Giving 16 first-graders each a large, bouncing ball might not sound like the best way to improve their focus in school.
But in Sarah Meader's classroom at Karen Western Elementary School, students have traded in their chairs for core-strengthening exercise balls. And they are proving that they can work hard on both their academics and physical fitness.
“I think, at first, there was a little hesitation,” said Meader, whose class is the first to go chair-less in the Ralston Public Schools. “It was kind of difficult, a lot of wiggling and bouncing in those first few days. But not so much anymore.”
To reinforce the lessons, the students helped come up with a set of expectations for the ball's proper use. They remind themselves with the word “CORE”:
» Close by.
» On a quiet ball.
» Respect the ball.
» Even posture.
“We've been very good about meeting those expectations,” Meader said. “It's become part of the daily habit.”
Meader had been sitting on her own core-strengthening ball for awhile and wondering how she could take the exercise to her students. At Christmas, her mother surprised her with a gift of enough balls for everyone in the classroom.
Meader began the experiment in January after looking at research and studies undertaken by the Mayo Clinic. The findings pointed to an increase in scholastic performance among students generally, with specific improvements in a classroom's attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder population.
“The study shows that a little bouncing, a little wiggling on the ball is a good way to get some of that excess energy out, helping the kids stay on task longer,” Meader said.
She's also begun her own study.
Before the introduction of the balls, Meader administered a baseline test, asking students to complete as many addition problems as possible in a given amount of time. In March, after two months on the balls, she'll give the same assignment.
“We'll have some data of our own to work with,” she said. “I think we'll see those numbers go up.”
So do her students.
When Meader asked the students if they were happy with their classroom, the answer was resoundingly positive.
“They help us work better,” Hannah Hazuka said.
“And they help us stay focused,” said Melyssa Perez-Mejia.
In addition to the schoolwork improvements, Meader said she also wants to enhance her students' posture and balance, and strengthen their core muscles.
“The posture is a huge deal for me,” she said. “I see a lot of friends who are hunched over, bent and crooked. As you get older, that gets even worse. I wanted to try to get them started early, thinking about sitting up properly.”
With parent-teacher conferences coming up, Meader said the classroom's chairs will remain stacked in a corner. Meader wants the parents to sit on the exercise balls and get a feel for what their youngsters are doing at their desks every day.
Next school year, Meader hopes her study might result in another chair-less classroom at the second-grade level.
“I think they'll see we have some fun and also know that we're strengthening ourselves, all around. We're going to try and spread the word.”