If you’re the parent or caretaker of a child who’s distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve probably heard this bit of advice: Designate a spot in your home for your child to do their schoolwork every day.
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It’s good advice, to be sure. But it should come with a few caveats to help kids stay comfortable and avoid the aches and strains that can come from sitting at a computer for a good chunk of the day.
First, a child’s workspace should be tailored to their smaller size, says chiropractor Chad Adams, DC.
“Remember that children are not the same height as you, so thinking that you can put them at the kitchen table or at the desk that you work at, without any modifications, may be faulty,” he says.
They should also be getting up and moving from that space frequently — ideally at least every 20 to 30 minutes, Dr. Adams says. “You want them to ebb and flow into different postures depending on what they’re doing.”
Here’s how you can put that advice into action and keep your kids comfortable while they’re learning from home.
Why an ergonomic workspace matters
The human body is highly moldable, Dr. Adams says. Spending lots of time in unnatural positions can create tension in our muscles, ligaments and tendons.
“When we assume poor postures for long periods of time, we can actually change the shape of our internal structures,” Dr. Adams says. “How something is shaped determines what it can do, so if we start messing around with the shape of something, ultimately what it can do is also going to change.”
This can mean aches, pains and joint problems down the road.
Think angles and support
Setting up a workspace that’s comfortable for your at-home learner doesn’t have to be overly complicated or expensive. Just consider these key areas:
- Head/neck: Your child’s computer or laptop should be set up with the monitor at eye level, so that they can see it while they’re sitting straight up with their neck and spine in a neutral position. If your child has to cast their head forward or downward to see their monitor, use books or a box to raise the monitor to eye level.
- Arms: The key here is for your child to avoid having to strain to reach for their keyboard. They should be able to type with their shoulders relaxed and their elbows bent at about a 90 degree angle. If they’re working on a laptop or tablet that has the keyboard attached to the monitor, Dr. Adams suggests making a small investment in a wireless keyboard and mouse so that your child can prop up their computer and still type comfortably.
- Back: Back support is important for good posture. Ideally, your child would sit in a small chair designed for someone their size. If you don’t have one, you can make some simple adjustments to an adult desk chair or kitchen table chair by using extra books, cushions or pillows from your home. Pull the chair up to the desk or table and have your child scoot forward on the chair so that they can comfortably reach the keyboard. Place pillows or books in the empty space between their back and the back of the chair to provide support.
- Legs: If your child’s feet don’t touch the ground when they’re sitting in their chair, place books, a box or a step stool under their feet for support. Aim to create a 90 degree bend in your child’s knees.
Variety is the name of the game
While a well-thought-out workspace can help your child stay comfortable and focused on computer work, that doesn’t mean they have to stay at that one space all day.
In fact, they should not stay there all day, Dr. Adams says.
The human body is designed to move, so sitting for long periods of time can be tough on our bodies — and that goes for children, too. Encourage your child to stand up, take a break and move every 20 to 30 minutes.
“The movement doesn’t have to be anything specific — just think in three dimensions,” Dr. Adams recommends. “Rather than just looking from side to side to stretch the neck, draw circles with your neck. Do the same with your arms and wrists. Try to move your whole body in big, expressive 360-degree movements.”
If your child is working on something that doesn’t require a computer — such as flash cards or an art project — encourage them sit on the floor or on the couch, or to stand for a while. And don’t forget to incorporate longer breaks in the day for your child to run around.
“Keep it simple and remember that movement is the underlying theme here,” Dr. Adams says. “Try to move as much as possible, both in the environment and taking those breaks. Let them run around the house or outside and then get back to their class.”