This is an excerpt from Fitness on the Ball by Anne Spalding & Linda E. Kelly.
Some of the rewards for using exercise balls in the classroom are simply this: happy, focused, and productive kids. After reading through piles of student surveys (see more notes and quotes from kids later in this chapter), the overall consensus is that kids love choices and they love to move. In fact, research suggests children are hardwired to move (Healy 2004). Sitting on the exercise balls increases blood circulation up and down the spinal column and to the brain. This increased circulation in turn oxygenates the blood the brain receives. Active sitting on the ball is great, and other active seating adaptations such as the discs, wedges, and cushions are also excellent choices. However and whatever you do to move more than you otherwise would is an improvement over being sedentary. The wedge specifically throws you a little forward so you are more upright, providing more space in the lungs for that oxygen you need to be more awake, alert, and productive. The disk offers that continual subtle movement in the hip area to maintain balance and stretch out the lower area of the back, which tends to tighten up when you sit still for a long time. Whether sitting on an exercise ball, disc, wedge, or cushion, movement increases focus and concentration. One of several studies I found on the Internet states the following: “For children with autism, therapy balls used for up to 10 minutes a day, for three weeks as an alternate form of classroom seating may improve in-seat behavior and attention to class activities by as little as 25% or as much as 80%” (Holman 2005).
When you implement the exercise ball program in such a way as to provide students with both the choices and the movement, then you have success. Not all kids think that exercise balls are “the best” and “totally rock” the way some do, and that is normal because we are all so different. The point is, the ones who do love them are pretty jazzed about the opportunity to sit on a ball in the classroom. Many kids and adults who have a great deal of trouble sitting still are given the chance on the ball to move in an appropriate way and get some exercise while situated in what many people and educators may have formerly seen as a sedentary environment. Some kids and adults whose “hard drives tend to go sleep” can be woken up and become more alert and awake after exercise that increases circulation (Jensen 1995). Time on the ball mimics other activities, such as taking a walk, by increasing circulation and bringing more oxygen to the brain.
Another reward for advocating for the use of exercise balls and active seating alternatives in schools and workplaces is a move towards a “motion promotion,” which simply means integrating more movement throughout everyone's day. As Galen Cranz discusses at length in her book The Chair (2000), we need an environment that allows more movement throughout our day combined with intermittent rest as necessary to “recharge our batteries.” We can't expect kids or adults to be sedentary most of the day and then go out after school or work and get enough physical activity to be their healthiest. We all need a variety of postures and movements throughout our day to feel our best.
Taking the stairs and parking the car farther away from your destination are good lifestyle choices to get us moving more. We want to encourage teachers to include even more movement opportunities throughout the day. Brain research recommends that students and adults need to move approximately every 20 minutes (Jensen 2000). Movement improves brain development, increases nerve connections, and solidifies learning. Simple things like integrating more standing, stretching, and walking; having stools available; and having choices to sit, lie, or even crawl on the floor are important practices for teachers to incorporate into their teaching.
Here's a list of some of our favorite quick-start activities to get the brain and body moving:
- Integrate Brain Gym exercises into your day.
- Surprise students with Movement Fire Drills throughout the day. Choose an auditory signal, and instruct students that on the chosen signal, they should get up and look to you for a direction—wherein you point a finger right or left—and they do a quick lap around the room, finishing by sitting silently at their desks with hands flat on the desk in an X position.
- Throw two- to three-minute dance parties. You choose the song, put on the music, and everybody moves until the music stops. Choices can include kids choosing their own free-form movements or any of the following. The teacher leads these movements with actions and words while students “mimic” the specific move. (Idea from Katie Jones, first-grade teacher, personal communication):
- Arms in the air.
- Let's go down low.
- Let's jump up high.
- Circle one way, then the other.
- Hand it over to the kids (when they have some moves) to come up and share.
- You take it from here; let creativity reign.
- Incorporate Volley Time into your day. This is a “keep it up softly” activity. Have balloons or beach balls stashed in a closet or bag. When you're ready or in need of a movement break, bring out the objects of your choice—six or eight would be good—and place them on different desks. On your signal, the students stand and softly tap the objects to keep them up in the air and moving from student to student. Emphasize getting the object to everyone in the room. Once they have the game under control—including a stop signal—you can add music of your choice (adapted from Bevill 2003; Kim Bevill is a teacher, the founder of Gray Matters, and the creator of the Brain Basics Convention.)
Any activities involving quick movements are going to improve focus, learning, and productivity for everyone. It would be so beneficial for both classrooms and businesses to integrate more movement breaks into their day. What a fun and exciting way to improve student and staff morale!
This is an excerpt from Fitness on the Ball.