Keeping Students on the Ball

By Stephanie Bouchard, Staff Writer
January 30, 2010
Portland Press Herald

Does this sound familiar? You’re 10 years old and you’re trapped between the wooden slats of your desk chair and the broad expanse of your desktop. Your rear end has gone numb from being plastered against the hard wood of your seat. The desire to move is so overwhelming, you feel like you could explode, but you have to SIT STILL IN YOUR SEAT

Some students at Peaks Island and Kennebunk elementary schools aren’t told to sit still in their seats, because their seats are made for moving. They sit on exercise balls.
The Maine Department of Education doesn’t know how many schools in Maine use exercise balls as seats in classrooms, and there are no hard numbers for how many schools use them nationwide. But 300 to 400 schools in Canada and schools in 32 states, including Peaks Island and Kennebunk, are using them as part of the WittFitt school program.

Based in Wisconsin, WittFitt was founded by lisa Witt, a former elementary school teacher. The WittFitt program provides schools with specialized exercise balls for classrooms, training for teachers and a curriculum. The idea is that the balls promote physical fitness while reducing antsy behavior, thereby helping students focus on their schoolwork.

“I saw an impact right away,” said Stacey Schatzabel, who began using the exercise balls in her third-grade classroom at Kennebunk Elementary last year. “When I introduced (the exercise balls), there was less distraction, kids were more engaged in discussion in the classroom, and there was less of a need to redirect their attention.”

Taking the Edge Off

WittFitt began about 10 years ago, when Witt was being driven to distraction by her fidgety students. Determined to do something about it, she got on the Internet and found that many schools in Europe were using exercise balls as seating in their classrooms. What’s more, the schools reported that the use of the balls seemed to reduce students’ distraction.

Witt, a marathon runner and cross-country track coach, understood the importance of movement. She brought exercise balls into her classroom and found that they not only helped the most fidgety kids, they helped all of them. “I was picturing (using the balls) for thr/ee or four kids, but it really calmed the whole class down,” Witt said.

Witt and other teachers who use the balls in their classrooms say that sitting on the balls improves posture, attention and focus, strengthens core muscles and enhances learning.
The possibility of enhancing her students’ learning experience got Schatzabel excited about using the balls in her classroom. Schatzabel had attended a conference in Boston called “Learning and the brain,” where the keynote speaker explained how exercise and movement improved attention and focus, which in turn could have a positive effect on learning. “I knew exercising was good for your heart, body and soul, but I didn”t know it impacted your learning,” she said. Schatzabel brought her own exercise balls and others that had been given to her into her classroom. She then sought a grant to use the WittFitt program in her class and in the second grade at Kennebunk Elementary. The grant was funded by the Education Foundation of the Kennebunks, and the school began using the WittFitt program last year.

Students also use the balls as part of Kennebunk Elementary’s physical education curriculum. That helps reinforce the importance of fitness as a life choice, rather than a tedious gym class, Schatzabel said.

Relax and Learn

While exercise balls—also called Swedish balls, stability balls and physioballs—have been around for decades, they have been used primarily for physical rehabilitation, strength and conditioning, and fitness training, said Wayne Lamarre, chairman of the Department of Exercise and Sport Performance at the University of New England in Biddeford. There is much research on the benefits of using exercise balls in rehabilitation, Lamarre said, but there is little research on using exercise balls in the classroom.

The lack of scientific literature to support the use of exercise balls in classrooms doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits. Common sense says the proven benefits of exercise balls in other settings can be applied to the classroom, Lamarre said. For instance, take rocking and bouncing, both of which can be done on exercise balls. “The rocking-bouncing motion settles the brain and allows us to focus on other things we’re trying to do,” he said. like take a math test.

As they bounce gently on their yellow and blue balls, fourth and fifth-graders in Kara St. Germain’s class at Peaks Island Elementary School explain how important the balls are for their posture and how their ability to move lets them concentrate more – things they’ve learned in the lessons teachers offer as part of the WittFitt program.

“I really like sitting on the balls because I think they’re a lot more comfortable (than a traditional desk chair),” said Danny Hanley, a 9-year-old fourth-grader. “And my grades have gone up—I’m not sure that’s because of the ball.”

“I like the ball chairs more. I don’t know why,” said 9-year-old Elisa Membreno. After a moment’s reflection, she added, “They’re more fun.”

Fun. For the children, that’s what it really comes down to. Being in the classroom is just more fun because of the balls, they say.

When St. Germain reminds her students that when they move on to middle school they won’t be sitting on exercise balls, there are groans and protests all around.

But for now, bouncing is encouraged.