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THE DESIGN OF SCHOOL FURNITURE FOR PRIMARY SCHOOL

CHILDREN
Simon Dennehy

Department of Industrial Design


National College of Art and Design
100 Thomas St
Dublin, Ireland

Abstract

1.0 Introduction

This paper outlines the research and design process involved in

Ergonomic

the development of Perch - A school chair and desk for

performance and productivity. (Breithecker, Dr. B. 2006).

primary school children, and documents the implementation

Active sitting has been a focal point for leading producers,

of a new and innovative solution. School children experience a

ergonomists and designers for many years. The ability of end

surprisingly high level of discomfort, pain, injury and

users to change posture and position throughout the course of

musculoskeletal disorder, due to the prolonged use of

the day, attain and maintain open posture, while relieving

unsuitable seating and desks. Statistics show that half of all

unnecessary load from the mid-section and back, helps to

children... have back problems at some time and that in 8% of

prevent long term damage associated with traditional right

cases it is serious enough to affect their attendance at school

angles sitting. With most companies focused on reclined

(ELLIOTT, J. 2006). This is not unique to the Irish education

positions to achieve open posture, the concept of forward and

system; numerous studies have shown that this is a global

upright sitting has been overlooked for mainstream task

problem. Primary school children require carefully designed

seating. Within the niches, there are companies selling

furniture in the classroom, where they regularly maintain static

furniture to encourage high sitting, pelvic tilt, and open

postures for long periods of time. More importantly, primary

postures, but these products remain well outside the

schools prepare children for a sedentary way of life. The

mainstream, despite their advantages. The benefits of open

project centres on the investigation of ergonomics and

posture and active sitting are now recognised for being far

usability, the exploration of this research in a series of user

healthier than the right-angles approach. The project

tests and the creative implementation of the results in a new

illustrates how significantly higher sitting, where the subject

design. The solution proposed incorporates a new, patented,

sits upright with open posture, toward an elevated and sloped

flexible seat pan, with a unique height adjustment feature and

work desk, can positively affect the physiological and

adjustable desk with sloped worksurface. The improved

psychological state of the school child.

posture and the practical resolution of storage facilities offer


students and teachers improved flexibility in the classroom and
overall enhanced modern learning environments.

furniture

ultimately

ensures

increased

Figure 1: Perch - School Furniture


It is irresponsible to design school furniture for students,

2.0 Design Implementation

without gaining an understanding for their requirements.


Primary education aims to achieve basic literacy and numeracy

2.1 Seat Design

for all. In the process of learning to read and write, students


focus intently on material immediately in front of them, on a

The Author's theory that a reason for the failure of niche

desk, and traditionally from a seated position. It was apparent,

products, such as kneel, forward tilt, or saddle chairs, is due to

from early in the study, that the current accepted standards

remarkable and unique aesthetic. This view is shared by many

for school furniture are fundamentally flawed. Rear sloping or

leading task furniture producers. The aesthetic has been a

horizontal seat pans with horizontal worksurfaces, where

driving force in chair design for decades. The chair has

right-angles sitting is encouraged, simply forced students

become an iconic representation of western culture and is

into unimaginable postures, where discomfort and pain are

embedded into society. Appearance and proportion play

experienced daily. The Perch design provides a significantly

important roles when buying furniture pieces. Though hugely

elevated seat and work surface height. Students are encouraged

diverse in terms of material and colour choices, for the most

to sit with an open posture, where the angle between torso and

part, chairs conform to certain physical and proportional

thighs far exceed ninety degrees. The findings suggest that

criteria to look right. Products such as kneel and saddle seats

chair and desk designs must be considered as items of equal

undoubtedly, fall outside of this traditional aesthetic.

importance.
A User First Design approach guided the literature review,

The aim of Perch is to increase the range of postures available

design, testing and prototype phases of this project. The final

to the user, encourage more movement and activity throughout

designs remain true to the needs and requirements of the

the entire body, while respecting the traditional seating

student during class time.

aesthetic when the chair is not in use.

A detailed study of specialist seating was conducted and their


benefits and flaws were noted. When saddle seats are used at
low sitting heights, the body area in contact with the seat pan
is significantly reduced, and a large increase of pressure on the
ischial tuberosities results. Finding ones Ideal siting height

becomes a must on saddle seats. The exaggerated pommel at

moving both legs up and down, in a pedalling motion, as a

the front of the chair can be off putting to certain users, and it

result of seat flexion. When sitting high where the femur to

can be difficult to mount and dismount as a result.

spine angle approaches 135, the pelvis is rotated forward, and

Kneel chairs hold the users' legs in position for long times. It is

a position of lordosis is attained. This contributes to a


straighter upper back and reduced stress on neck muscles. Hip
abduction, while sitting on the flexible seat helps to stabilize
the pelvis in an upright position. Balance is improved by the
rigid front pommel, which stabilises the location of the
subjects' buttocks and sit bones. In an upright, open posture, a
subject will make use of the major and strongest muscle
groups of the body. Stomach and back muscles are in balance
and the leg muscle groups get utilised. In a reclined position,
this is less the case.
There is no one good position for sitting all day long, and

Figure 2: Flexible "Wing" sections


a worry that, when sitting in a group away from a desk, the
student is susceptible to helpless and dangerous falls forward,
because of an inability to quickly stabilise (a result from
horseplay). Forward tilt seats place an increased load on the
users legs and the tendencies are for the chair to slide
backwards, especially on floors with a low coefficient of
friction. These chairs also, only work for the student when
adjusted to the optimum height and are quite unusable at low
levels.
Figure 3: Height adjustment feature
regular movement of the upper and lower body is to be
It is clear from literature reviews and observation in schools

encouraged to stimulate muscle growth, blood flow and

that students will attain postures to suit the task work, rather

circulation. During right-angles sitting, observation and

than comfort. Teaching them the values of sitting appropriately

analysis has shown, how underused the lower body, from the

is very important, but restricting adjustability simply restricts

chest to the toes, become during task work. In almost all cases,

the student. A seat to accommodate the student comfortably, at

the lower body practically ceases to work. This lack of

all sitting heights and during task work, became the aim.

movement will contribute to muscle atrophy and, at such an


early age, will prevent the proper development of muscle

The Perch seat pan incorporates a flexible surface (wing) at


each front corner (fig 2). These wings remain in contact with
the users' legs (back of femur), regardless of their seated
height, without restricting circulation to the legs caused by
hard edges. In elevated positions, the Wings organically

groups around the stomach, back and legs of the subject. The
most direct effect of sitting idle is that the work performed by
the large skeletal muscles in the legs, back, and trunk required
for upright movement comes to a halt. (HAMILTON, M.T, et
al 2007)

adjust and flex to accommodate any femur position,


asymmetrical or not.

With the Perch solution, in all cases, students were seen to


considerably increase movement throughout their entire bodies

During testing, it was common to see students frequently

during task work, without any perceived loss of concentration

or distraction towards course work. To the contrary, reports

generally horizontal. The user is required to form an excessive

indicate an overwhelming improvement in comfort and

kyphotic posture in order to achieve their OVD. By sloping the

satisfaction. The seat uses hundreds of ventilated slots

work toward the student at 25, the work is accessible (Fig 5).

throughout. On saddle chairs, heat build up around the pubic


region is an area for concern, especially when long term sitting
occurs. These vents allow approximately 30 percent of
material to be removed, increasing airflow and cooling, while
reducing weight and unit cost.

On the Perch chair, a user can sit at any height, while


maintaining the same level of leg support and freedom of

Figure 4: Poor posture because of OVD requirement

movement. The ischial tuberosities remain in contact with the


rigid rear section of the chair. When sitting low, or when not in

By raising the work surface height, postural kyphosis is

use, the front pommel practically disappears, as the wings

reduced as the student does not need to bend over as much.

return back up into a neutral and horizontal resting position.

Noted was the small desk area actually utilised during task

Once the student dismounts the chair, the aesthetic is similar to

work, again due to the need to keep work within OVD. Desks

traditional seat pan styles.

are traditionally 600mm deep, but students only ever used


about 400mm, with the remaining surface being used for

The chair provides a leg rest, where the student can engage
one or two feet at a time, then alternate back onto the floor, as
required. The chair also includes a unique and safe height
adjustment. It is not possible to disengage from a set height
while the user is sitting. The lowering of the seat can only be
accomplished when the subject dismounts the chair and pivots
the seat arm, which in turn, disengages the lock and allows
readjustment (fig 3).

storing books and accessories. The Perch desk shortens the


writing surface and incorporates a storage trough at the rear.
When sitting higher, with hip abduction, the reach of a student
is increased, which allows the students access to items at the
rear of the desk.
Also incorporated is a reading ledge (Figure 5: A-B), which
potentially extends the footprint of the desk, for when students
are copying from a book. Its inclusion takes inspiration from
students' ability to read clearly from far distances, (e.g.

2.2 Desk Design


The height adjustable desk improves accessibility and

blackboards). It seems that, only during intensive creation


based task work, or intensive reading, is the work required to
be close to the students.

functionality for students as they learn to read and write.


Incorporated is a flat front ledge, where students rest their
arms or elbows to relieve load to their mid-section.
Investigating poor posture among school children revealed that
Optimal Visual Distance (OVD) dictates the head position of
the student. In all cases, students brought their heads
approximately 300mm from their work, when they were
required to read or write. They do so at the expense of comfort

Figure 5: Desk Profile

and continue working in this position for long periods. (Fig 4)


The desk offers an accessories tray at the rear of the desk and
Most school seats are slightly reclined and work surfaces are

is replaceable with multiple solutions, such as a removable and

stackable system for Arts and Crafts, Lego trays etc. The desk

made clear, that the author, never communicated a need to sit

is fully height adjustable, allowing all students to be

higher. This was totally voluntary on behalf of all students.

accommodated. Finally, a soft and tactile, rubberised surface

They also requested the desk heights to be raised and reported

was applied to the work area of the desk. This provides an easy

being most comfortable when working at the high ranges.

to clean, warm and haptic surface that grips work and prevents

Once ten students (five pairs) had trialled the furniture, the

slippage.

experiment was set up in a classroom.

2.3 Evaluation of Designs

The same students would use the furniture again in this setting.
The rig was moved toward the rear and centre of the room,

Evaluation was carried out using two digital video recorders


and one high quality digital SLR camera. The video cameras
were positioned with one directly in front of the students,
looking at their heads, torso and arm movements and the
second at right angles to the furniture. This monitored their
side profile during work. The SLR camera was used by the
researcher to take photographs at various angles and positions
throughout the trials. Initially, the furniture was set up in a
common area within the school, away from the classroom. An
introductory trial was crucial, so an understanding of the
students' initial reaction to the rigs could be assessed. This
meant less disruption, once the furniture was brought into the
classroom. Students were made aware of the conditions, and
shown the various adjustment features available to them.

with desk set at 750 mm high which had previously been


determined. The students were told that they could adjust this
height as required. When class time commenced, the author
left the room, and set the two video recorders to capture the
side profile of each student. The teacher was told to perform as
usual and to allow the subjects to alter their furniture as
required. Every 40-60 minutes (depending on teachers
preference), the students swapped with another pair. Though
these test periods were short term the longest trial being just
over 1 hour it clearly highlighted important issues and
guided each progressive development phase. In particular, the
flexible seat pan proved to be exceptionally comfortable and
practical for both task work and relaxing periods. The chair
could be used by any student at any selected height and
without discomfort. In all tests and trials, the students, chose to
adjust their furniture to eventually work at higher levels, with

Pairs of students were selected by teachers. Tall and small

more open and active postures. The higher, the better for desk

were paired together. Groups aging between 8 - 12 years were

and seat heights. In group work, where they sat around without

tested during the final trials, though during initial concept

a desk, a slightly lower sitting position was maintained and the

testing, the range was far broader and included students from

students sat in a more reclined position. Allowing for variation

age 6 12 years.

in sitting postures is important.

Students were assigned written course work. The desk was

There were two schools selected for user trials and the results

initially dropped to a low setting (approx 600m high) and the

from both schools showed very similar results. The resulting

students always maintained full control over their seating

designs of Perch were a direct result of testing, evaluating and

height. Incremental adjustments were made intermittently to

collaborating with students, teachers and parents.

the desk height and slope. By the end of the experiment, all
students were working at heights of in excess of 750mm (the
height of elbow ledge at front of desk). The taller students
chose higher work surface heights of almost 800mm. It was
interesting to note how high the students preferred to sit. By
the end of the experiment,

even the third class (9 years)

students were sitting above 420mm high (Fig 6). It should be

the large skeletal muscles in the legs, back, and trunk required
for upright movement comes to a halt. (HAMILTON, M.T, et
al 2007)
Activity throughout the course of the day is vital for a healthy
lifestyle. Accommodating children in a reclined position is not
feasible due to the type of course work within primary
education. Even if it was however, it seems almost
pathological to allow such a passive and inactive way of
working to creep in. Perch concentrates on sitting high, upright
and with open posture. Moreover, it promotes active sitting
and continuous movement throughout the body, and promotes
Figure 6: Ergonomic illustration and Testing

activity throughout the major muscle groups.


Because of the ability of young students to repair damage to

3.0 Conclusion

their intervertebral discs, for the most part, poorly designed


furniture tends to be overlooked. Students are training

Dr. Waseem Amir Bashir, a clinical fellow in radiology at the

themselves to sit very inappropriately. As they mature and lose

University of Alberta Hospital, concluded that humans were

their repair mechanisms, they become immune to these

not created to sit down for long hours, but somehow modern

postures. The dire concern for the future may rest with

life requires the vast majority of the global population to work

growing numbers unaware of the potential insidious dangers

in a seated position ... This made our search for the optimal

of sitting too much (Daily mail, 2007). The project is now

sitting position all the more important, (WARD, D. 2006).

progressing toward more advanced user trials.

Their focused study pinpointed the open seated posture of 135


as least damaging. Using positional MRI scans, they
monitored the intradiscinal pressure and strains on the spine
during sitting in various postures. These findings corroborate
with research from Mandal, and many more outliers who have
suggested utilising open posture for some time. From the work
carried out during and after this M.A project, and from
interviewing leading researchers, such as Eileen Vollowitz, and
representatives of leading contract furniture producers, it is
clear that focus on active sitting in a reclined position has
been a central focal point, within mainstream task furniture,
for some years now. This position allows the subject to relax,
rest and sustain a relatively unstressful working position when
seated. In a reclined posture, however, there is an absence of
full body movement and meaningful engagement throughout
the skeletal muscles. Findings from Marc Hamilton (et al),
suggest that inactivity, as well as poor posture play key roles in
seating related illnesses. ...this global trend is likely to
continue, given the increasing availability and popularity of
personal computers, TV, automation of chores at home,
transportation trends, and further inventions in the future. The
most direct effect of sitting idle is that the work performed by

Proving the theories relating higher sitting and working with


the Perch flexible seat pan and contoured desk profile requires
long term evaluation with a large sample audience. This is
now being undertaken as part of a PhD study with the National
College of Art and Design and GradCAM (Dublin, Ireland).
This work will be peer reviewed and published.

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