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Classrooms ditch desks to stimulate brains

Kinesthetics education style based on learning through doing activities

By Raymond M. Lane, Special to The Washington Post
Published: May 6, 2016, 6:03am
2 Photos
Owen Howard reads while sitting on a BOSU ball at Takoma Park Elementary School in Takoma Park, Md.
Owen Howard reads while sitting on a BOSU ball at Takoma Park Elementary School in Takoma Park, Md. (Joseph Ndayisenga/The Washington Post) Photo Gallery

TAKOMA PARK, Md. — On a recent Monday morning, second-graders at Takoma Park Elementary School walked into a classroom that had been transformed.

Instead of the regular desks and chairs, they saw gray domed things — looking a little like horseshoe crabs — in neat rows on the story rug in the middle of the nearly empty room.

Called BOSU balls, the pillow-size half-balls are made of plastic and rubber. Flat on one side, round on the other, with a bouncy center core, BOSUs are found in training rooms of some professional sports teams, at physical therapy centers helping people recover from injuries, and in some athletic and recreation facilities. (The name comes from the idea of using it “BOth Sides Up,” or BOSU.)

“They’re our desks,” explained second-grader Leul Wondwosen, pointing to jumping, hopping, bouncing, balancing, rolling, crawling and standing classmates doing their regular class work on, near, under, on top of and over BOSUs. Yoga balls, balance boards and stand-up tables lining the walls add to the unusual study space.

“We’re continually active,” said Leul, 7, adding, “If we had to sit at desks the whole day, like last year, we’d be, like, confined and bored.”

Leul and his 21 classmates agreed this year to give up their desks for what his teacher describes as a kinesthetic learning experience. That means learning by doing physical activities, rather than by listening to a teacher talk, watching videos or reading books.

Kinesthetics requires using space differently from traditional classrooms. One elementary school in Kentucky, for example, replaced desks with sofas and little tables. A California school brought in stand-up desks only, with no chairs. Many schools are experimenting with replacing chairs with yoga balls.

“Our students voted to get rid of desks,” said teacher Charlotte Croft. But before making a decision, Croft said, the class talked about possible problems.

Delina Berhanu, 7, recalled asking, “Where will I keep my stuff?”

Classmate Madina Kante, 7, had an answer. “We’ll keep them in our cubbies,” she remembered saying.

They also discussed how reading, writing and math could be done while bouncing all over the place.

“It helps your brain to work more,” said Ema Stroudova, 8.

“Like it? I love it,” said Devon Hoverter, 7. “When we had desks, sometimes I got bored at the same seat over and over.”

Studying student achievement

Still, students must do the same work every other second-grader does, and their test results will be studied closely when school ends in June, Croft said.

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“We have been active all year long on yoga balls, balance boards and trying new places to do our work, such as standing at tables, or on chairs by cubbies, or even on the shelves of our cubbies,” Croft said. “And the more active the students have been, the more improvements I saw in their schoolwork.”

Liz Rowsey, of Ohio-based BOSU, said the company donated the balls because “this is the first time a teacher has reached out to us and expressed interest in removing desks and only using BOSUs.” She said she can’t wait to see whether kids learn better this way.

Absatu Conteh, 7, said other students would like to be part of the experiment. “My best friend said, ‘No fair, I want no desks, too.’ ”

For at least one kid in Croft’s class, the school year is ending too soon.

“Now I have all the tools to have fun and study,” said Owen Howard, 7. “I am going to miss it next year in third grade.”