Squirmers are Learners Tuesday, April 12, 2011 Tuesday, November 12, 2052

Students having a ball

By Nick Gevock of The Montana Standard | Posted: Sunday, April 10, 2011

Does anybody like those old, hard chairs from elementary school?

Photo by Nick Gevock / The Montana StandardBecky Fisk didn't. And she could see her second-grade students at Whittier Elementary felt constrained by their traditional desk chairs. So Fisk did something about it.

"I did a little research to find what's out there, what allows kids to be excited about school," Fisk said recently. "My purpose was just to find a way to engage kids better during the school day."

She learned numerous studies have shown sitting on something that allows a kid to move improves learning. The trend in recent years is to use specially crafted exercise balls.

The reasons the balls are more effective are pretty straightforward.

"These balls allow for a little bit of movement, which increases the blood flow to the brain, increases core muscle strength and improves posture," Fisk said. "And they're simply comfortable to sit on."

She wrote a grant to the nonprofit Butte Education Foundation for her program dubbed "Squirmers are Learners." The foundation awarded her a grant, and Fisk used the money to buy balls for her entire class.

But there's more to the program. It requires basic rules to sit on a ball. Keep your behind on the ball and feet on the floor. Keep your back straight. And most of all respect the ball. Fisk said the rules are followed closely.

"If you violate the rules, you don't get second chances because they're dangerous," she said.

Kids who break the rules lose their ball for a week. If they do so with a substitute teacher, it's a two-week loss.

The balls are more than just a novelty to keep kids moving — they also help to keep them engaged in learning. And they help the kids develop better posture that will serve them throughout their lives.

Ella Prigge, a student, said she's noticed a difference this spring since the balls have been in use.

"I'm used to slipping forward, but this helps you sit up straight," she said.

Maddi Kump said she, too, is more apt to quit slouching with the use of the ball.

There's more to the program than regular class time. The balls are used as part of "brain breaks" to give the kids and chance to move. They also get put to use in the gym for a variety of exercises to further strengthen the students' core muscles, backs and legs.

Fisk doesn't require kids to use the balls all the time. She said a handful of students use the ball for a couple hours then switch to a regular chair.

But overall the balls are used throughout the day and are popular with students. That extends beyond Fisk's class. "Some of my friends in other classes say it's not fair — you get a ball," Prigge said.