No doubt about it, for the last couple of months the youngsters in Jamie Casteel's second-grade classroom at St. Gregory's School have been having a ball.
That is, the kids literally sit on large, inflatable balls while sitting at their desks and doing lessons.
Trained in special education as well as regular classroom teaching, Casteel said she's long been aware that some teachers have reported benefits in providing students with stability balls — sometimes called yoga balls — rather than traditional chairs.
Converts says sitting atop the thick-skinned, synthetic rubber spheres improves balance, coordination and core body strength while allowing children to work off nervous energy and pay more attention in class.
"Because I had a double major in special education, I knew stability balls were good for kids with attention span and focus problems," Casteel said. "But after doing some research I discovered that they really have benefits for any child."
So, late last year, Casteel put a dozen stability balls on her "Christmas wish list," an annual process that encourages St. Gregory's teachers to ask parents and other friends of the privately supported Catholic school for help in acquiring new classroom equipment and supplies.
After Casteel presented information on the health and academic benefits to Principal Susan Martin, the school was able to secure about $400 in donations to buy the balls, which come in various sizes and can be inflated or de-inflated to accommodate a student's height and weight.
The balls arrived back in January, but required a bit of an adjustment period, said Casteel, who received an adult-sized desk ball for herself. It turns out that sitting on a yoga ball for an extended period when you're not used to it is a recipe for sore muscles.
"I was so sore," she said, "and the kids got a little sore, too. You're using your core muscles."
So the class spent several days alternating between the balls and regular desk chairs.
But after everyone's backs, rear ends, legs and tummies toughened up a bit, Casteel said the new seating quickly proved superior.
"I won't go back," she said when asked if the yoga balls were in her classroom to stay.
So just why are stability balls better than chairs? Well, besides making you sit with your back straight and forcing you to exert a slight, constant pressure against the floor using your stomach and leg muscles, they soak up the boundless energy overflowing from young, restless bodies.
"They allow children to move without really disturbing the other kids," Casteel said. "It gets the wiggles out."
The balls also let Casteel, while seated on her own chair, which is outfitted with casters, lead students through a series of "brain break" exercises that include such movements as the "controlled bounce," body twists and arm swings.
Page 2 of 2 - After a couple of minutes of such activities, Casteel said the inflated seating seems to keep the children more focused on things like spelling and arithmetic. She added that better posture has also improved her students' handwriting.
Sometimes exercise and learning are combined, as when the kids bounce up and down while spelling words out loud — one bounce per letter.
"It's just much more comfortable than sitting on a hard chair," Casteel said. "It keeps them with me and keeps them learning."
Of course, the yoga balls are still balls, and balls can be played with in all sorts of tempting and inappropriate ways, so the new "chairs" came with ground rules.
"You keep your bottom on the ball and your feet on the floor," Casteel said. "You set up straight, and you 'respect the ball,'" meaning that you don't jab it with a pencil or kick it across the room.
Failure to "play ball" by the rules results in a warning, and more than one warning a day means you sit in a regular chair for a week. Such misbehavior has been rare since the stability balls arrived in January, and Casteel said she has only had to suspend seating privileges a couple of times.
For now, Casteel's class is the only one at St. Gregory's where stability balls are used, though a number of her colleagues have expressed interest.
"I think they were all a little shocked at first," she said. "Now they seem really intrigued by it, but it's a matter of money."
As for the students, they've voted with their posteriors. No child is forced to sit on a ball, Casteel said, and anyone can go back to using a chair at any time. But after more than two months, none of the youngsters has opted to do so.
Both their preference and their behavior have Casteel convinced that stability balls have proved a sound investment.
"You always want to do what's best for the kids," she said, "even if it's a little out there."