When I was a 2nd-grade teacher, I glanced over at a table of my students one day during writers’ workshop and noticed that a child had disappeared. Puzzled, I walked over to investigate. Suddenly, the student popped out from underneath the table, clutching his red writing folder and pencil to his chest.
“I concentrate better when I’m writing under the table. It’s less distracting!” he explained.
I thought about that student as I began learning about the new classroom trend of “flexible seating.” Kayla Delzer, a 2nd-grade teacher in North Dakota and a proponent of flexible seating, asked a thought-provoking question in a 2015 TEDx talk: “Why do some classrooms look the same now as they did 70 years ago?”
In a column she titled “Why the 21st Century Classroom May Remind You of Starbucks,” Delzer describes the experience of walking into a Starbucks and realizing she wanted her classroom to resemble it — with comfortable chairs, varied seating options and freedom to choose a seat.
Many teachers have been using some form of flexible seating in their classrooms for years by allowing students to choose their own seats or by offering special seating options like beanbags or couches. But some teachers have begun to take flexible seating to a whole new level by replacing most or all of the traditional furniture in their classrooms with a host of other options: wobble seats, floor pillows, crates, lap desks, beanbags and balance balls, to name just a few.
“When you go into a Starbucks or a Barnes & Noble, you see different types of seating options,” says Melissa Noble, a 2nd-grade teacher and a model teacher at the Bronx Little School who is trying flexible seating this year for the first time. “As an adult, I want to sit in a comfortable chair, so why not translate that to my classroom?”
But flexible seating is about more than promoting student choice and comfort. Noble, who teaches in an integrated co-teaching classroom, hit on the idea as a way to support her special-needs students.
“We noticed we had special education students coming in this year with a lot of unfocused behaviors. I thought, how can I design my classroom to address their needs?” she says.
Now, in Noble’s classroom, some students spin around on their wobble chairs in between solving math problems. Others curl up in beanbags while working on clipboards. Some students jiggle their feet on elastic bands wrapped around the legs of their chairs. And still others choose backless benches, leaning back and forth as they work. There’s no one telling them to keep their bodies quiet or their hands folded in their laps.
“It’s so fun to wobble on the stools,” says Eshal, one 2nd-grader.
“It’s so soft,” says Jarely of her floor cushion. “It helps me sit comfortably.”
At PS 257 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, special education teachers are pioneering flexible seating options in their classrooms for similar reasons.
“Students will say, ‘I get to make a choice about how I learn.’ They understand it’s a decision they’re making so they can focus better in class,” says Shaina Ramos, a 1st-grade teacher whose classroom includes balance balls, wobble stools, saucer chairs, scoop rockers and lap desks. “And attendance is better than it’s ever been. They want to come to school and be engaged and focused on learning.”
Ramos says her students also benefit from the freedom to move around while working.
“What appealed to me was the fact that they’re staying active and not just sitting in the same chair all day long,” she says.
There isn’t much research yet — other than anecdotal evidence — into the impact of flexible seating. And it does come with practical concerns — notably, the cost of all those fun chairs and the effort involved in keeping them in good working order. Noble, recalling a failed experiment in her classroom with Ikea stools that kept breaking, suggests that teachers willing to try flexible seating start small and try one thing at a time.
Noble’s students store all their supplies in bins at the end of the day, since they have no permanent desk to call their own.
“Since there’s no seat that’s ‘theirs,’ they have to be more responsible and help each other out when it comes to cleaning up the whole room,” she says.
The transition, she admits, can be jarring.
“It’s definitely an adjustment if you’re not used to so much movement,” she says. “But a little bit of freedom goes a long way.”
Learning Curve is a bimonthly column by Rachel Nobel that focuses on educational issues and practice.