For some children, a school desk can feel like a cage. They fidget and squirm and may act out. Disruptive behavior earns them the label of troublemaker. Learning suffers.
Karen Smail, a College of Charleston physical education professor and a former schoolteacher, believes there’s a simple solution to this age-old problem: Banish traditional classroom desks and replace them with exercise desks.
That’s where Smail and some of her students in the College’s Exercise Science program come in. They are conducting a pilot research project with teacher Stacey Shoecraft’s fifth grade math and science class at Pinckney Elementary School in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
The classroom has no traditional school desks. Instead, the 33 students rotate among several exercise desks –– raised tables featuring various types of exercise equipment that enable children to move their legs and lower bodies while doing classroom work. The attachments include pedals for cycling and foot platforms that simulate the movements of treadmills, elliptical machines, stair steppers and other exercises. The desks being used in the study are manufactured by Huger, S.C.-based KidsFit.
Given the nation’s childhood obesity problem, few would argue against a program that gets kids moving more. But taking on the iconic classroom desk as well as the long-held belief that children learn best while sitting is a tougher sell.
“It’s a radical way to teach,” Smail said. “The biggest issue is getting teachers and principals to believe in it.”
The questions driving the initial phase of research are straightforward: Do the children’s heart rates increase over time as a result of using the desks? Can a kinesthetic learning environment help students learn?
Smail, along with three exercise science majors assisting with the research as part of their senior capstone, will answer these questions by investigating the impact this novel approach to teaching has on heart rate, balance, and time on task.
In the fall, the project will be expanded to evaluate whether this method of instruction has an impact on the children’s academic performance. “If you can sustain a higher heart rate over time, that means you are getting more blood flow to the brain, which should have an impact on focus and attention and may impact a child’s ability to learn,” Smail said.
So far, the biggest challenge for Smail has been designing research protocols. To her knowledge, no one has yet conducted a research project like hers, using a regular class.
Since the desks were installed in April 2013, the feedback from the children and their parents has been overwhelmingly positive, Shoecraft said. “The students have such a positive attitude about learning, and they love coming into the classroom. They know that movement is okay and a crucial part of learning. The parents are some of the biggest supporters. They wish they had it when they were kids.”
The seeds of the project were first planted 10 years ago when Smail began partnering with Charleston County schools on projects designed to boost the aerobic activity of children. Excited by Smail’s work, Shoecraft asked if they could bring the concept into the classroom. Smail, of course, jumped at the opportunity to gather real data on a class of willing and rambunctious fifth graders.
After the proposal was met with support from the school’s principal and school district administrators, the exercise desks were purchased with private funds raised by Shoecraft and her students. One student even sold toys on Ebay to help finance the project.
If Smail’s research demonstrates that children benefit from the exercise desks, those results could help persuade more parents, teachers, principals and school administrators to consider using them. Publishing the research in academic journals also could help attract other partners and funding to expand the research.
The most common concern Shoecraft and Smail hear from other educators is that the exercise desks will cause teachers to lose control of their classrooms. But that hasn’t happened, Shoecraft said. In fact, her students seem more focused and better at staying on task. “I am hopeful that when they see how it improves the learning environment, then we can start to change our traditional classrooms into ones that are geared for engaging minds through movement.”
The project is also benefiting from greater public awareness about the health and productivity benefits associated with standup desks, particularly in the workplace.
Smail would love to someday see exercise desks replace traditional desks in classrooms everywhere, in the same way that smart boards have gradually replaced chalkboards. But she also recognizes that such conversions come slowly. “It takes time because you are trying to change a culture."