Diane Norlin’s Pine River-Backus fifth-grade class was the first grade in the school to try out a new ergonomic seating arrangement, stability balls, in 2008. What began as a sort of tentative experiment has proven to be a success, and today those stability balls and their health benefits have been passed on to Michelle Holden’s fourth graders.
Today, there is still only one full class that constantly uses stability balls in the Pine River-Backus School. Just as Norlin’s students underwent training in the use of the stability balls, Holden’s students now go through almost a month of special training on how to properly sit on the stability balls and take care of them. In addition, the class learns about the history of stability balls and their benefits.
Holden suggests that this training not only helps them to understand the proper use and reason behind the stability balls, but it also invests them in their use, and encourages them to take care of them.
Students in Holden’s class don’t mind using the balls either. As a matter of fact, they seem to really like them better than traditional chairs.
“We sometimes have to sit in the chairs in music, but not every day,” said student Dalanee Crawford. “Stability balls are better because they’re fun and chairs are hard and when you sit down you get hurt.”
“It makes our backs feel nice and also it helps us balance,” said fourth grader Aurora Melby.
In addition, intentional misuse of the balls in class can result in an unheard of punishment, having to sit in a traditional chair for a set period of time, something which students do not seem to want. Students on the stability balls are allowed to bounce lightly during class, and occasionally get time to do special stretches and excercises in between lessons.
“Students are physically engaged as they sit on them. They help all students use their energy in a positive way,” Holden said.
Some parents agree.
“I’ve seen a big difference in the kids. They were able to sit (for a) longer period of time, they stayed focused,” said Barb Bumgarner, a paraprofessional and parent of Hunter Rice at PR-B. “My Hunter was in the class where they use them and he seems to be a little more focused. He’s one of those wiggle-around kids and I think it probably helps him a lot.”
According to Doctor Ronald Prouty of Pine River’s Health First Chiropractic, stability balls can improve student posture by forcing them to sit up straighter than a traditional chair. This is because slouching on a stability ball can result in falling off of the stability ball.
“Sitting in a desk chair your lower back tends to sag back into the chair which is the opposite of what you really want,” Prouty said. “You want that nice forward curvature to the lower back, which sitting on a ball like that does because it forces you to sit upright.”
Prouty explained that proper posture is very important in young children.
“A saying I use with my patients is, ‘as the twig is bent, so grows the tree.’ Better posture when a child is young can prevent problems in the future like scoliosis and degenerative disk problems. Those all can be related to posture over time,” he said.
Furthermore, stability balls have the added advantage of exercising core muscle groups through balance. These groups are sometimes not extensively used, but can help in athletics.
These stability balls were purchased from WittFitt using private donations earned through Boxtops for Education, as well as prize money from winning a library contest to decorate a scarecrow. Because not all students are the same size, each ball is assigned to a specific students to fit their needs. Since Norlin’s first class, only one or two have been intentionally damaged. Students responsible were required to pay for replacements.
“The stability balls are more comfortable and also safer than chairs. I have encouraged other teachers to see about a classroom set of their own, but cost is an issue,” Holden said. “I think they are especially important in the elementary classrooms since they are sized for each student. I am not sure how students who change classrooms would be able to manage switching from chairs to stability balls.”