Setting up your flexible seating classroom

I have been running flexible seating in my classroom in my Year 5/6 class for the past 3 years and there is no way I would ever go back to a traditional classroom setup for a myriad of reasons. The benefits I have seen have been enormous, especially for the active boys in my class. There is lots of research to show that sitting in a chair is not good for long-term term health. The Australian Health Survey 2011–12 results showed that only one-third of Australian children, and one in 10 young people (aged 5–17), do the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day. A 2015 study specifically focusing on the effect of sitting for extended periods on children found that there is growing evidence that with increasing sedentary time, cardiovascular risk in childhood also increases and that children are now spending 60% of their days sitting. So with that in mind, giving children the opportunity to move, bounce, stand, rock or any other sort of movement they choose to do is likely to positively impact on their health. But beyond that, flexible seating increases opportunities for collaboration and reduces behaviour issues arising from children who have a need to move which I have written about on here before.  But having flexible seating in the classroom goes beyond providing different seating options, but requires a pedagogical shift.

However having flexible seating in the classroom does not just require us as teachers to provide different seating options, but requires a pedagogical shift. It requires us to give up some of the control we value so highly, the ability to tell the children where and how to sit. I know when teachers first enter my room it looks like chaos to them,  but after spending a little time in my room they all agree that the children are all on task. Some students just need to bounce to think and invariably these were the ones that were annoying the students next to them when they were forced to sit at a desk. One teacher actually commented after substituting for me that it was so much easier to see which students weren’t completely on task as they really stood out in this environment. Another positive health benefit is for me as it also means that I am constantly moving around the room, sitting on the ground on a fit ball, meeting the children where they are. I no longer have a teacher desk but rather have a fit ball which I bounce and roll around the classroom on.

When it comes time to set up my room at the start of each year, I don’t. I leave all the furniture in a pile in the middle of the room and leave it up to the students to set up the room.

The first task when students join my classroom is that get into groups and I give them a scale grid of the classroom on which they need to design their perfect learning environment with the furniture we have. The only caveats I provide are that there is no front to the classroom, no one has their own set desks including me and that there has to be a desk and a seat available for any student who at that time feels that they learn best sitting at a desk.  Students then set about working out designs which they then pitch to the class. After listening to all the design options we vote as a class which group design we will trial for that week. At the end of the week, we then debrief on how that design worked, analysing how we used each space and what the flow of the room was like. The remaining groups then have the opportunity to alter their design and we then again vote which design we will trial the following week. By the end of all the groups, we invariably have a great design with a lot less furniture than when we started. I always find it interesting to see how many children who thought they learnt best sitting at a desk, by the end of the first week don’t want one.

The result of this process is that we have a classroom designed by the students and owned by the students, and I see this as a great first step in having students taking ownership of their own learning.

At the end of each term, we then spend some time looking at how we can improve the design, what worked, what didn’t quite work as well as we hoped, and then we make some changes as decided by the students. It is amazing how honest the students are in this redesign process and how they police each others learning behaviours. This year I had the students decide we couldn’t have a couch in the middle of the room because a group of boys were sitting behind it and were distracting each other. I knew they were doing that (I had made it clear during lessons that I knew that they were doing that), I wanted to make this change, but it was so much more powerful coming from their peers.

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In short, flexible seating also means you need to be flexible in your approach to teaching. It requires giving up control which can be a difficult thing to do for a teacher, but the rewards are worth it! Just think of all the time you will save on designing the perfect seating plan, and how much the students will feel valued from being part of the design process.

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