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Kids Being Kids: Rifton's Classroom Beginning

The origin story for Rifton, now known for its activity chairs and hygiene systems, starts in a classroom.

Rifton’s Elena Noble, PT, said of the company’s beginning, “After the initial IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] legislation came out — it was in the 1970s, where kids were being brought out of institutions and into schools — a school reached out to one of our factories, because they knew we made wooden equipment for schools, and said, ‘Could you possibly make a chair for this child with special needs that has now joined our school?’”

That company was Community Playthings, which still manufactures classroom furniture, with an emphasis on early childhood education.

“We had a team put something together,” Noble said of that first chair. “It was wooden; that’s what Rifton Equipment was originally, wooden. That was the start of Rifton, and requests started pouring in. And then the Rifton company branched out to a separate business.”

two wooden chairs and a table for young children 

Community Playthings makes wooden furniture (left), but Rifton uses other materials for equipment such as its Activity Chair.

Many Opportunities for Learning

Asked about the importance of carrying optimal positioning at home over to the classroom, Noble said, “Absolutely, I think there are benefits of having an adaptive seat in the classroom. In fact, I kind of see it as the other way around: Maybe intervention and skill building actually start in the classroom, where you have qualified professionals there to work with a child and teach them, and then carry that over into the home.

“A child spends most of their day in the school environment. And so this gives us optimal opportunity, lots of time to be teaching the child the skills they really need.”

While school is most fundamentally a place for academics, Noble sees plenty of opportunities to multi-task. She noted that ultimately, IDEA legislation aims to “provide a child an education, but also opens up opportunities for employment and independent living. We can do all of that in the classroom/school-based environment, as well. We think about using an activity chair or a seating system in the classroom to teach motor skills. Plenty of opportunities to do that, whether we are positioning a child at their desk to access their curriculum, positioning a child in the cafeteria to teach them their eating skills, to sit at the table with their peers, even accessing a sink, maybe for washing their hands prior to lunch or after toileting.”

Durability & Adjustability

Given its pediatric focus, Rifton knows its products need the strength to stand up to the hard knocks of childhood. “We do want our adaptive equipment to be durable,” Noble said. “Kids will be kids, and they’re going to make the most, shall we say, of whatever device they’re in. The chair’s going to go everywhere with them: into bathrooms, the cafeteria, the playground, even the [physical education] class. And then on top of that, our kids often have seizures, or they are on the [autism] spectrum, and maybe they’re going to be using that chair, rocking, or the chair’s going to have some give for when a child maybe has a seizure or extensor tone. Durability really speaks actually to the child using the device. They may be in the bathroom and get water all over it, and you certainly want it to be able to withstand water wear and apple juice. Cleanability, I guess you could call that.

“I think with adults and the teachers, it’s more the adjustability that’s important. So things are easy to adjust, and then you can quickly adapt or change the chair to the different activities during the class, whether the child needs a quick tilt in space to relax their tone or for pressure relief, or maybe adjust quickly to get down to floor time with the class, or even just adjust angles for transfer.”

Noble noted that Community Playthings and Rifton remain partner companies. Community Playthings still extensively uses wood for its classroom furniture, storage systems, and toys.

“Definitely, it was because of the trends elsewhere in other businesses that we switched from wood into plastics and metal work,” she said of Rifton. “And the adjustability that therapists now want from the equipment is really hard to make work with wood.”

Nonetheless, she acknowledged the aesthetics of the past: “We do have a lot of clinicians sort of mourning the loss of the wood in our equipment.”

This article originally appeared in the Jul/Aug 2022 issue of Mobility Management.

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