NEW ULM - These kids are on the ball!
Literally, that is - as well as being sharp young minds, no doubt!
Kindergartners in Holly Syverson's class at Jefferson Elementary School are exploring an innovative "seating arrangement" - "stability balls" instead of chairs in their classroom.
Photos by Steve Muscatello
Teacher Holly Syverson (left) leads her kindergarten class in stability ball exercises at Jefferson Elementary School in New Ulm.
The children have been put "on the ball" by the introduction of a full class set of stability balls. The students sit on the balls instead of their chairs.
Sitting on the ball gives the children a positive outlet to move and enhances concentration, says their teacher, Holly Syverson.
Syverson learned about the balls from a newscast. When a kindergarten classroom at Jefferson School ended up short of a set of chairs, she went to the principal, Pam Kirsch, asking if she could try out something new.
It's good to be on the ball:
As she started the program, Syverson informed parents about the balls, their benefits and any risks that might exist. Some of the things she shared:
Who is WittFitt?
WittFitt is a consulting company whose mission is to educate children and adults about the importance of proper posture, active sitting and the strengthening of muscles used in daily activities, while fostering a wellness climate in the classroom, Syverson reports.
As a comprehensive program, WittFitt trains teachers and provides all of the necessary materials for both teachers and students.
The program is customized to fit the needs of any classroom.
What kind of ball are the students sitting on?
The stability balls are made of a high quality plastic that is latex-free and burst resistant, Syverson explained to parents. It has small legs to provide some stability, keep it from rolling around the room and for easy storage on the desktop.
The ball is inflated to the designated size and custom fit to the child, based on height and placement at their desk.
Who uses the ball
The ball is often used by children and adults in the general population, as well as athletic and personal trainers, physical therapists, coaches and other health professionals.
Its uses include physical therapy, exercising, sitting, stretching, pregnancy and birthing, specified sports training, and much more.
What are the benefits of sitting on the ball?
* Enhances attention and concentration
* Improves learning through movement
* Promotes "active sitting" with little to no disturbance
* Assists in improving posture
* Improves blood flow to all parts of the body, especially the brain
* Strengthens core (postural) and back muscle groups
* Improves balance and coordination
* Adjusts for customized fit for the individual
Is sitting on the ball
The simple answer is, "no," Syverson tells parents. There are several reasons this is true, Syverson says.
First, teachers are trained on integrating the stability balls into the classroom and well supported by WittFitt throughout the process.
Secondly, the students go through a learning process, becoming familiar with the ball and essentially "earn" their right to sit on a ball.
In doing so, students are instilled with a sense of ownership and an understanding about their body and how to take care of it, Syverson informs parents.
Are there risks
Sure, like anything else, there are inherent risks, Syverson tells parents. However, the positive return is far greater than any negative result of using the ball. Falling off the ball is one possible risk, though it is rare, unless a student is acting inappropriately.
The balls are burst resistant, therefore if the ball would be punctured, it should slowly leak air instead of popping.
Syverson invited parents to contact her at any time if they have further questions or concerns. Parents were also invited to visit the WittFitt web site at www.wittfitt.com to receive more in-depth information about WittFitt, the stability balls and a chance to view students on the ball.
Kirsch was receptive - if Syverson could get the idea backed up by solid research.
Syverson researched the matter further and and this study eventually led Syverson to WittFitt, a Wisconsin company started by a former first-grade teacher, that provides and trains people in using the balls. The company was also recommended by phy ed teacher at the local high school who happened to have just gone through training on the use of exercise balls.
Syverson completed stability ball training through WittFitt, and has since educated and prepared the children to sit on a stability ball.
Before a child sits on a ball, he or she learns about the ball and its benefits and about good posture and safety. The kindergartners learn about the balls through coloring, cutting, gluing, craft activities and songs.
With the experiment in its second year, Syverson says it's "going great."
Asked by Superintendent Harold Remme about it, she even said, "I'd only go back to chairs if [I have to], and then, I'd go down kicking and screaming."
Kindergartners tipping over chairs was a daily occurrence, she shared. In contrast, tipping over off of a ball - by accident! - is much less frequent.
The children "earn" the opportunity to sit on a ball. It takes balance to do so comfortably, and the children are gradually phased into it, increasing their time over the first weeks of kindergarten, as they build up strength in their core their lower back and stomach muscles.
The children are made aware of the consequences of not using the ball properly.
Some chairs are available, and the kindergartners can always sit on a chair, if they so choose.
The balls come in color-coded sizes, pre-school to adult - most kindergartners sit on green balls, for example, while Syverson herself sits on a yellow one.
The balls are individually sized for each child - by the teacher - and Syverson checks them once every two or three weeks. Kindergartners can grow fast; or sometimes a change to new shoes may necessitate a correction.
Adjusting the size is an advantage - you can't change the size of a chair.
The right way to sit? Hips slightly higher than knees, feet flat on the floor.
Interestingly, each child quickly recognizes their ball, if the balls get mixed up, says Syverson.
It took them about ten minutes to find their own, after all the balls were all mixed up during kindergarten round-up!
The cost of the balls is roughly equivalent to that of chairs- $28 per ball - and the initial package included teacher training.
As with any other new idea, some parents were originally hesitant, others excited, says Syverson.
"Once people had studied the information, though, I haven't had any negative feedback."
Now, some parents have asked about purchasing balls for home use.
At this stage of the year, children generally choose to sit exclusively on the balls. In fact, that's the source of the one potential problem Syverson's has identified - as core muscles have by this stage grown stronger, some students begin to "slouch" and need to be reminded of safety and posture.
Using the balls, the children are more active and stay focused for greater periods of time, says Syverson. Their body is actively engaged in keeping them balanced - so there's less fidgeting. Syverson believes children develop better handwriting skills earlier - she links that to posture.
"I can see their muscles getting stronger - which I couldn't observe with the chairs," she adds.6
A side benefit - the ball exercises.
If the kindergartners get off task, Syverson can quickly switch to these "all-the-way-downs," "rocking-chairs," "leg raises," "side taps," "skiing," and "air-planes," as I observed during my visit to her classroom.
The ball exercises can incorporate academic skills such as counting; and it's easy to get back on task.
She does these exercises as needed - for sure once a day.
Since she is also one of the teachers trained in the new SMART program at the school (which combines academics and movement), Syverson can use the balls in conjunction with SMART room activities.
"It's a nice combination to be able to do both," she notes.