical. And fighting for something as simple as a chair is ludicrous.”
Another parent, Vicky* took her son out of an ILE school where he was experiencing sore legs from sitting cross-legged on the floor to do his writing.
“There were nowhere near enough tables and seats for the children and so most of them had to sit on the floor to write or balance a laptop or iPad on their lap, hunched over and neck down sitting on the floor to work.”
“We would not allow an employer to do that to an adult and must not allow that to happen to our children who are still growing. Children can develop injuries from posture related problems, not to mention simple issues of comfort, pins and needles in legs and learning to write properly on a proper surface in a seated position.”
The Ministry would not comment on Education Review’s questions: whether good posture, particularly while using technology, is an issue to be aware of, or whether the same standards adults expect in workplaces should be applied.
“We don’t have the expertise to answer those questions,” a spokesperson said.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins did respond this week to a letter from ‘Vicky’ asking him to look at these issues. He says that although the Ministry “sets standards for acoustics, heating, ventilation and lighting, schools make the core decision on the layout, furniture, equipment and technology they use. This approach ensures that decisions are aligned with the needs of students.”
Hipkins points out that in 2016 the MoE commissioned a study on the impact of physical design on student outcomes.
The report contains a whole section on chairs and quotes several studies stressing the importance of ergonomic and adjustable chairs.
One 2007 study, for example, found students who switched to adjustable chairs and desks “found better posture, less back pain and a possible positive effect on student achievement outcomes”.
The MoE study also claims that having individual chairs compromises flexibility in a collaborative learning space, and these are more expensive.
Schools “have the ability to reassess and modify their learning spaces at any point, including changes to furniture and equipment”, says Hipkins, who suggests Vicky speaks to the school about her specific concerns.
Vicky is not impressed. “If Chris Hipkins is admitting without argument that the students are entitled to suitable even ergonomic seating, then fobbing off his job responsibilities by saying it’s the school’s design is not good enough.
“As Minister he needs to make sure the children get seating, at a minimum, and even better if it is more ergonomic than basic. This sitting on the floor… is far from that.”
Kia King is pleased there are some Ministry guidelines on ergonomics but adds, “if schools were following them there wouldn’t be a problem”.
Inevitably, schools need money for ergonomic furniture. Ponsonby Primary would like more adjustable chairs and tables but the price “just isn’t feasible” says e-learning leader Michala Sauerbier.
The Ministry “needs to increase furniture grant allowances to ensure we can purchase ergonomically suitable furniture as it is often not in a school’s price range”, adds principal Anne Malcolm.
Liz Binns, the president of Physiotherapy NZ, says she “can understand” why the Ministry is holding back on setting standards on ergonomics and devices.
“There is growing evidence out there [on the impacts of digital technology] but nothing definitive.”
Colleagues have told her, however, they “are seeing younger people, so not adults, with back pain, neck pain, that they wouldn’t have seen maybe a decade or so ago”.
It is not good for the human body to stay in a sustained posture, which can result in pain and discomfort. It is easy to get absorbed in a task, particularly when using technology. The key, says Binns, is to move.
More should be done to raise awareness of ergonomics at an earlier age, says AUT associate professor and senior lecturer in physiotherapy, Mark Boocock.
When it comes to trying to prevent musculoskeletal disorders, some countries, such as Canada, use awareness campaigns to target youth. But in New Zealand, “we don’t educate enough at the younger level, we need to get those concepts across early”.
“We definitely should be generating a message, early on, in terms of ergonomics and human factors. If we don’t look after our bodies we’re likely to see problems in later life.”
Ergonomics should be part of learning about computers, adds Binns. “It’s like when you learn to ride a bike you learn that you wear a helmet. Good use guidelines along with devices that are used in schools would be sensible.”
Children at Ponsonby Primary learn about ergonomics alongside digital citizenship. They are taught “about screen time, viewing distances [and] seat and height posture”. Students may be on devices between one and three hours a week.
There’s a range of furniture on offer, says Sauerbier. “High tables, low tables, lily pads, bean bags, adjustable chairs on wheels, ‘normal’ un-adjustable chairs and desks”.
This gives kids different seating options, depending on their task: “children with an iPad prefer to tuck themselves into a bean bag or even lie on the floor. Children with laptops tend to sit at a desk or table.”
Students get to choose “100 per cent” where they sit, she believes.
“First in, first served and our kids are so polite and nice to each other they’d get up and move if another kid wanted their seat.”
Teachers do get students to move around “to a certain extent” she adds. “But the learning is very collaborative and diverse, so the children aren’t bound to one seating position for very long anyway, so it’s not really an issue.”
Ponsonby’s focus on ergonomics came about with the use of devices. But the two are separate issues, argues Sauerbier. “There isn’t much difference to children hunching over their book writing or over a novel at a table to hunching over their iPad reading or completing some work online.
“Ergonomics is something that should have really been considered long ago in schools,” she adds.
“The Ministry should 100 per cent be guiding schools when it comes to this topic. Maybe there isn’t enough sound research around ergonomics in schools yet, especially when it comes to devices.”
Lucy believes the issue of ergonomics is not “just about devices, but that the culture of devices is part of the problem”.
“Children see adults’ reliance on being online or on devices and emulate what they see. There doesn’t seem to be the emphasis on posture for our children, even though there’s such a push for it for anyone who sits all day, not just people at desks, but drivers too.
“Not learning to sit properly and setting them up with good habits from a young age, I feel, is going to have a big impact on them as adults.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy