An Ergonomic Chair for Schoolchildren

Meet Ray, the seat that wants to make sitting more comfortable -- for kids.
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Since I am sitting as I type this, I regret to be reminded: Sitting all day reduces life expectancy. Sitting is associated with an increased risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Sitting is the new smoking. OUR CHAIRS, basically, WILL KILL US.

While adults might be able to save themselves from a sad, sedentary fate -- by switching to standing desks, by buying cushy ergonomic chairs, by getting up and walking around every once in a while -- there's a large segment of the population that has even less control than the rest of us over daily sitting habits: kids. And that's largely because we force our mini-humans to sit, day in and day out, at school.

So the industrial designer Simon Dennehy has set his sights on creating an ergonomic chair that is targeted to the classroom setting. The device, nicknamed "Ray," is a stripped-down seat -- essentially, a wheeled stool with a back brace. And it makes sitting a little healthier for the sitter, Dennehy claims, by ensuring that core muscles stay engaged ... even while the owners of those muscles are made to sit, relatively motionless, during class. 

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The chair works by making sitting a slightly more active experience. ("Ray" gets its name from the cartilaginous fish, whose wings are mimicked by the chair's flat, flexible seat.) It encourages kids to "self support," Fast Company notes, by engaging kids' feet and core muscles constantly throughout the day. Ray's seat is the key to all that: Since it's flexible, much like the surface of a balance ball, it forces the sitter to keep shifting his or her position even while sitting. This not only allows for constant mini-movements; it also, Dennehy claims, neutralizes the spine by tilting the pelvis downward. And that in turn avoids the "right angle" sitting position that medical experts blame for so much of sitting's health dangers.

The chair is part of a more comprehensive ergonomic technology that includes a desk that resembles a drafting table: It tilts up and down, rather than at a sharp 90-degree angle. That's meant to mitigate, Dennehy says, the hunching -- and thus the spinal misalignment -- that can come with traditional work surfaces.

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Ray, in its simple, plastic, IKEA-esque glory, is currently gaining traction where you'd expect it to: Scandinavia. And also Germany. And also the U.K., where Dennehy's company, Perch, is currently offering a mid-range version of the chair that's cheaper than the original. So could Ray make its way into U.S. classrooms? It's hard to see already cash-strapped administrators making the investment -- though with the new emphasis on making schools healthier places for kids, the idea of ergonomic classrooms could gain more traction now than it might have a few years ago. And what's especially clever about Ray, Fast Company points out, is that it doesn't require the hydraulics usually involved in other dynamic seating systems -- which means that making cheaper versions of Ray is easier than it might be for other chairs.

Plus, the more we discover about the health effects of industrialized sitting, the more urgent it becomes to develop newer, better ways to take a seat. That's particularly true for children, whose bodies are still growing, and whose habits are still forming. Kids tend to get stuck with the same uncomfortable, plastic chairs that schools have been using for decades. And that is both unfortunate and fixable. "We could have designed an office chair with all the bells and whistles," Dennehy notes. "But when you strip a chair down to its basic parts, as you do with school furniture, functionality and ergonomics become essential. We think it's important to target that market."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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