School Furniture: Creating a Positive Atmosphere for Learning

Jun 9


Linda Day

Linda Day

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It is all too easy to neglect classroom aesthetics and to focus on pragmatics when purchasing school furniture. However, it's precisely because of the long school day and heavy student workload that an attractive and comfortable academic environment is so important.


Creating a positive atmosphere for learning is one of the most crucial tasks for a school administrator to tackle. And one of the most important elements in creating that atmosphere is selecting the right school furniture. Comfort,School Furniture: Creating a Positive Atmosphere for Learning  Articles size, space, durability and – don’t forget – budget are all factors that need to be taken into account. Whether you’re furnishing a new school or upgrading an older one, the classroom furniture you choose will have a decisive impact on the way students feel about their learning.

School Chair Basics

Studies show that students between the ages of 13-18 years old spend about 78% of their time sitting down. Even preschoolers spend a considerable amount of time in their chairs. So a lot of thought needs to go in to choosing the most suitable chairs for each classroom.

When talking about school chairs, there are some technical words that come up pretty often. So a little school furniture terminology will help make things clear.

School chair seats are manufactured out of one of three materials: wood, soft plastic and hard plastic. Wood means just that, wood. Soft plastic is the colloquial name for polyethylene and polypropylene. Polyethylene has a lot of give; polypropylene, while not actually bendable, does conform somewhat so that students can lean back a bit in their chairs. Hard plastic is far more rigid than its soft counterpart and has no bend whatsoever.

The legs and supports of school chairs are usually made of one of three gauges of steel: 18, 16, and 14 gauge. Contrary to what one might assume, the lower the gauge the stronger the steel, so if you're looking for the strongest supports around, you would look for chairs with 14 gauge steel.

Ideally, children should be able to plant their feet firmly on the floor even when sitting with their backs against their chairs. This position minimizes fidgeting and provides proper back support. Practically speaking, there will always be some children whose feet dangle when they sit all the way back, or who will have to lean forward if they want their feet to reach the floor. Use the following guidelines to ensure that as many children as possible in each grade have chairs that are height-appropriate for them. Remember, when measuring school chairs, the height is always measured from the floor to the highest point on the chair seat.

Size Guide for School Chairs

Three years olds - 50% of the chairs should be 12" and 50% lower than that.
Four year olds - 75% of the chairs should be 12" and 25% lower than that.
Kindergarten - 50% of the chairs should be 12" and 50% should be 14".
1st Grade - All chairs should be 14".
2nd Grade - 50% of the chairs should be 14" and 50% should be 16"
3rd Grade - All chairs should be 16".
4th Grade - 75% of the chairs should be 16" and 25% should be 18".
5th-12th Grades - All chairs should be 18".

School Tables

As with chairs, here's a bit of school desk and table terminology you should be familiar with. The top of school tables or desks is the part that gets the most use, and is the easiest to damage. There are two basic types of table/desk tops for schools. The first - and least expensive - is called a laminate, which is essentially a wood top with a processed surface that protects it from minor damage. Everyday splotches like pencil marks, fingerprints and white-out will come off easily; however, the desk will be vulnerable to dents and pen scratches, as well as damage from sharp objects.

The second kind of tabletop is a hard plastic top. This is just what it sounds like - a desk or table covered with a solid piece of hard plastic. These are extremely difficult to damage, as they are quite tough and can stand up to major student abuse. Although they can be significantly more expensive in the short run, their durability can make them worth their while in the long run.

The third type of desk top is called Woodstone. Manufactured exclusively by Hertz Furniture, Woodstone is made of a hard plastic surface with a core of wood and/or wood parts. It is just about as durable as regular hard plastic, but since it is less expensive to manufacture, its price is more or less the same as a laminate.

Now that we've gotten the basics out of the way, we are ready to actually think about the school furniture that will serve your students best. Since different grades have different needs, we'll break it up by age group.

Preschool - Kindergarten


Gross motor skills in small children are still very much in the development stage; that's why they tend to trip and fall more often than older children. So when your budding students go down with a bang, you want to make sure that their chairs stay intact.

Despite the need for durability, though, soft plastic is a far more popular choice for this age than hard plastic. Small children's bodies are not yet fully developed (that's why they're so soft and cuddly!); as a result, they are uncomfortable sitting in very rigid chairs. So look for chairs made of top-quality soft plastic.

Some school chairs come with a plastic back and seat, but metal frames and legs for added strength and support. These are great for durability, but smaller children might stick their fingers into the space between the metal and plastic and get them pinched or even stuck. If that's a concern for you, look for soft plastic chairs made of one piece, solid construction, as these will have no spaces for curious little fingers. They are also much less expensive.

If you're looking for the strength of the metal-plastic combination but want the safety of a one-piece unit, you might want to try a school chair made of a mixture of soft and hard plastic. These chairs are made of a one-piece, soft plastic shell (meaning the back and seat) that is ultrasonically welded to a hard plastic base. They are a bit more expensive than the standard soft plastic preschool chair, but cost significantly less than a metal-plastic combo.

In most P-K classrooms, the same general areas are used for such varying activities as circle time, arts and crafts, eating and even sleeping. That makes it necessary to have chairs that can be moved and stored easily. So look for chairs that stack easily and in quantity. Make sure that they can be pushed or pulled without too much effort as well. This is especially important for 5-6 year olds, who will be expected to clear away the chairs when they're "on duty".


For preschoolers to kindergarten, you want to look for tables that measure from about 19-23 inches in height. Some tables come with adjustable legs, so you can raise and lower them to suit your needs.

Generally speaking, children up to kindergarten age sit between four and eight to a table. If you're looking at a rectangular table, calculate approximately 20 inches for each child. For round tables, figure that between eight and ten children can fit around a table with a 48 inch diameter.

Although preschool-K children are not necessarily harsh on their school furniture - even their scissors tend to have round edges - they can be pretty messy. Glue, crayons, markers, glitter and paint will all "decorate" your tables liberally. So, although you may not need tables with hard plastic tops, make sure you buy ones with a high quality laminate to make clean-up as hassle-free as possible.

The shape of your school tables will depend a great deal on the structure of your classroom. While many schools use standard round or rectangular tables, there are others that prefer kidney-shaped tables, which allow all the children to have an equal view of the teacher. If it is important to you to be able to push tables together, then consider trapezoidal tables. Some companies, like Hertz Furniture, carry specialty tables, like clove or flower-shaped, on a made to order basis.

Elementary School Chairs

Starting with first grade, young students are expected to sit and concentrate for far longer periods of time. Therefore, ensuring maximum comfort and minimum fidgeting is a top priority.

Most standard elementary school chairs are made from soft plastic. These are both more comfortable and less expensive; however, they are not as durable as their hard counterparts, nor are they stain and scratch resistant. If you're operating under budget constraints - or it's important to you that students have school chairs they can lean back in - then here are a few features to that will give your soft plastic chairs an added boost of durability:

* Back supports - These are steel supports that run all the way up the back so that the chair will stand up to the pressure of students leaning against it.

* Underseat brackets - Check to see that the school chair you purchase has supporting brackets under the chair seat.

* 16 gauge steel - Ideally, the steel supports should be made of at least 16 gauge steel. If you can find 14 gauge steel, all the better.

* Long-term warranty - This is crucial. Make sure that the manufacturer is willing to stand behind their products. Some companies, like Academia, actually offer a limited lifetime warranty on their soft plastic school chairs, which means that the warranty lasts for the entire original purchaser's lifetime.

Wood chairs are extremely durable and give a beautiful, classic look to schoolroom furniture. They are considerably more expensive than either soft or hard plastic, though, which is one of the main reasons you don't see them too often.

School Chair Legs

Quality school chairs come with different leg options. Depending on the kind of flooring your school has, choose the leg type that is best for your needs.

A standard, four legged school chair is the best choice for schools with hard floors. The chair rests on four legs that are usually made of tubular steel and capped with glides to keep the chairs level and prevent scratches on hard surface floors. Nylon or plastic glides are softer on hard floors, and prevent students from making distracting noises when they move around.

Sled-based chairs are also made of tubular steel; however, rather than splitting into four legs, the chair is supported on each side by a base that resembles a sled. This type of school chair doesn't move easily across hard floors, but it glides softly and easily on carpeted surfaces.

The third option is school chairs on casters. These are four-legged chairs with little wheels attached so that students can turn around with ease, and are highly recommended for classrooms like computer labs or art rooms. They can, however, be hazardous for students in younger grades, and are usually reserved for either teachers or for middle school and up.

Elementary School Table Tips

Once children enter first grade, they no longer sit four, six or eight to a table; rather, they sit either in pairs or at individual desks. They use their tables more and more for writing and less and less for activities such as arts and crafts, and, as their studies become departmentalized, they have more materials to keep track of. The older the students get, the more frequently they write with pens (as opposed to pencils), and they need sharp-edged school supplies like sharp scissors and compasses.

So when planning elementary school furniture, you should be looking for tables that 1) accommodate two students comfortably; 2) provide a storage solution for school materials and supplies; and, 3) will stand up to intense daily wear and tear.

For younger grades, height adjustable activity tables are great. They have plenty of room for young students to have all their materials on the table without invading their tablemate's space. Although these work well for older grades, too, many schools prefer school desks at this stage. If you're interested in desks for grades 5 and up but still want your students to be able to work comfortably in pairs, then look for double desks such as those manufactured by Academia.

As far as school supplies, consider chairs with attached book baskets, or desks with open view book boxes. It can be important for the teacher to see what the students have under their desks, both to facilitate neatness and order and to prevent undesirable objects (or pets!) from creating discipline problems. Definitely look for school tables with hard plastic tops, or at least a very high quality laminate. Best-quality desk and tabletops will save you both money and time-consuming maintenance.

If your school is fortunate to serve wheelchair-bound students, make sure that at least some of your tables are wheelchair accessible. Some schools purchase only wheelchair accessible tables so that all students have the same school furniture, regardless of physical ability.

Some tips for 7th-12th grade chairs and tables

Generally speaking, just about everything that applies to elementary school furniture applies to junior high and high school as well. There are, however, a few exceptions and additions.

The first is that, at this point, height is no longer an issue. All your students will need 18"-19" inch school chairs.

Secondly, 7th-12th graders can be tough on their school furniture. Besides regular wear and tear, they also have a tendency to write (and occasionally engrave) messages on their chairs. So hard plastic chairs are highly recommended. Ditto for desk tops. If budget constraints don't allow for that, make sure that the desks you purchase have a very high quality laminate, such as Educational Edge desks, or a Woodstone top.

Thirdly, unlike the elementary grades, most schools provide individual desks from 7th grade and up. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending largely on whether your school is geared for independent learning, cooperative learning or a combination of both. Double desks, mentioned earlier, make it easy for students to organize into partners. Trapezoidal desks allow students to sit individually, but can be conveniently joined together to form semi-circles, hexagons or octagons for group learning. Individual desks, which you see in most classrooms, promote independent learning. Some have an enlarged surface to fit large textbooks, laptops, and to provide additional working space for study partners.

Last, students in 7th-12th grades have a lot more school materials for each class, as well as school supplies. That means that it is crucial to have school furniture that provides a storage solution for all their stuff. Some schools prefer chairs with attached bookshelves or baskets, as this gives students a convenient place to store their things yet eliminates the tendency to fidget with them, as they are safely under their seats. Other schools prefer under-the-desk storage, which allows students easy access to whatever they may need. Wire book racks are great for students who will be storing pencil cases, books and notebooks, as they offer the best visibility to both student and teacher. Individual pens and pencils, however, will fall through the mesh. If this is a concern for you, consider open front book boxes. These allow students uncomplicated access to their school materials, but eliminate the problem of small objects falling out. Lift top book boxes, once very popular, have the most room for school supplies of all sizes. The problem is that in order to remove anything, the student must first clear everything else off the desk. Besides that inconvenience, there were cases in which the lids slammed down on the students' fingers, and the schools found themselves the object of lawsuits brought by the parents. So you don't see these too often anymore

Again, if you have wheelchair-bound students, make sure to take them into consideration when purchasing school desks. There are a number of wheelchair-accessible desks available in a variety of styles, many of which are appropriate for the non-wheelchair bound as well.

An economical choice - both in terms of money and space - is a chair-desk combination unit. Used mostly in high schools (and universities), these come with a choice of both soft and hard plastic chairs, and the desks usually come with a choice of tops in terms of both color and material. Some desks fold down; others have what is called a tablet-arm, which means that the student has something to lean on, too. Many come with optional book baskets, either under the seat or attached to the side for convenient access to school materials.

Due, perhaps, to the academic responsibility junior high and high school students are expected to assume, it is easy to neglect classroom aesthetics and to focus on pragmatics when planning school furniture for these grades. Don't make that unfortunate mistake. It's precisely because of the heavy workload they carry that an attractive academic environment is so important.

School furniture, including desks but especially chairs, comes in a variety of colors. Navy blue and burgundy are currently the most popular, but you can find chairs in such unique colors as turquoise, cranberry and teal, as well as in all the primary colors. For classrooms with a color scheme that is both classy and consistent, Educational Edge offers a whole line of completely color coordinated furniture. And if you're looking for school furniture that is both unusually strong and uniquely designed, try the Inspiration line manufactured by Hertz Furniture.

More than Desks and Chairs

Now that you've got your basic furniture the sky's the limit in terms of other types of school items: School lockers, cafeteria tables, directory boards, display easels, whiteboards, maps, globes, fixtures, bookcases, library tables, special teacher's furniture - the list goes on and on, and it can be overwhelming. Just keep your students' needs in mind, and try to remember - when I was a student, would these items have made my school years more pleasant and productive? When you think like that, you're on the right track to achieving what is really the ultimate goal of school furniture.