The fourth-graders at Cape Horn-Skye Elementary in Washougal start their day with squats.
The kids hold bright blue rubber stability balls over their heads and slowly squat toward the ground. They giggle during the first couple. By the fourth, though, they’re moaning about their sore legs.
“Feel the burn,” teased Alice Yang, their teacher.
Next, the abdominal crunches.
With their bottoms on the ball and their feet on the ground, the kids lean back until their bodies are flat, count to three, then sit up. After a handful of crunches, the kids bounce on the balls for a few seconds to shake out the wiggles.
Then it’s time to get to work.
The kids roll their balls up to their desks, take a seat and get started on the day’s first lesson: identifying U.S. states from flashcards.
About a month ago, the kids in Yang’s class swapped their hard metal chairs for squishy rubber stability balls. So far, the change is getting rave reviews.
“It gives us more fluency and helps our brains,” said 10-year-old Alexis Perry. “It’s really cool having them.”
Yang said she got the idea while researching ways to help restless students.
This year, Yang said, she has many active kids who sometimes struggled to stay focused throughout the school day. They would get up to get a drink of water or sharpen their pencil or do anything, really, other than stay in their seat, she said.
“Sitting, it’s so unnatural for kids to do for such a long time,” Yang said.
She found articles about teachers in other parts of the country using stability balls. Research showed the balls can improve focus among kids with attention issues. The more she read, the more she wanted to try using them in her own classroom.
But equipping the classroom with stability balls wouldn’t be cheap. So she posted the idea on DonorsChoose.org, a website at which teachers post projects and donors offer financial support.
Yang’s project received a few small donations, but then in January, a woman who lives in Bellevue donated the remaining money to fund the $795 project.
About a month ago, Yang made the seat swap.
“After the novelty wore off, I’ve seen a lot less getting up,” Yang said.
Because the kids are engaging their core muscles throughout the day to keep their balance, they’re burning the extra energy that caused much of the restlessness, she said. The balls are also more comfortable than the metal chairs, eliminating the need to get up and move around after sitting for an extended time, Yang said.
“When they’re comfortable, they can learn much more,” she said.
And the kids say being able to gently bounce while they work helps them to think more clearly.
“When I get stuck on a problem that’s hard or I’m tired, I can just start to bounce, and it helps the blood flow to my brain,” said 10-year-old Rose Hinchliff.
Yang has noticed other benefits from the change, as well.
“They’re turning in their work at an unbelievable rate,” she said.
Students have to be current on all their work to keep their stability ball, so they’re motivated to do their homework.
Eli Brooks, 10, said he didn’t always turn in his homework in the past. Now, he makes sure to turn in every assignment.
“Our class has had a big improvement in turning in homework,” Eli said. “I think it’s a great chair for any class.”
Using the balls did take a little getting used to. In the early days, the kids’ backs and abs would grow tired by the end of the day. But now, they don’t even notice they’re sitting without a back support.
“It’s like sitting on a normal chair for us,” Eli said.
The kids always have the option to sit in a regular chair; Yang keeps a few in her classroom. She’s only had two kids request regular chairs, and they later switched back to the balls.
Since making the change, Yang has incorporated the brief morning exercise routine and the balls into her curriculum. The kids start their day with the physical exercises and singing the “Nifty Fifty United States” song while bouncing, clapping and slapping the balls to the rhythm.
“With the increasing health problems in society, I think it’s important that we focus on physical health, too,” Yang said. “Physical activity throughout the day is important.”