Let’s just say it. Kids give desks a beating. Year after year, these classroom workhorses must accommodate every type of learner, learning style and learning tool, not to mention the wear and tear of regular maintenance. And don’t forget the occasional wad of gum. If you’re in the market for buying or replacing K – 12 classroom desks, here are eight “future-proof” features to consider before you commit to a classroom design. Above all, skip the discounts and gimmicks. Desks are one area where quality really counts.
Most schools have one shot to buy their furniture out of bond funds. Make it count with a commitment to long-lasting, durable products. Invest in desks that will endure for 20 to 30 years verses a commodity type item that will need replacement in one to five years using discretionary funds.
Strive for flexible and reconfigurable shapes. A simple 20-inch x 27-inch rectangle offers a lot of flexibility. It can go in rows, pairs or groups of four nicely. Or, look for desktops that taper from back to front, approximating a piece of pie, like Smith System’s Diamond Desks. When gathered, the diamond-shaped work surfaces allow a tight circle formation that encourages participation (and eye contact) by all students in the group. These collaborative learning desks can also be arranged in circles of six, semi-circles of three, pairs, rows, or totally separated for individual work or testing.
Maximize your options and student comfort by avoiding a tethered desk-chair combo. Freestanding desks and chairs offer a lot more versatility to group-up for collaborative learning or pull apart for testing. The non-combo also enhances ergonomics. If one chair doesn’t fit a student, he or she can try another. Plus, some students find the stationary desk-chair combo restrictive, even claustrophobic. This can be especially true for larger students and/or those with learning challenges.
4. Adjustable Height
Strive for desks that can be tailored to learners as their size changes. Adjustable height (from as low as 22 inches for PreK) provides many options for schools with changing enrollment among grade levels. A desk that can adjust up to 34 inches is also a nice touch, paired with 24-inch fixed-height stools, for a change in elevation in the classroom. Older kids like the “bistro” feel.Classroom Height Guide
5. Surface Material
You can’t go wrong with a basic, high-pressure laminate (HPL) tabletop. The folks at the Composite Panel Association agree. “HPL is considered one of the most durable decorative surface materials and is available with special performance properties including chemical, fire and wear resistance.” They go on to say that because of its durability, HPL is a common choice for horizontal surfaces like desktops, countertops, even flooring. In other words, if HPL can hold-up to foot traffic, it can certainly handle hands, elbows, ipads and budding graffiti artists.
6. Technology Options
Given the place of technology in the classroom, it’s tempting to choose desks that can accommodate power routing (cords). Molly Risdall Parnell with Smith System cautions against what may seem obvious: tabletops with grommet openings. “A basic, clean surface is the way to go because technology and curriculum keep changing. You’d hate to put a big dome or grommet onto a tabletop and have it be outdated in a few years.” Instead, Risdall Parnell advocates for a more flexible option, like a nonpermanent power clamp with four power two data, or with her company’s I~O Post. It distributes power and connectivity throughout large areas to 1:1 learners (iPads, computers) with eight grounded plugs. (Many R&D experts project that entirely wireless classrooms are still a few – or more – years out.1)
Mobile school furniture is a must in today’s collaborative learning classrooms, as well as labs, libraries, lounges and even corridors. This includes mobile desks that even the smallest elementary-aged student can maneuver. Again, choose a manufacturer who offers options: four casters (with two locking) to roll a desk or table flat, or choose two casters for wheelbarrow mobility. Either choice reduces student effort and makes classroom transitions faster and quieter.
Colors in the classroom, including colored desk tops or edge bands, can certainly foster fun and learning. But find the right balance. Too much color or colors that are too bright can over stimulate kids. Find a mix of warm and primary colors, and factor in other colors in the room, including what teachers may hang on the walls. In general, by age 11 or 12, there should be a transition from warmer colors to cool neutrals.2 Choose a desk manufacturer with ample color choices.
Gimmicks or Trends to Avoid Risdall Parnell offers this closing advice on what to she advises her clients to avoid. First, are lift-lid desks (also known as flip-lid desks). “If the student has an iPad or Chromebook on the desk top, and lifts the lid, the device crashes to the floor.” A close second is trendy collaborative learning combo desks. “They have one entry point, so when you group students in a circle, the kids are basically trapped.”
Finally, choose a reputable manufacturer with a long history. That’s a key sign of a company that stays current with educational trends, but doesn’t toss traditional designs that stand the test of time – and students.
1 Pye, Linda, “Seven Design Trends in Higher Education,” Pye Interiors website: pyeinteriors.com/sevendesign_trends.pdf
2 Atkinson, William, “Coloring the Classroom,” School Planning & Management, Dec. 2013.
Download our Buying Guide about Collaborative Desks
• Is it the right size for the student? Can it be adjusted to accommodate a student in this grade range?
• Will the desktop withstand the use and movement?
• What is High Pressure Laminate?
• Is the shape appropriate? Does the pod’s total footprint work for the size of the classroom?