“Not disciplined, but annihilated” is how Dr Maria Montessori described Italian children in her 1912 book, The Montessori Method, describing the results of school children being forced to sit still on chairs. Hajo Eickhoff, a contemporary philosopher, has argued that the chair is a sedative to create a docile population not inclined to criticize or become politically active. And this all kicks off in school where the prime aim is not to bash knowledge into their heads but to teach them to behave – in the early years of school this is achieved by having them learn to sit still on chairs and walk in lovely straight lines.
There is no doubt that we are not designed to sit still for hours everyday, and that our chairs are made for convenience, style or swagger rather than for our bodies.
I am reading a book called The Chair by Galen Cranz. In the book she talks about the history of chairs, their design, ergonomics and ideal chairs. There is a fascinating chapter about children and chairs. If we look at the photo above, we can see the adult stoop making a frighteningly early appearance.
As I burrow deeper and deeper into Z health and work its magic on more and more people, even without any accidents happening earlier in life, I can see how we all face an uphill struggle to undo the school years, sitting slumped over a desk, all in the same sized chairs and same sized tables, no matter how tall or short we are. And this ignores the whole fitting of all the children to become docile and obedient citizens, listening to and heeding what we are told by authority.
In The Chair, Galen Cranz refers to a study done in 1949 of a day in the life of a 7 year old boy called Raymond. Two psychologists, Roger G Barker and Herbert F Wright plus assistants followed Raymond about for the 14 hours he was up, recording his every move.
One of the more striking points is that the teacher continuously monitored the first and second graders’ posture, frequently telling them to “sit up straight,” and “settle down,” and “get in postition.” Another striking pattern is that on his own, Raymond never sat. All play – at home, on the courthouse grounds, school, and a vacant lot – involved running, skipping, hopping, jumping, twisting, dipping, and generally cavorting to entertain himself kinesthetically. In fact, the only times Raymond ever sat in a chair were at the dining table at home and at his desk at school. Children have little natural inclination to sit in chairs, so it’s a little wonder schoolteachers have to invest so much time and effort to get them to stay still there.1
I find this utterly fascinating. When not eating or in a lesson, Raymond was moving – and fairly vigorously at that. Elsewhere, we are told that when sitting on his chair at school, Raymond slouched, jiggled, shuffled, turned and slumped – clearly bored and uncomfortable.
I am not a believer in the ‘do more, eat less’ cant – its not that simple. BUT none of us are as active as we once were, and planting ourselves and our children in chairs for hours and hours each day does much to increase the size of our squashy bottoms and nothing to decrease it.
However, at some point, formal learning has to begin and the chairs we and our children plump ourselves down in are not usually designed for our best physical posture.
The modern father of ergonomics, the Dane, A C Mandal conducted an experiment with school children where they could choose the height of their chair and desk. Most children put the desk at half their body height and the chair at least one-third their height. Both measurements are considerably higher than the standard school desk and chair height. However, quite fascinatingly, their was a similar study carried out in Australia,2 and there the children chose the biggest chair they could get, which frequently left their feet a-dangling. Which is a lovely demonstration of using the chair as a status symbol rather than just something to sit on -and gives an insight into national characteristics.
As government panic levels grow about our increasingly underperforming and ever fatter youngsters, and they come up with tighter and tighter strictures upon teachers to bash in the three Rs at an ever younger age; as OFSTED wields its stressful axe over schools and hard pressed teachers; as teachers leave the profession in droves due to stress, our poor little children remain glued to desks and chairs with particularly boys completely turned off by the whole education process – and as an added bonus, all children have to overcome the desk hunch. There is a growing call for formal schooling to begin at the age of 6 and not 4 and I would argue that there is a very great need for children to move regularly throughout the day, partly to overcome the desk slouch and also because it will help them concentrate better. Bring back music and movement, walking to school and lets get more creative with their tables and chairs.