Mid Pen tries flexible seating for kids

Deborah Prescott | Daily Press Mid Peninsula Superintendent Eric VanDamme kneels behind newly purchased flexible seating options that will be used in Kindergarten through third grades during the 2019-2020 school year. Teacher Kristen Occhietti researched flexible seating and brought ideas to VanDamme. Children used exercise balls and bean bag chairs for alternative seating before the school district purchased the new seats.

ROCK — Flexible seating has been shown to help students concentrate on learning. Mid Peninsula School’s (MPS) second and third grade teacher, Kristen Occhietti, has seen this first hand. Occhietti has always been interested in finding ways to get kids more invested in their education. She has rewarded students in class by allowing them to sit in her chair and noticed they would pay more attention to her and concentrate more.

“She’s (Occhietti) been on the cutting edge of student engagement for years,” said Mid Peninsula Superintendent Eric VanDamme. “Every year Kristen’s looking at more creative ways to get kids more invested in themselves and their education. One of the things she found out … kids were more engaged when they sat in her chair, they were more on-task, they listened better.”

The way a teacher sets up a classroom can have an effect on the way students learn. Remember bean bag chairs? They are now showing up in classrooms as part of flexible seating, along with exercise balls.

What is flexible seating? It is a way to provide seating options that open up possibilities for learning. Flexible seating increases collaboration, facilitates teacher-student interaction, and peer teaching. It reduces extended sitting time. Sitting too long increases the risks leading to type two diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Extended sitting affects the development of the musculoskeletal system, and brain activity slows down when the body becomes stationary. Flexible seating helps students focus. A changing and interactive classroom positively impacts behavior. Children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and/or other behavioral issues can have a harder time sitting still.

Some teachers believe when they give students a variety of seating choices, it may lead to a better chance of academic success instead of struggling. Bean bags accommodate all heights and sizes of students, and are a popular choice. Exercise balls are popular with students who have a hard time sitting still, making it difficult to focus on work. Students who have a tough time sitting still during class respond well when sitting on a flexible seat while learning.

When Occhietti realized every student could possibly benefit by sitting on an alternative seat, she tried to figure out how to provide every student with an alternative seat.

“We tried a couple creative options that were cheaper, exercise balls and bean bag chairs and some other things,” said VanDamme.

“It just kinda evolved from that. For the better part of the school year last year we really used them as more of a reward for kids.”

Another flexible choice is a stool with high-top tables. Stools can encourage proper postures. When in a working session it can give students the option to stand or sit. Seating could also be on the floor. Working on the floor is ideal for some children. Cushions and mats are considered flexible seating and popular with students. Instead of focusing on sitting still students focus on learning.

There are many flexible seating choices, a couch, standing desk, scoop chairs, stools, bean bag chairs, mats, stability balls, standing, balance board, laying on the floor, pillows, benches, wobble chairs, hanging chairs, and the standard desks and chairs. VanDamme is thinking of purchasing a standing desk for himself.

MPS received a mini grant of $2,500 from the Community Foundation of the Upper Peninsula and its U.P. Michigan Health Project Endowment Fund. To receive a grant every school administrator had to go through training and complete surveys and questionnaires about their health and the health of the kids in the district.

“We applied … and one of the options on there was the flexible seating,” said VanDamme. “She (Occhietti) really did a lot of research … We tried to maximize our grant funding so we tried to choose affordable chairs that are going to be durable. We wanted to have a selection. Kristen did all of the work, all of the research and she came forward and said ‘these are the best’ and I said ‘go for it’. We have enough to mix into Kindergarten through third grade. Hopefully, before the end of the school year we will have enough for all Kindergartners through third graders.”