Subtract chairs, add big rubber balls and you get a bunch of classroom benefits.
Students at Zion Lutheran School in Mayer thought Principal Deb Kelzer was kidding when she proposed that they give up their classroom chairs and instead sit on large rubber exercise balls.
"She kids with us a lot," said Kate Esser, 9, a fourth-grader at the private school in the small Carver County town. "When we saw she was serious, we thought, 'Whoa, awesome.'"
While Zion students are having a ball, school administrators at the parochial school say they are getting some serious benefits out of their novel seating arrangement. In fact, the school is ready to replace the chairs in all of its classrooms, becoming possibly the first school in the state to use the balls on such mass scale, though other Minnesota schools are considering a similar seating switch.
"The kids were really excited to come back to school and sit on those balls," Kelzer said recently. "I was hesitant at first but I thought, 'Why not?' There's too much sitting around that goes on."
The colorful balls help students concentrate, burn off excess energy and get more physically fit. They've been used for years for exercise and physical therapy.
They are increasingly popular in private business to deal with bad backs.
In recent years the balls have made their way into classrooms in Europe, Canada and around the United States. Minnesota schools, including ones in Cold Springs, Lakeville, Excelsior and St. Paul, are using the balls in a variety of classrooms. Many other districts are considering their use.
"For the right classroom and the right teacher, I think it is a very good thing," said Michael Borgendale, a fifth-grade teacher at Minnewashta Elementary in the Minnetonka School District and who used the balls last year with third-graders. "It's something that could catch on."
While students enjoy themselves sitting, bouncing or rolling on the balls, teachers, administrators and researchers have been pleasantly surprised at the benefits of doing away with chairs in classrooms.
"It made a lot of sense to the kids," said Bob Nellis of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, which conducted a study on the benefits of a chairless classroom last year. "Kids move around. They're supposed to be active."
The Mayo study on the classroom of the future focused on improving learning, but it soon became apparent that having students move produced considerable benefits.
With the balls, fidgety students or those with attention deficit disorder have an outlet for their excess energy. Concentration increases for everyone because of the noise reduction. And physical conditioning is improved because of the work involved in staying on top of the ball.
"You can really feel how it works your muscles," said Kelzer, who uses one in her office as a chair. "It really works your core area and makes you have better posture."
That much and more has been borne out at St. Paul Academy and Summit School, which began using the balls two years ago in math classes, making it among the first in the state to adopt the stability balls.
"It makes being in this class really fun," said Sarah Hays, a St. Paul Academy seventh-grader in an honors algebra class. "Everyone else is jealous because we have them."
Jenny Borovsky, who helped introduce the balls to St. Paul Academy, said they have improved comportment and concentration in the classroom. The balls are used in all seventh- and eighth-grade math classes by about 160 students.
"All the kids like them," Borovsky said recently. "But for a certain percentage of the kids they are very helpful."
Working the abs
The results of the Mayo Clinic study, which was looking at ways to reduce obesity by making children more active, surprised people.
"Everyone anticipated that kids were not going to be as attentive because the kids were not sitting at their desks lined up in little rows looking at the front," he said. "If anything, they were far more attentive."
Nellis and others believe this is because the kids are able to burn off any excess energy. Also, if kids are bored they can bounce lightly on the balls and then refocus on the work.
Finally, the additional movements students make using balls instead of chairs burn off more calories, which could help combat an epidemic of obesity in children by making them more physically fit.
"It's fun," said Masun Bentz, 9, a third-grader at Zion. "And it really works out your abs."
Borgendale and Borovsky said they hope to see improvements in physical fitness tests in the spring among students who have used the balls.
"The kids really enjoy them," said Borovsky, who also sits on one while teaching algebra. "They don't get in the way of teaching. So why not make learning fun?"
Herón Márquez Estrada 612-673-4280