Steady on the ball

Teacher uses ex­er­cise balls to con­trol squirm­ing stu­dents.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FAMILY - By ERICA RODRIGUEZ

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

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, co­or­di­na­tion 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 move- ment sci­ence at Grand Val­ley State Univer­sity in Al­len­dale, Michi­gan. “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% 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% 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.”

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. Yes, have kids sat in chairs for 100 years? Yes, they have. But it’s just like when you know bet­ter, you do bet­ter.” – The Or­lando Sen­tinel/ McClatchy Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

Bet­ter than chairs: Sit­ting on ex­er­cise balls help the chil­dren fo­cus bet­ter. — mcT

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