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Wichita fifth-graders stand up for learning

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, at 10:22 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, at 7:22 a.m.

Patty Daman’s fifth-grade classroom looks like the others at Kensler Elementary School in west Wichita.

There’s a dry-erase board up front and an electronic smart board on another wall, shelves full of books and a flag in one corner.

But there’s a crucial difference:

Students in Daman’s class don’t have to sit down and keep still all day. They can stand and fidget as much as they want, thanks to stand-up desks intended to keep kids on task, minimize behavior problems and boost concentration.

“It helps me learn,” 11-year-old Shyanna Terzian said of her new work station. “In our old desks, it was a lot easier to fall asleep.”

In September, Daman received a $5,000 mini-grant from Education Edge, a private fundraising initiative that supports Wichita public schools. It paid for conversion kits to transform standard desks into standing work stations with “foot fidgets” – a type of bouncy foot rest suspended by cords – as well as a stool for every child. The kits are produced by Illinois-based Classroom Seating Solutions.

Shannon Patterson, a physical therapist who works at Kensler and helped write the grant, said she proposed the “Stand Up to Learn” project while researching ways to help kids stay focused.

“Most kids just aren’t made to sit down and stay still for very long,” Patterson said. “We wanted to try something different, see how it worked.”

Students in Daman’s class are encouraged to stand at least 75 percent of the time they’re in class. They can lean on the desks – each one adjusted to its student’s height – and prop their feet on the foot fidget or a nearby stool.

Standing work stations and treadmill desks are becoming more popular in offices and other workplaces as protection against the damaging effects of desk jobs. Research shows that prolonged sitting and inactivity can put people at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and back problems.

After the desks were set up in Daman’s classroom a few weeks into the school year, “the whole school was abuzz,” the teacher said.

Not all students and parents were happy about it.

“There were some complaints. There still are,” Daman said. “But I have noticed a difference in their time on task. … It’s really noticeable with some kids. The number of times I have to redirect them has gone down significantly.”

One parent complained to Daman, saying she thought her daughter might get tired or develop back problems if she had to stand three-fourths of the day.

“When I really explained the program to her, she was like, “Oooohhh,’ ” Daman said. “She understood it better. … And I think the kids are catching on, too.”

As part of the project, Patterson and Daman measured the body mass index for each student in Daman’s class. About 42 percent were overweight or obese.

Along with helping kids concentrate, the standing desks are designed to boost physical activity and burn more calories, Patterson said. A pilot study of five classrooms by Texas A&M University showed up to a 32 percent increase in calories burned among a group using standing desks compared to a group that sat, she said.

“We’re gathering all types of information,” Patterson said. “This is very much an experiment.”

One recent afternoon, it was clear that some children use the standing desks more than others. After lunchtime recess, nearly every student returned to Daman’s classroom and sat atop their stools, leaning on the desks and bouncing their feet on the foot fidgets.

A few minutes into a “What looks right?” spelling lesson – neet or neat? wheet or wheat? fleet or fleat? – several students stood up. Some pushed their stools well away from their work stations as they wrote and debated the word options.

“It keeps me focused,” said Michael Nguyen, 10. “I like to stand instead of sitting all the time.”

Patterson, the physical therapist, said she’s eager to see what students say about the desks next spring, after they’ve used them for most of the school year.

Daman said she likes them so far except for one minor thing: The desks’ varying heights mean pods of students don’t look uniform. If a tall student is seated beside or across from a short student, the desks look like stair steps.

“That really drove me crazy at first because I like everything to be neat and even,” she said, laughing. “But I’m getting over it.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SuzanneTobias.

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