Students sat at attention in a loose cluster in Sarah Christiansen’s third grade Mid Valley Elementary classroom at the end of March, listening to Physical Therapist Assistant Nissa Huber explain proper use and care of the new exercise balls that would soon re-place their desk chairs.
“Help us set this up for success by being good ambassadors for this trial program,” Huber told them, outlining a few ground rules: Use the ball as you would a chair — don’t kick, throw or otherwise abuse it, and no pushing your neighbor off, either. Do so, and risk losing ball privileges.
“What happens if someone pops my ball?” one student asked, hoping to clarify the point.
“Everybody is going to take really good care of their balls,” answered Christensen, adding that if a ball was popped, the person doing the popping would lose their ball and have to sit on a chair again.
That seemed to satisfy this particular boy; others had still more questions.
“Do we get to take our balls with us to other classes?” another student asked.
“No,” Christiansen said, “the balls will stay here.”
“Do we get to keep them?” one chimed in, hopefully.
“No,” she said, “these are class balls.”
Huber was joined by Tom Moline, physical therapist and manager of rehabilitation services at Providence, and Chris Rogers, Hood River Valley High School athletic trainer. With rules and expectations now laid out, the students broke into two groups to fill their new exercise balls with air using a hand pump. It turned out that the pumping was just as exciting as the balls themselves.
“One of the students I had helping me was insistent that he was not getting tired, even though his breathing became harder and he began to sweat, because he was having so much fun,” Rogers said in a follow up email. “Overall, this was a fun experience that we hope will help students be more attentive and ready to learn in class. We also hope that an introduction to a unique opportunity such as this will help them make healthy lifestyle choices in the future.”
And that sums up what this trial program aims to do. Re-search shows that sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair “stimulates the brain in ways better for concentration, energy outlet and posture,” said Moline. When the spine is in good posture, “this decreases depression and increases attention and motivation. Good posture improves our mood, physiologically,” he explained.
Replacing chairs with balls also means that students are constantly moving just to stay balanced, which has its own benefits.
Having a ball
Christiansen reports that her students have settled into their new learning environment and are journaling each week specifically on how the balls help them in the classroom. Below is an excerpt from some of those entries:
Omar — “My body feels like I have energy more and I’m learning more.”
Jesus — “I feel like I could stretch all the way to the next classroom with my ball.”
Cooper — “Having a ball feels like I’m bouncing on a trampoline.”
Lupita — “I feel perfect on the ball.”
Jacqueline — “I can focus being on the ball.”
“There is research that shows the use of balls instead of chairs in the classroom helps students sit up straight and engage the muscles and the parts of their brains need-ed to remain in balance while on the ball,” Huber said. “Additional benefits range from quieter classrooms to more attentive students … Re-searchers found the ability to move around more while sit-ting made the students more attentive and they believed that was in part due to kids burning off excess energy by bouncing on the ball.”
The idea for the program came when Huber and coworker Linda Alexander, an-other physical therapist, were looking for a way to give back to the community, specifically to children. Huber, aware of the findings, suggested bringing exercise balls to classrooms.
Moline “loved the idea,” and Rogers went to work getting price quotes and ordering 70 balls with help from Susan Frost, Providence community relations manager.
Providence provided the funds to purchase balls in two classrooms: Mid Valley Elementary in Odell, and at St. Mary’s Academy in The Dalles (a mixed class of second, third and fourth graders), said Mo-line.
Christensen’s classroom was chosen because the stu-dents are “right in the middle” — not too young to understand how to take care of the balls, nor too old to be possibly resistant to the idea — as well as be-cause Mid Valley “is a progressive school,” he said. “They take advantage of opportunities such as this, especially teachers like Sarah Christiansen who go well beyond the extra mile.”
Moline initially thought he would have to sell the idea to Christensen, but when he approached her, she was already aware of the research — and began to tell him the benefits.
“There is awesome research behind using therapy balls that supports posture, better focus, engaging both sides of the brain, and is a continual energy release,” she explained in a follow up email. “I decided to take this chance because I know that asking my students to sit through a whole day, completely focused, well-energized and motivated, is a lot. Whatever tool I can utilize to help my kiddos get all they need out of this learning environment, while meeting their physical, emotional, and psychological needs, is worth trying out.”
As for the students, they’ve settled into their new routine— some more easily than others — and she’s noticed better posture and focus.
“They are very protective of the balls and are taking really good care of them as well,” she added. “They understand that the balls are in our classroom to help us learn better and are not for playing with. For some of my kiddos who struggle with focus, at first the ball was a bit of a distraction, but they are getting the hang of it now.”
With a rise in childhood obesity and a decrease in school-funded physical educa-tion programs, Moline said, it’s time to start thinking out-side the box.
“With less access to physical activity over the past few decades, kids do not have the opportunity to learn skills and have access to learn healthy play activities,” he said. “(Exercise balls are) relatively cheap, and we are able to ac-cess many kids in a learning environment. There is potentially a lot of gain for minimal input … We have to try as many viable tools as we can to improve our community. I can tell you that will not happen if we sit in the corner and suck our thumbs.”