By COSHANDRA DILLARD
In Nancy Smith's social studies class, chairs are optional. The fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at All Saints Episcopal School has the only class on campus that can choose between the conventional chair and a fitness ball. With six classes and fewer than 20 students in each, all students usually go for the bouncy ball.
They choose between a blue ball and a larger yellow ball, both equipped with rubber legs to help with stability.
During class time, the chairs are not a distraction. In fact, students have adjusted well to them. They sit upright at a 90-degree angle with backs straight, and from time to time, each child will feel the need to bounce as they work on their projects.
"The first month or so, they were excited and squealed and bounced around, and now it's like they've always had them," Ms. Smith said. "It keeps them alert."
Throughout the class on Thursday, students busily worked on mosaic projects. Each at different times, they'd go through intermittent spurts of bouncing, and then return to stillness.
"It took a little while to get used to," Aubrey Hulbig said. "The first time, I felt like I was bouncing for four days straight. It's so much fun."
The constant movement, according to researchers, stimulates both sides of the brain, supporting brain development and improving cognitive skills.
Asher Fanous sits on the larger yellow ball in class. He understands that the constant movement activates something in his and his peers' brains.
"Some people aren't able to focus without tapping or doing something, and this makes it easier," he said. "It kind of keeps you focused, and it keeps your back straight."
Aubrey read about benefits of movement on the brain on the school's website when her class first received the balls, but the physical health benefits did not dawn on her. She just knows it's fun and comfortable.
"I never actually thought of that," she said.
For Kathy Wood, head of intermediate and middle school at All Saints, the fact that the balls provide both brain and physical health benefits was a plus. The idea to introduce it to a class was sparked from a teaching colleague in Michigan, who had success with the fitness balls. She also had researched the benefits, including studies done by the Mayo Clinic in 2007.
"Children and even adults don't like to sit still for a long time but we know as educators, that movement does a lot to trigger the brain," she said.
Students must balance to stay on the balls, which strengthens their core muscles.
"It helps with posture, there's no slumping or they will fall off the ball," Ms. Wood said. "It helps with abdominal muscles and there's much written now about obesity and children's health. With the exercise they get on the ball, every little bit helps no matter what they are doing."
Ms. Smith added, "Kids have so much energy. They need to channel that energy to help them physically and mentally. They just think it's fun."
Ms. Smith's class is a project-based learning environment, which is why it was the prime location to try out the fitness balls. Students in other grades are envious.
"Ms. Smith is willing to go outside of the box and do something different," Ms. Wood said. "It seemed to be the great place to try it."
Ms. Wood does not know when or if other classes on campus will receive fitness balls. So far though, students, parents and faculty have had positive feedback about the change.