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Students having a ball sitting at their desks

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Students in Robbi Giuliano's fifth grade class sit on yoga balls at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School in West Chester, Pa.

MATT ROURKE / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

Students in Robbi Giuliano's fifth grade class sit on yoga balls at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School in West Chester, Pa.

EUSTIS, Fla. -- When Seminole Springs Elementary teacher Stephanie Burnett told her colleagues she was going to issue bouncy, inflatable stability balls to her wiggly six- and seven-year-old students instead of desk chairs, the initial reaction was shock.

"When people realized what I intended to do, the first thing people said was, 'I think it's great, but I think you're crazy. You're not going to have chairs at all?'" said Burnett, 31, who is in her third year teaching.

But Burnett went ahead and purchased -- on her own dime -- springy, bright-yellow exercise balls for each of her squirmy first-graders this school year. She hoped the balls would get their wiggles under control so they could focus on school. It worked. Students who slouched in their chairs or even dozed during lessons changed dramatically after sitting on stability balls for several weeks.

The plastic exercise balls were first developed in the 1960s for physical therapy but have since been used in gym workouts to rev up traditional push-ups, sit-ups or yoga moves. The idea is for the ball's instability to improve a user's own stability, co-ordination and posture. The same concept seems to work with a growing number of schoolchildren across the country, according to research, but with an added benefit -- it keeps kids engaged during class.

"We spend from first grade, to college and university looking at the back of someone's head," said John Kilbourne, a professor of movement science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. "A ball allows for much better range of motion with your neighbours."

In 2008, Kilbourne replaced students' desk chairs for 14 weeks with stability balls and found that 98 per cent of them favoured the ball-chairs. They reported positives such as improved posture and better attention levels. Kilbourne now fields daily questions from teachers about how they can do the same in their classes.

More recent research conducted by educators and medical researchers in Aroostook County, Maine, schools and released this year found 78 per cent of teachers said handwriting improved in students who used stability balls instead of desk chairs. Students were also less squirmy and even improved or maintained test scores, according to the study. Other research from the University of Kentucky in 2011 suggests the balls can have a "dramatic effect" on students with attention and hyperactivity problems.

Kilbourne said the balls appeal to "our need for play and playful active learning," which represents a stark contrast to how educators used classroom spaces in prior decades.

"The whole notion of sitting in rows and in classrooms -- that's really part of the Industrial Age in education and that hasn't changed in 100 years," he said. "I think what you're seeing now is a tsunami of change."

On a recent morning, Burnett walked about her classroom giving a reading lesson about story plots and main ideas as students bobbed atop their cushy yellow seats. Once in a while a student would roll on his or her stomach or slouch, but the new seats were mostly just like having regular chairs.

"It really feels like you're sitting on a chair except it's a little squishier," six-year-old student Ella Cooper said.

Burnett keeps a strict rule of bottoms on the ball, feet on the floor to prevent injuries. Movement is encouraged during 10-second "bounce breaks" when students can wiggle to their hearts' content. She credits the balls for helping to cut discipline problems, improving interest and keeping kids focused.

"They're a lot more engaged," Burnett said. "They're a lot more focused, and it takes away the negative aspect of movement. A big push right now is, 'Sit down. Be quiet. Let's focus on your work.' And this helps get their wiggles out."

In Orlando, Fla., Audubon Park Elementary fourth-grade teacher Brandon Thomas, who also uses stability balls, agreed. Thomas began using the balls three years ago after seeing a colleague's classroom. He believes the bouncy chairs help students feel less constrained and will catch on in schools as more educators integrate technology into the classroom.

"When you're not working with paper and pencil that sort of lends itself to the balls," he said.

While Burnett hasn't yet persuaded any of her peers to follow her lead, she said she won't use chairs again because she's found something that works better for student learning.

"I do swear by them," she said. "They are so beneficial to these kids. Have kids sat in chairs for 100 years? Yes, they have, but it's just like when you know better, you do better."

 

-- Orlando Sentinel

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2013 D5

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