Why do people develop the restrictive physical patterns that cause back pain or a sore neck or restricted arm and leg movements. The great majority of small children, after all, carry themselves with grace and ease - yet the same cannot be said for most adults. When - and how - does the problem typically begin?
Of course, there are many reasons these restrictions can creep in - the trauma of injuries, physical or emotional abuse, to name a couple of examples. But for the most part, harmful patterns of posture and movement can be traced to two factors:
1. children’s unconscious imitation of adults around them
2. the unintended effects of their early classroom experiences
When I was training in England to become an Alexander Technique teacher, I can vividly remember sitting with another Alexander teacher-trainee and noticing a large group of adults and children at a nearby table. Several of the children were playing games near the table and we decided to guess which children belonged to which parents.
Very quickly we associated two little boys who were holding their shoulders rigidly back with a man who had precisely the same pattern. A teen-aged girl with stooped shoulders and a very tight neck was assigned to a slouching couple.
When the children returned to the table, we were correct in both cases. In fact, you can often spot this sort of thing within a family. Children learn a great deal by observing the people around them and it seems that they are particularly adept at copying patterns that are out of the ordinary, such as an odd walking gait or shoulders dramatically hunched up toward their head.
Other, and equally important, causes of harmful habits of posture and movement can be found in most school classrooms.
When children are old enough to go to school, a serious challenge to their health presents itself: sitting still for what seems like forever - tricky enough in itself - combined with some of the worst furniture design they’re ever likely to encounter.
For reasons of economy, and presumably to minimize the work of the custodial staff, most schools today have chosen desks and chairs that are of a standard size and shape, despite the fact that the children using them come in a great many different sizes. Chairs, for instance, are often chosen for their “stack-ability”.
In my daughter’s middle school, the lunchroom tables have seats bolted onto the sides so there is no way to adjust for different heights, leg lengths etc. This makes it quick and easy to clear the room for cleaning; but it encourages some pretty harmful postural patterns as short and tall children try to adjust.
Take a look at a group of 5-6 year olds as they play and you’ll notice that for the most part they move with ease and agility. Then watch some 7-8 year olds and you’ll see the beginnings of hunched shoulders, tight necks, and restricted breathing that you can see more fully developed in many adults. I sometimes ask my Alexander Technique students to assemble a collection of photographs of themselves at various ages. It is striking just how often obvious physical deterioration seems to set in just when they first start going to school.
In America in recent months, we’ve been reading a lot about new federal government legislation to make sure all workers have access to ergonomically designed furniture. This legislation grows out of the near epidemic occurrence of repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and the realization that good furniture design can lessen the chances that workers will fall victim to these modern scourges.
Yet, the people most at risk - small children in classrooms - are being forced to use furniture that would never be tolerated in a work situation.
Elizabeth Langford, a well-respected British Alexander Technique teacher comments on this in her book Mind and Muscle - An Owner's Manual: "No amount of 'physical education' will undo the damage done to schoolchildren condemned to spend hours of every day sitting on such chairs. Good chairs can never guarantee good sitting, but it is scandalous that children, forced to use chairs on which it is impossible to sit properly, are thus molded for a future of poor co-ordination, back pain, and other health problems." (page 202)
What can parents do about this? I’m certainly no expert in the in's and out's of school purchasing decisions, but I believe the main problem is simply lack of awareness of the issues. I would encourage parents to visit their child's classrooms, particularly in the early grades, and observe for themselves the effects of the poorly designed furniture. Then, they would be in a much better position to pressure school administrators to invest in furniture better suited for children.
(1) The Alexander Technique is a century-old method of learning how to release harmful tension from your body, thereby improving your posture and coordination.
Article: "How Children Develop Harmful Patterns" by Robert Rickover
A couple of very helpful resources for parents who are concerned with these kinds of issues have been published by Alexander Technique teachers, who have spent time teaching the Technique in public school classrooms - Ann Mathews in a suburb of New York City and Michelle Arsenault in an inner-city New York City school. Ann’s book is titled Implications for Education in the Work of F. M. Alexander: An Exploratory Project in a Public School Classroom and Michelle’s is Moving to Learn - A Classroom Guide to Understanding and Using Good Body Mechanics.
About the Author
Robert Rickover is an Alexander Technique teacher living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique website at: AlexanderTechnique.com