Parents of school-aged children navigating distance learning from home this fall may want to think twice before telling their kid to stay in their seat.
Just like adults, kids can experience neck and back pain — among other musculoskeletal problems — due to poor workstation ergonomics and being too sedentary during virtual learning.
According to Joy Torbett, a physical therapist at Rebound’s Bend North Clinic, one of the best ways for kids to avoid aches and pains from at-home learning is movement.
She recommends setting a timer every 30 to 45 minutes during the school day as a reminder for your child to stand and move — whether that involves stretching, yoga, or a quick walk around the block. Torbett has implemented this routine in her own home. Her second- and third-grade daughters take frequent breaks from online learning at their desks to jump rope or play hopscotch.
Sitting posture while at a desk also matters, said Torbett. When sitting, a child’s elbows, hips and knees should be at a 90-degree angle to help align the spine and decrease pressure on surrounding joints and muscles, she explained. And chairs should ideally be firm and offer back support, as proper posture helps protect a child’s growing spine.
Placing screens at eye level or an inch below is another way to combat neck and back pain caused by hunching (forward head, rounded shoulders) in front of a too-low computer screen, added Torbett. Chair armrests can also be helpful to take stress off of the neck during extended periods of sitting.
Parents don’t need to rush out and buy expensive ergonomic office furniture and accessories for their kids, emphasized Torbett. “Use what resources you already have.” A stack of books or a block of wood can be used to raise the computer screen or serve as a footstool; rolled-up towels can be placed under wrists while typing for extra support, or used in place of a foam roller for stretching out tight chest muscles.
A bed or couch is no substitute for a table and chair, however. While sitting on soft surfaces, there’s a tendency “to curl up in a little spot and not get the needed back support,” explained Torbett. This position also tends to “push the head forward and put strain on the neck.”
Not all kids will be eager to practice proper posture while typing an essay or participating in a class Zoom lesson. Torbett suggests making a child’s workspace special and inviting by adding touches like a fun lamp or new school supplies.
Her other tip is to physically illustrate the benefits of proper desk posture: “Have your child slouch, then gently push down on their shoulders or head. Then have them sit up with good posture and push down. Hopefully they will recognize how much more stable and stronger the second position feels.”
In the end, “we as parents want to protect (our kids’) bodies and teach them good work habits,” said Torbett. “But we can’t nag our kids —only educate them as best we can to set them up for success.”