Flexible Seating: Unreal or Unrealistic?

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flexible seating in the classroom - unreal or unrealistic?

Written by Cassie (Teach Starter)

What is flexible seating in the classroom?

Flexible seating ditches the traditional notion of “rows of desks facing the teacher at the front” and instead provides students with a variety of seating options so they can choose the one that is most comfortable for them. This type of classroom ‘un-seating’ aims to create a learning environment that more truly reflects the nature of the hyperconnected, ever-changing, globalised world that we now live in; a learning environment that inherently requires students to master skills such as flexibility, creativity, problem-solving and collaboration.

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“I like having the choice to sit where I want to sit. Somedays I feel different and can choose somewhere that I can focus better.”
– P.B, Grade 6

flexible seating in the classroom - Australian Year 6 classroom

Australian middle school teacher Paige Simonka has introduced flexible seating in her Year 6 classroom. The room provides students with a variety of seating options for both group work or more focused, individual work. Photo credit: @teaching6

To understand the philosophy behind this student-centred approach to classroom setup, it can be helpful to think about how an early learning setting often features different ‘zones’ for children to engage with, such as a reading nook, an open floor space and a “home corner”. Providing these zones in daycare and kindergarten classrooms encourages each individual child to play, explore and learn in the way that appeals the most to them.

Some children will play in groups. Some children will play alone. Some will sit and draw, while others will stand. This physical flexibility increases each child’s level of engagement with concepts and activities. Teachers can then support and extend individual learning within a ‘space’ that the child themselves has established is one they are comfortable in.

“I like when Miss Simonka comes to help us. She will just sit with us wherever we are sitting even if it’s on a cushion on the floor. I think that’s cool.”
– M.P, Grade 6

In essence, flexible seating in the classroom allows students to form their own micro-climate, where they can exercise some control over the physical and mental “conditions” in which they learn best.

Flexible seating in a primary or high school setting looks less like a kindergarten and more like a cafe, according to the renowned 3rd-grade teacher and “flexible seating guru” Kayla Delzer. In her article for Edutopia “Flexible Seating and Student-Centered Classroom Redesign”, Delzer suggests that some of the benefits that students experience when using flexible seating include:

  • increased metabolism
  • increased oxygen flow to the brain
  • burning extra energy
  • improved core strength and posture
  • and increased motivation and engagement.

These benefits combined, are linked to higher academic performance, better health and improved behavior.

“I also use the wobble boards. I used to always get in trouble at my old school for fidgeting, now I don’t. When I use the wobble boards I can focus better.”
– E.B, Grade 6

wobble boards, bench seating in a flexible seating classroom australia

Wobble boards, low stools, bench seats and crate seats are some of the options available in this Year 6 flexible seating classroom. Photo credit: @teaching6


Sure, flexible seating sounds pretty unreal but is it just plain unrealistic?

This approach to classroom setup and management certainly challenges more widely accepted norms. However, flexible seating advocates argue that it is worth the time, the effort (and money) to push through teacher and administration discomfort in order to maximise student comfort, and therefore learning, in the classroom.

With that in mind, I’ve collated the best ideas, tips and tricks from teachers who have made the change from a traditional, teacher-centred classroom environment to a flexible, student-centred one.


Flexible Seating Tips & Tricks

Setting Up Clear Expectations

Like any new process or routine, the success of flexible seating lies in setting up, clearly communicating and following through with expectations. Students will need time and support to learn the new skills required of them in a flexible learning space. Some common “rules” include:

1. The teacher can move a student at any time.

“We can sit with our friends as long as we are on task. Sometimes we have to sit in our Collaborative Learning groups for some activities, but it still is comfy no matter where we sit.”
– M.J., Grade 6

2. Students select the seating option that they know helps them to work best for the activity they are completing.

“I really like reading on the lounge. I am comfortable and can enjoy reading and really focus on the book.”
– K.M., Grade 6

3. Set up a clear process to settle arguments over seating.

For example, if two students would like the same spot they could play “scissors, paper, rock” to determine who gets the spot. Alternatively, the teacher can decide where both students will sit or may remove a specific seating option for a period of time.

4. Establish familiar attention grabbers.

This classroom management technique is important in any classroom, however, agreeing on whole-group attention grabbers with your students as you transition into a new classroom environment will help!

 


Storage

Teachers are freeing up floor space by allocating cupboards, shelves or boxes for student workbooks and folders and pooling student equipment, such as stationery and other materials, into shared stocks that are brought out when required.

Rather than being time-wasting, Angie Olsen from Lucky Little Learners says this actually speeds up transition times as students are no longer digging through messy desks trying to find their own materials.


Seating Plans – Who Gets to Sit Where?

There are no seating plans in a flexible seating classroom, however, some teachers may agree on a ‘standard seating plan’ with their students to be used with substitute teachers or on other occasions.

Create at least 5 more seating options or spots than the number of students in your class. This increases flexibility and reduces the chance of conflict over seating choices.

Have students try out every seating option in your new classroom environment for at least one full day before allowing free selection. Students may find they are more comfortable in a certain type of seating for one activity and a completely different type of seat for another.

Another awesome tip from Lucky Little Learners is to let students move from whole group instruction on the floor to their chosen seat one row at a time, alternating which rows select their seating first each time you finish up a group activity.


Testing

How can you set up test conditions in a flexible learning environment?

You will likely find that students can easily sit on their own, ‘private’ space within a flexible seating classroom meaning you won’t need to change anything for testing. However, if you do require more formal test conditions, consider using another space in the school such as the library or swapping classrooms with another teacher for the time. You could also use testing dividers like these by @mrsbsbest.


Rotations, Activity Centres or Stations

You can set these up around a flexible seating classroom as you would in any other. As rotations or activity stations are typically used for a small part of the day, students will usually settle into whatever seating is at their station, or they may quickly swap out one type of seating for another if that can be quickly and easily accommodated.


Substitute Teachers

Rather than being nervous about having a substitute teacher spend the day with your students in their flexible seating classroom, be proactive in ensuring the environment will benefit your substitute as much as it does you.

  • You’ll have set up clear expectations with your class as the standard and need to remind them that these expectations do not change in your absence.
  • Leave a note for the substitute teacher to explain that students will select their preferred seat throughout the day, but that the teacher can move any student that they need to should any issues arise.
  • Alternatively, you may prefer to establish a ‘standard seating’ plan with your class – based on their preferred options and leave that as the day’s seating plan for the substitute teacher.


Flexible Seating Ideas

The options that you can provide for your students are limited only by your imagination and your budget. However, getting creative with swapping furniture with other teachers and sourcing unused seating from parents and other community members can make creating your new classroom space much more affordable than you may expect.

“I like the feel of our classroom. I still remember my first day of school this year. I thought I was so lucky to be in this class. I didn’t feel scared even though it was the first day of Middle School!” H.P Grade 6

Some commonly used flexible seating options include:

  • bath mats
  • yoga mats
  • exercise balls
  • cushions
  • fold out couches (lower grades)
  • milk crates with a thin cushion or bath mat seat
  • wobble boards
  • low stools
  • high stools
  • chairs
  • standing desks (with no seating)
  • bean bags
  • a small couch or sofa
  • clipboards or lap-tables


Moving Against the Tide

In systems that are increasingly dictated by structure and expectation, more and more teachers are seeing flexible seating as a means to incorporate more student-centred, autonomous and responsive philosophy and pedagogy in their classrooms.

While still meeting the day to day obligation of curriculum and assessment requirements, teachers taking this approach see their students’ soft-skills develop in a way that requires little scaffolding beyond the initial transition to this new way of working.

If you use flexible seating in the classroom or are looking to communicate the benefits to parents, colleagues and administrators, take a look at our set of Flexible Seating Posters.

small group instruction area in a Year 6 flexible seating classroom australia

This small group instruction area can be used for practical or written group work, or individual work based on the needs of the lesson. Photo credit: @teaching6

Would you use flexible seating in your classroom?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Comments & feedback

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I was a high school science teacher for nearly 40 years both in the US (California) and the UK. The science lab was flexible in the way students were encouraged to move around. Nuffield Science (UK) was light years in front of the US high school curriculum until the introduction of NGSS.
However my comments are directed towards US elementary classrooms as a substitute teacher not as the regular classroom teacher. I substitute throughout our district which is high achieving and consists of 7 K-5 and 3 middle schools. So usually I am assigned to a new classroom that I have never seen before. And may never see again. Remember I don’t know anyone. So usually they begin to move around subtly and silently. Names are an important part of their persona, they quickly realize that it is hard for me to discipline any particular person.
Elementary teachers usually leave me a list of helpful and less helpful students. But remember I have no idea of who they are, physically.
So please leave a seating chart on the days that you will be absent. With some notes to go on it. Discuss in advance expectations with your students. This would be a tremendous help on the days that I am called in at the last moment.
Also please remember that substitute teachers are not there for the money (really?), we are usually highly qualified and we do it for love of teaching.
My district is wonderful and the teachers fantastic.

Josephine Golcher · Dec 21st, 2019

Hi Josephine,
Some great feedback for teachers here. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Kristian · Dec 23rd, 2019

There is definitely a lot of options in my classroom and school as far as flexible seating but this year I’m planning to introduce more and reduce tables in the classroom. It definitely helps children feel at home and with clear expectations students can achieve more.

Padma Sekar · Aug 4th, 2019

Hey Padma, thank you for taking the time to add to the discussion on this blog. It is great to hear teachers exercise different ideas in their classroom.

Royce (Teach Starter) · Aug 5th, 2019

Hi Padma,
Thank you for your lovely comment. I am so glad you are enjoying our resources.

Kristian · Aug 5th, 2019

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