The tallest student in his fourth-grade class, 10-year-old Julio Gutierrez said he would often lose focus after squeezing into a low desk.
The McAllen school district and Texas A&M researchers believe a simple change in desk design can be healthier for students and lead to more engagement in the classroom. The district introduced new “stand-biased” desks into an Alvarez Elementary fourth-grade classroom last month that could help determine whether the furniture is added at other McAllen campuses.
The desks, which sit from 26 to 34 inches off the ground for kindergarten through fourth-grade classes, allow students to alternate between standing and sitting on tall stools.
“We get to stand up more and in the other desks our legs would always get cramped and we would always hit the top of the desk,” Gutierrez said. “With these desks, we start running faster in PE. My legs don’t start hurting anymore. We move around a lot more we stand up a lot more.”
About 20 desks were added to the Alvarez Elementary School through a partnership between the school district and the Texas A&M Health Science Center, where the furniture design was developed as part of a new approach to addressing childhood obesity.
“It’s reached such a level that we’ve never seen this before at such a level in history,” said Mark Benden, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Texas A&M. “We need a lot of arrows in the quiver to attack this problem. One of the ways we can do that is we can change the classroom — we can make it more dynamic.”
Benden said students that use the upright versus traditional desks burned an additional 17 percent to 20 percent more calories per hour.
The Alvarez campus is the first to partner with Texas A&M after initial research conducted in Bryan-College Station classrooms. He said he was excited to hear that children using the desks also appeared to be more focused and paid better attention in class.
“We’re beginning to see five to seven extra minutes (of classroom engagement) per hour,” he said. “That doesn’t seem like a lot of time but when you multiply that over the course of a day and the course of a week and the course of a semester, that’s a lot of extra instructional time where either the child is focused on the teacher or their work.”
Fourth-grade instructor Christine Lopez, who teaches the pilot class, said her students often work on assignments collaboratively and the new desks make moving about easier. She has also seen more participation in PE classes and fewer trips to the bathroom.
“I ask them, ‘Tell me why,’” she said. “And they said, ‘It’s because we really just want to stretch our legs.’”
Andrew Kreighbaum covers education for The Monitor. He can be reached at email@example.com, (956) 683-4472 and on Twitter, @kreighbaum.