School environments play a critical role in children’s health. Children spend much of their time in school settings—traveling to and from school, in the classroom, and engaging in various activities during and after school. Since a rapidly growing body of research has linked sedentary behavior, independent of physical activity, to a number of adverse health outcomes, promoting health through the built environment may have as much to do with sitting less as moving more. A recent study published in Building Research & Information, explores the effectiveness of a “dynamic classroom” environment in increasing standing and reducing sitting time among a group of New Zealand schoolchildren. Findings show that moving away from the traditional classroom model of using sitting desks can decrease sedentary behavior among students.
Students from two schools, one intervention classroom and one control classroom, in low socio-economic areas of Auckland participated in the study. The intervention classroom, with 16 student participants, completely removed traditional desks and chairs and replaced them with standing workstations, Swiss balls (also known as exercise balls), beanbags, benches, and mats, and the teachers were asked to conduct classes as usual. The control classroom, with 6 participants, maintained its usual setup. Students wore a lightweight activity monitor called “ActivPAL,” which uses upper leg movement to measure time spent sitting/lying, standing, and stepping. Questionnaires were used to measure pain and behavior, with measurements taken before the intervention, at 5 weeks (midline measurement), and at 9 weeks (final measurement). The standing workstations continued to be used for 22 weeks at which point a focus group was conducted with the students and a semi-structured interview with the teacher.
After 9 weeks, overall standing time of children in the intervention classroom increased almost an hour from baseline, compared with the control classroom. Students in the intervention class reported 71 minutes less television viewing and computer use, a significant finding which suggests a decrease in sedentary behavior. The focus group with children revealed that most were happy with the standing workstations and some felt that standing made them more alert and focused. The Swiss balls also proved to be useful for restless children. The teacher in the intervention class reported happier children with increased available space and easier and quicker supervision capabilities. Authors also report that the cost of equipment in the intervention classroom was almost half that of a traditional classroom (NZ$2844 compared with NZ$4899). This type of information is helpful for educators and school administrators who might consider incorporating these types of elements.
Research around health and the built environment continues to grow, revealing more about how Active Design can be applied to specific settings, populations, and geographic areas. The New Zealand study is part of a generous body of literature related to how school environments can promote health. The recently published Physical Activity Design Guidelines for School Architecture provides an extensive review of the literature and presents a number of useful evidence-based and best practice recommendations for Active Design in schools. The Active Design Toolkit for Schools is also a great resource with a number of design ideas and success stories for practitioners. More research is needed, especially related to Active Design in secondary schools, but it is inspiring to see how much insight has been gained in the past several years.