Parenting Against the Grain: Going Furniture-Free

June 4, 2014

Friends, I’m really interested to hear your thoughts about my interview today with Katy Bowman. I first encountered Katy a few years ago when SlowMama contributor Ann Waterman interviewed her about pelvic floor disorder (PFD) — a topic on which Katy is an expert. Ann’s post became one of the most popular we ever ran. In this second installment of my new series, Parenting Against the Grain, Katy talks to me about an unusual lifestyle choice her family has made and how it has changed their life. Hope you enjoy it!

Katy Bowman Family
Zoe Saint-Paul: Welcome, Katy! Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your family. 

Katy Bowman: I am a 38-year-old, full-time biomechanist with an 18-month-old girl and a 3-year-old boy. I am a writer (books and blogger), as well as a professional biomechanics consultant for footwear and sports-equipment companies (like Gaiam). I am also the director of the Restorative Exercise Institute — an organization offering online education in the biomechanics of natural human movement for optimal human function. My husband and I both work primarily from home (a situation we spent years creating), and we share the workload of day-to-day and professional life, although we both have areas in these arenas that we prefer.

Biomechanics is a new term for me — and, I suspect, for many others. What is it, exactly?

Biomechanics is the study of living structures (I study the body) and how the forces created by and placed upon them affect how they work.

You made the unusual decision to go without furniture in your home — “furniture-free,” you call it. Why?

As a biomechanist, I understand the relationship between musculoskeletal function and the immune system, bone robusticity (density and shape), and functions like digestion and breathing. Having furniture isn’t an option for us, in the same way a cupboard full of junk food isn’t an option for many others. Furniture creates a development-crippling environment in that the stuff literally shapes our body, both in the now and in the future.

Bowman Living Room
So take us on a tour through your home so we can get an idea of what going furniture-free actually looks like. Do you still sleep in beds? Have a sofa? Where do you sit for meals?

No sofa. We have a low table, similar to the traditional Japanese style, where you can sit on the floor — although, full disclosure, we rarely use it. We just eat on the floor off a platter, similar to a Middle Eastern style of dining. Only we don’t have any cool rugs; we just put our food on a towel.

We do have mattresses on the floor but don’t use pillows. Both my husband and I prefer the floor, and we noticed our kids sleep better on the ground as well, so we’ve just started phasing the beds out. They’re still in our house, but we just make bedrolls every night instead. Probably the most unique feature of our house is our indoor monkey bars. Built by my husband (no, there are no blueprints, in case you’re wondering!), this contraption covers a wall of our living room and is dynamic in form. We add rings, ladders, and ropes to keep it constantly different, and we can change the height of the bars. In the same way many families center their life around traditional food and eating, our family is centered around movement.

Bowman Jungle Gym
How does furniture-free living fit into your style of parenting as a whole?

Natural movement is at the heart of both my and my husband’s professional work, so it’s naturally at the heart of our lifestyle. There are many variables covered by the umbrella of “natural,” but our priority is the mechanical environment — specifically, the epigenetic factors of movement and position. This means we walk most places, carry our kids and stuff in our arms (no strollers or carriers), don’t wear anything but minimal shoes, and have eliminated furniture — including chairs and couches.

I’m curious how this decision has affected your day-to-day family life. Have you seen changes in your children and/or in your parenting?

I think many believe that going furniture-free will make them seem odd to their friends and family — and maybe it will. We’re the only people we know without furniture, but I’d have to say that our house is super-popular with the kids, and, surprisingly enough, people love to stretch out on cushions at our parties. They can’t help but stretch and twist on the floor once they’re down on it. It’s a groovy atmosphere, baby.

Perhaps not directly related to parenting, our home is less cluttered, easier to clean, and instead of needing to go to yoga class for permission to get on the floor and sit cross-legged or do a twist, I do these things way more often. This makes all of us happier in general: As a kid, I dreaded all the chores I had to do, like dusting, simply because my mom liked lots of knick-knacks. Living on the floor has made it easy for my husband and I to stay strong and flexible because we’re essentially getting our “workout” all day long, in short and easy doses. It’s perfect for a working and stay-at-home mom and dad who, frankly, don’t have time to drive for 90 minutes to do something for an hour.

And our kids! They aren’t adapting their body shape to bucket seats and furniture. They aren’t being shaped by modern living as much. Typically, all that natural squatting and foot-arch formation starts to wane in modern populations due to the effects of excessive sitting. Just as we have with junk food, we’ve eliminated “junk movement” from their daily diet. Sure, sweets and sitting are great now and then, but sitting on your couch or chairs for hours every day does just as much if not more damage than sugar for every meal.

Tight Rope Walking
We move, as a family, 4-5 hours per day. These hours are logged outside but also inside, stimulated by an environment that begs us to explore the wide-open space of our living room or the nooks and crannies of the bars and rings hanging from the ceiling. Our kids could both walk a mile (slowly) and hang on their own arms by age one, which I fully credit to their mechanical environment.

Do you think going furniture-free will be the next trend in healthy, natural living?

Many people haven’t studied movement in the same way they’ve studied food, but once people become aware of just how much their bodies and health are shaped by their mechanical environment, going without furniture won’t be so “out there.” I also like to point out that most of the world is furniture-less (certainly when it comes to chairs and couches), including modern and industrialized nations. Getting rid of the sitting devices in your house is certainly a step, but it’s like taking a step back — which is the case in many of these “natural” decisions, yes? Back to the basics, which turn out to be the essentials.

Bowman Family
If someone finds this idea appealing but a little intimidating, where do you suggest they begin? What benefits do you think they’ll notice?

A great place to start, without needing to get rid of your furniture, is to implement a “let’s sit on the floor” rule during living-room time. Instead of playing games around the table, play them on the ground. Throw an impromptu carpet-picnic for dinner — or, better yet, eat outside on the ground. This opens the dialogue between you and your kids. Something like, “Did you know most people all over the world don’t sit at a table to eat? Or have couches? What does it feel like to use your body in a different way? Are you uncomfortable? Our bodies have become shaped by our chairs, and that’s not as good for us as bodies that can get down and up comfortably!” Then try getting up and down a few times as a group to see what it’s like for each of you! Meeting your family on an entirely new level, in a different context, not only immediately changes the loads to your body, it changes the loads to your mind. Things really do look different from the ground!

*******

Katy, thank you for giving us a window into your family’s life. This definitely gives me a lot to chew on, especially as I think about what kind of house and space we might want as a family in the future.

Friends, what do you think? Would you ever get rid of your furniture? Does Katy’s lifestyle inspire any ideas for your own family?

PS — If you’re interested to learn more about why movement is so important for good health, check out Katy’s Paleo Parenting video course. Also, if you enjoyed this post, you may want to check out the first installment of Parenting Against the Grain: my interview with the Harteau family about being modern nomads.

Images: Katy Bowman

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