Ball chairs, wiggly kids a good fit

Posted: Friday, December 18, 2009

Students in Jane Canaday's kindergarten class bounce, wiggle and fidget all day long. But that's OK, it's all part of the plan.

Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire

Two weeks ago, in an effort to improve focus and give kids exercise at the same time, Canaday exchanged regular chairs for exercise balls, also called therapy balls, in her class at Mendenhall River Community School.

As a special education preschool teacher, Canaday had used the balls to help individual students with core strength, and to help active kids get the "sensory input" they lack while sitting still. So last February, faced with a class full of wiggly kindergartners, she borrowed exercise balls from the school's gym and collected data on kids' ability to stay on task before the balls were introduced and after.

"As a kindergarten teacher, I see these kids all the time who are wiggling all over the place and can't sit in chairs for the life of them," she said. "And their P.E. time is really limited, so I was trying to think of more ways to help kids with their physical fitness."

People told her she was crazy for giving the balls to kindergartners, but the data was surprising, she said.

One girl had a hard time sitting on a chair, and couldn't get her work done. After she began sitting on a ball, however, she became one of the first students to finish her work.

Canaday also said she noticed an overall improvement in focus, both on the chairs and off.

"It gives active kids sensory input and helps calm them down," she said. "They're focused. It really does make a difference."

Kids seem to be unanimous in liking the balls better than chairs.

"I like them because you get to bounce on them," said 5-year-old Eva Sturm.

"They're comfy," said Toby Russell, 5. "They're really bouncy."

Ambrosia Woodgate, 5, and Grace Hudson, 6, agreed. "It's fun because you get to bounce," Hudson said. She also said it was easier to concentrate. Why?

"Because you can kind of wiggle on it."

Various studies around the country have shown the balls to be effective in increasing focus among kids with attention deficit disorder. They have also been incorporated in some classrooms in other states. As in Canaday's pre-school special education class, they are sometimes used on an individual basis within the Juneau school district, but only one other class uses them on a regular basis – teacher Janalynn Ferguson’s second grade class at Glacier Valley Elementary, which began using them in October. Ferguson reports similar behavior improvement, with kids speaking out-of-turn less frequently.

Canaday had to give the balls back to the gym at the end of the last school year, so she began saving her supply money, had a fun-night fundraiser, and got donations from parents to purchase 25 exercise balls at $400 total.

Twenty-two of the balls are 55 centimeters in diameter, though normally, kindergartners require 45 centimeters, she said. Three are adult sized, at 65 centimeters (normally, adults require 55 centimeters, she said.)

Ground rules are important. Canaday said she spent two weeks leading up to the balls' introduction going over those rules: your bottom stays on the ball, your feet stay on the ground, and the balls are to be used as chairs only. Also, Eva Sturm's father put sand in the balls to help them stay in place.

Some kids have an easier time than others abiding by the rules, but Canaday said those who've had a little difficulty with it are getting better, though one kid does sit in a chair. "Maybe for some kids, the balls are too stimulating. You have to watch that," she said.

Later, once the ground rules are solidly in place, she hopes to do other kinds of exercises with the balls.

And she plans to use the balls next year, too, but will start with chairs for a month, so that she can first teach kids the rules.

"I'm hoping other teachers will try it because I really think it makes a difference in kids' ability to stay focused," she said. "And building core strength is really important."

• Contact Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or

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