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Ergonomics for Children

Are children just "little adults"?

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©2003 Rani Lueder   Published in ErgoSolutions  Dec. 2003 |  pdf

Are children just little adults?

by Rani Lueder, CPE
Humanics Ergonomics


In recent years, there has been a growing interest in child ergonomics, particularly when it comes to children learning and playing with computers.

Media articles suggest that children experience the same dangers as adults. After all, if computer work increases the risk of developing Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTDs) among adults, wouldn’t the same be true for children?

Yet if you look a bit closer, distinctions between children and adults become more pronounced. Try lining up your old X-rays in chronological order. Your forty year-old spine will look quite different than it did one and two decades before.

Children are growing and developing, while we undergo degenerative processes. Perhaps we should refer to ourselves as the "degenerates" and children as the "generates".

Children are also considerably less prone to soft tissue disorders such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) than adults. Child CTS cases are typically caused by forceful events such as playing softball, rather than using keyboards.

child ergonomics, ergonomics for children, children & carpal tunnel
©Ursy Potter Photography
Photo with permission.

Differences between children and adults include:

1.  Children’s bones are growing.

Children’s bones are softer than adult bones. The relationship between a child’s bones and muscles also changes over time; some bones grow faster than others.

2.  Child bone growth occurs at the growth plates.

Growth plates define the length and shape of mature bones. When growth is complete in adolescence, growth plates close and are replaced by hard bone.

Growth plates are the weakest link in growing skeletons (weaker/softer than ligaments and tendons), representing fifteen percent of childhood fractures. Damage to child joints usually occurs at the growth plates. Of particular importance, damage to growth plates can affect future bone growth.

Ligament and tendon injuries are fairly unusual in children with immature bone growth plates. Since ligaments are two to three times stronger than the bones, injuries are more likely as bone fragments than to ligaments.

3.  Taller children are not necessarily less prone to injury than their shorter counterparts.

People often assume that taller children are better able to safely perform manual tasks such as heavy lifting. Yet children may be at greater risk following a growth spurt.

Bone growth in children requires "catch up". For example, the long bones of seven-year old girls on average reach eighty percent of their peak length – while the bone mineral content is only forty percent of the ultimate level. That is, their bones grow longer before they become stronger. Following a spurt of bone growth, children also need to learn posture and coordination; soft tissues need to develop to accommodate their new dimensions.

4.  Children’s spines evolve and differ from adult spines.

Infants are born without a lumbar curve; their lumbar curves develop as they progress towards adolescence. Adolescence also accompanies hormonal changes that affect the distribution of muscle and fat – and correspondingly the external shape of our backsides.

One reason that ergonomists make a fuss over the importance of movement among adults is that by the time we reach adolescence, we have lost our ability to actively "feed" our spines (intradiscal segments), and eliminate intradiscal waste. Thus, movement is essential if adults are to slow the associated degenerative processes. Movement does so by inducing changes in pressure that cause passive transport of nutrients and waste products.

Movement is also critically important for adults because so many have to unlearn life experiences that lead them to develop unbalanced, passive and constrained sitting postures.

5.  Children’s vision is malleable.

Pay extra attention to children’s monitor heights, which inevitably force them to maintain excessively high visual fields.

Children’s vision is developing. Ankrum and Fostervold overview of the research concludes that classroom schooling requiring extensive or intense near vision can contribute to the development of near-sightedness (myopia). There is reason to suspect that too-close viewing distances, especially at high viewing angles, may increase long-term visual dysfunctions as children mature into adulthood.

Despite these differences, pain can debilitate children as well as adults. Recent studies indicate that schoolchildren experience much higher degrees of discomfort and pain than had been commonly assumed. Some researchers suggest that children’s neck and backpain rates compare with those of adults.

We want to encourage children to find ways to learn, and to see learning as a positive experience. How better than by alleviating them of discomfort and distractions caused by inappropriate learning environments?

Childhood is also a critical time to teach good work habits that can set children up for a lifetime of safe practices. As they grow and develop, they learn coping mechanisms for dealing with new environments that will continue to affect the risks they face as they develop, mature and age. It is always best to learn how to "do it right the first time" than then to relearn safe practices later in life.

Let’s hear it for the "generates".

Rani Lueder, CPE is president of Humanics Ergonomics Inc., a human factors & ergonomics consulting firm in Austin, Texas specializing in workplace ergonomics, product design research and the evaluation, design and applications of cyber-technologies.  Her second edited book, on sitting postures (Taylor & Francis), is sold worldwide.  She served on the seating subcommittee for the American National Standard ANSI HFES 100-2007.  She edited the book Ergonomics for Children: Designing products & places for toddlers to teens.

Selected references

Ankrum, A. and Fostervold K. I. (2004) Vision in children. In: Lueder, R. and Rice, V. (Eds.) Child Ergonomics. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Bass, A.A. and Bruce, C.E. (2000) The persistently irritable joint in childhood an orthopaedic perspective. European Journal Radiology.  33(2), 135-148.

Bass, S., Delmas, P.D., Pearce, G., Hendrich, E., Tabensky, A. and Seeman, E. (1999) The differing tempo of growth in bone size, mass, and density in girls is region-specific. J. Clinical Investigations.  104(6), 795-804.

Dormans, J.P. (2002) Evaluation of children with suspected cervical spine injuries. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery.  84-A1, 124-132.

Special issue on "Youth and Ergonomics" in the journal Work. edited by Karen Jacobs.  18(3), 2002.

Lin, J-P, Brown, J.K and Walsh, E.G. (1994) Physiological maturation of muscles in childhood. The Lancet. 343(8910), 1386-1389.

Should children use computers like adults?

More ergonomics research: Design of child products and spaces

Ergonomics for children workshop, ErgoExpo ’02  |  Slide show
The National Ergonomics Conference & Exposition

Ergonomics for Children (Table of Contents of the book)

Children and adult handwriting by Cindy Burt, OTR


More on ergonomics for children  |  Children and ergonomics (ErgoExpo)

Ergonomics for children:  products & places for toddlers to teens  (the book)

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