Register Staff Writer 02/27/2004

At a glance, Lisa Witt’s classroom at Park Avenue Elementary School looks like any other fifth-grade class, except for one thing – the students sit on stability balls instead of chairs. Every morning Witt’s students arrive shortly before 8 a.m. to sweep the floor and remove any debris that might puncture the balls. Then they put air in any balls that have slightly deflated overnight – all in preparation for a day of learning. Witt brought the idea to the school at 3141 S.W. Ninth St. when she joined the teaching staff in the fall. She said that sitting on the balls provides many benefits to students, including improved posture, balance, coordination, flexibility and muscle strength, along with increased blood flow to the brain. Combined, those benefits keep students more alert and focused in the classroom.
“I thought it would be fun sitting on a ball because it’s more bouncy and more comfortable than achair,” said Jara Sanders, 10, a student in Witt’s class.

Fifth-grader Skylar Soltis said he didn’t realize how many benefits sitting on a ball would have for him and his classmates.
“I just thought it was really crazy, and I was going to have a lot of fun,” he said.

The idea came from Witt’s husband, Chad. The two sit on stability balls at home to improve their posture, and Chad Witt suggested to his wife the balls could be used in the classroom to help students.

Witt, who was then teaching in Colorado, researched the benefits of students sitting on balls rather than chairs for nearly a year. She tested students’ posture, balance and flexibility while using the balls and compared them with a controlled group of students who didn’t sit on the balls. She found that because the child is sitting up straighter, more blood is flowing to the brain, which makes the child more alert. The balls also allow slight movement, so the child isn’t fidgeting as

When Witt came to Park Avenue, she pitched the idea and showed her research to Principal John Johnson, and he went for it. Students had to earn the privilege of sitting on the balls.

“As a teacher, the last thing you want is something to disrupt your class,” said Witt, who taught the students about the benefits and how to properly sit on the balls.

One of the biggest obstacles to the project was cost, but Witt said families, companies and businesses donated enough money to buy 26 balls, plus gave an extra $300 for replacements. Each ball costs about $15.Witt said making her students go through all the work and not getting the balls until December
has made them respect using them and not turn the project into a disruption.

“It never was (an issue), because they had to work so hard to get them,” she said.

Witt also has a strict set of rules posted on the wall. Students who don’t behave while sitting on a stability ball lose privileges for one month. Only a few students have had that happen. Some students who were skeptical earlier now have warmed to the unconventional classroom method.

“I thought it would be weird because I’ve never seen anybody sit on a ball,” Alejandra Sandoval, 11, said. But sitting on the ball has helped improve her posture and her coordination when playing soccer.

Skylar said he had been struggling in school but has now improved his grades, in part, he said, because sitting on the ball improves the oxygen and blood flow to his brain. Other students said they also have seen improvements.

“I think it’s a good idea because most of the time my back hurts me a lot and this is helping me with me back pain,” Nick Celestino, 11, said.

Tim Evans, 10, said that since he began sitting on the ball, he has seen improvement academically and in his ability to play sports.

“It’s fun. It’s better than being in a regular chair because it straightens out your back and helps (improve) my handwriting,” Tim said.

The balls are ordered to fit the height of the student, with students being able to sit with their legs at a 90-degree angle. Other teachers at Park Avenue are exploring whether to use the balls next year.