ORLAND, Maine — Any kid can tell you: there are all kinds of balls. There are balls to kick and balls to bat, balls to dodge and balls to volley. But at the Orland Consolidated School, the 16 pint-sized exercise balls in Mr. Christian’s first-grade classroom are for learning.
Since the first week of January, the kelly green balls have taken the place of the students’ hard plastic desk chairs. So instead of spending the long school day squirming against slippery plastic seats, the children in this classroom room are allowed — encouraged, even — to jiggle and bounce, wiggle and sway as they take part in class activities while perched on the softly inflated balls.
“The balls are making a big difference in the classroom,” Mr. Christian said Thursday, referring to a graph he uses to keep track of the number of student-generated interruptions during the school day. “It shows in their being able to concentrate longer, in the quality of their work and their ability to focus.”
Mr. Christian’s real name is Christian Koelbl, and this is his first school year with a classroom of his own. He says it was school principal Ivan Braun who read about a couple of schools in southern Maine that had swapped chairs for exercise balls in a few classrooms. The schools were reporting that students using the balls were less fidgety and more engaged in their class activities. Koelbl and Braun agreed it was worth a try.
“We started out with a few exercise balls from the gym,” Koelbl said. But within a short time, they decided to invest in balls for the whole class. For $650 — money left over from a recent fundraiser — the school ordered 16 specially made balls from the WittFitt company in Wisconsin. The company specializes in providing exercise balls — also called stability balls — as seating in classrooms and other settings.
Making a difference in classrooms
Unlike most other stability balls on the market, WittFitt balls are designed with small inflatable legs that prevent the balls from rolling around on their own. The balls come in graduated sizes and are further adjustable via inflation. The company provides training and support for classroom teachers who want to use stability balls for seating in their classrooms.
Company founder Lisa Witt, a former teacher herself, said Thursday that there are a half-dozen schools in Maine that have ordered balls from WittFitt for classroom seating. But the trend is spreading across the country, she said, and not just in elementary classrooms. A few middle and high school teachers have ordered balls for their rooms, she said, and a growing number of offices and other workplaces are experimenting with the seating alternative.
Witt said there is not much in the way of research supporting the idea that sitting kids on stability balls and allowing them to wiggle around a little is good for their learning and concentration. But anecdotally, she said, teachers are excited at the difference the balls make in their students, including students with autism, ADHD and other conditions that make sitting still especially difficult. Perching on a stability ball also promotes good posture, strengthens abdominal muscles and improves circulation, balance and coordination, according to the company’s website.
“We have found it really seems to help just about everyone,” Witt said.
First — keep your bottom on the ball
The carton of uninflated balls arrived at the Orland Consolidated School one cold January day at lunchtime, Koelbl said. “That was a pretty exciting day,” he said. “I stayed late to inflate them all.”
One might imagine mayhem would ensue. But with help from WittFitt’s training program, Koelbl has taught his students “right things” to do with the balls. They have proved apt pupils and demonstrated their understanding on Thursday.
First, they sang The Ball Song (“Keep your bottom on the ball, on the ball” – clap, clap). It is also important to keep your feet on the floor, in order to prevent tipping over, they said. It is OK to use your arms to pantomime driving a car, being a robot or being a monkey. And when you move your ball from one place to another, you should carry it “like a big Santa belly” and not over your head.
Later, Koelbl asked the children to color some photocopied images of the planets of the solar system in preparation for cutting them out and taping them on a black construction-paper background. The project kept the students busy, quiet and focused for 10 minutes or so — with plenty of low-level jiggling and swaying going on.
Eventually, 7-year-old Ben Branch got up to show Koelbl how brightly he had colored his planets. He was clearly pleased with his work and glowed under his teacher’s praise.
“This is a perfect example of what we’re talking about,” Koelbl said, admiring not only the multihued planets but the neatness of the boy’s coloring job. At the beginning of the year, he said, Ben’s crayons likely would have scribbled and strayed far outside the printed images. But on this day, the edges of Saturn’s rings were crisply outlined, Mars a neat red circle in the distance. The difference, Koelbl said, reflects the advantage of the exercise balls — letting naturally active kids like Ben get their fidgets out while they learn in school.