The serene interior of an elementary school classroom. Sunlight streams through the windows as a teacher scribbles basic arithmetic on the board. Some students follow along while others daydream.
Suddenly, a crash. The kids immediately crane to see what caused the commotion. There, lying confused on the ground, is a child who inexplicably fell out of their chair. They sheepishly climb back into their seat, and the lesson resumes. A couple hours later, it happens again—albeit with a different child. Then again. Then again.
It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but it’s the reality in many modern classrooms. Children accidentally falling from their seats is now a daily occurrence.
Christina Heyding, a Canadian elementary school teacher, recounted her experience with a class of first-graders in a 2015 piece for The Globe and Mail. “Imagine 23 penguins trying to sit on chairs. This is what my classroom looks like. One week I took a tally. In total, my students fell off their chairs 44 times. There’s a vast variety of falls—the backward flip, the wiggly-leg tangle, the forward bang, the sideways slide and the slow-motion smash. No amount of cautioning can prevent these falls.”
Ask anyone who works in an elementary school, and you’ll hear a similar refrain. Kids dropping out of their chairs is the new normal. But why? What’s going on that’s making simply sitting in a chair a physical challenge for our youth?
Let’s start with the vestibular system. The vestibular system, located inside our inner ear, is responsible for our sense of balance and spatial awareness. It also plays an important role in focus and attention, visual skills, and emotional regulation.
“Inside your inner ear are little hair cells. And we need to move in all different directions so that fluid moves back and forth and stimulates those hair cells, and that develops the vestibular sense. That sense is key to all the other senses. If that’s not working right, it can affect everything,” says Angela Hanscom, pediatric occupational therapist and author of the book Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes For Strong, Confident and Capable Children.
Our vestibular system is stimulated and developed by moving through space in a variety of directions—particularly at high speeds. Thirty or 40 years ago, kids were getting all the stimulation they needed by participating in several hours of daily unstructured outdoor play. Not anymore. According to the Child Mind Institute, the average American kid now spends an average of just 4-7 minutes per day on unstructured outdoor play. Hanscom recommends, at minimum, three hours per day. Meanwhile, the average American kid spends about nine hours a day sitting down—whether that be at their desk or plopped down on their couch at home.
“They’re not moving in all different directions,” Hanscom says. “We’re actually supposed to be moving in rapid directions on a regular basis. Kids should be rolling down hills, going upside down.” Kids are naturally driven to move in all sorts of ways during unstructured outdoor play. They climb things, they chase one another, they jump from high places, they spin until they get dizzy. That wide array of movement helps develop a well-functioning vestibular system, along with countless other important physical and mental skills. Now that unstructured outdoor play has become an afterthought in the lives of children, that natural development has gone missing.
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Modern playgrounds and overprotective adults don’t help matters, either. In the early-to-mid 20th century, playgrounds featured towering slides, challenging climbs and fast-spinning steel merry-go-rounds. That all changed in the mid-1980s, as schools and local governments became increasingly fearful that litigious parents could have them fired or sued should a child suffer injury on their playground. Thus playgrounds began getting more and more watered down. Today, most American playgrounds are too short, too slow and too easy. Thus, fewer opportunities for diverse, challenging and vigorous movement.
“A lot of kids from an early age will master the playground equipment really quickly. My son, who is 3, can do the playground. My older girls, who are 11 and 14, they mastered it at 5 or 6. So it doesn’t offer that challenge it was originally designed to be. It’s just basic physics that if you shorten swings, you shorten slides, you’re going to get less sensory input. The merry-go-round is a really powerful vestibular input (that’s gone away),” Hanscom says. In addition to the neutered equipment now available to kids; teachers, parents and school officials have also become overzealous in their rule-making.
“Ironically, we tend to tell kids, ‘Don’t spin, you’re going to get dizzy.’ Or, ‘Get down from that rock, you’re gonna get hurt.’ But as therapists, we purposefully have swings in our clinics and will spin (kids) in all different directions so that they have a really good sense of body awareness,” Hanscom says.
“(Schools) are taking swings away, or if they have swings, the kids have to stay upright now. They’re not allowed to go on their bellies, they’re not allowed to spin on their swings anymore…We’ve created unrealistic rules and restricted their movement. They can’t sit on the monkey bars. They can’t go upside down. And in therapy, we literally try to get them in an inverted position so they have better body awareness. We’re going against each other.”
The reduction in movement isn’t just leaving kids with underdeveloped vestibular and proprioceptive systems, but it’s also making them physically weaker. In 2012, Hanscom conducted a pilot study on American fifth-grade students to see how their balance and core strength compared to an average American fifth-grader from 1984. She found that only one in every 12 children could meet the 1984 standard in both measures.
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The problem isn’t limited to America, either. A study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that in 2014, 10-year-olds from a town in England had 20% less muscle strength and 30% less muscle endurance than 10-year-olds from that same town 16 years earlier. The average boy included in the study went from being capable of achieving over 26 Sit-Ups in 30 seconds in 1998 to 15.4 Sit-Ups in 2014.
Weaker core and postural muscles, an underdeveloped vestibular sense, and too many consecutive hours spent at a desk without a break for physical activity—you put these factors together, and you start to understand why a kid might fall out of their seat at school. In addition to that phenomenon, fidgeting now seems to be at an all-time high among students. Years ago, there might’ve been one or two fidgeters in each elementary school classroom. Now, huge numbers of students are constantly fidgeting in their seats, and more children than ever are being diagnosed with attention deficit disorders. In Hanscom’s eyes, it’s a clear indication they aren’t getting enough movement.
“Extreme fidgeting, that’s a huge indicator that something’s not right with their environment. The more I do this, the more I realize it’s our environment that’s a huge problem. Because not this many children should have trouble with attention and not this many children should have a problem with sensory integration,” Hanscom says. Since movement can help light up areas of our brain that relate to focus, fidgeting is often a self-regulation mechanism used by movement-starved children in an effort to better pay attention. Modern teachers also report that students now ask to get up to do things like sharpen a pencil or use the bathroom exponentially more frequently than students of previous generations, which could also relate to their craving for movement.
While our society can be quick to label kids who cause disruptions and can’t pay attention as “problem children,” Hanscom recommends considering the environment they’re being asked to succeed in. “Some of this is hereditary, but a huge part is environmental. We have to look at, ‘What are we doing? What are we asking of children?”
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