Enhanced Attention through Stability balls in the Classroom

Glad to read the recent article “Rolling Admissions” in the Saturday May 9th edition of the Utah Daily Herald concerning Leslie Stilson, a school teacher at Spring Creek Elementary using stability balls rather than chairs in the classroom.  The balls are like exercise balls with the addition of four integrated rubber knobs on the bottom that help keep the ball from rolling.

Allowing the children to bounce a little throughout the day actually helps keep them more focused on classroom activities and learning. Some physical and mental energy can be required to maintain a stable posture on the balls, and this helps reduce attention sapping boredom and/or lethargy developed in sitting in traditional chairs for hours on end.  

Ellen J. Langer hints at why such methods promoting subtle variety via movement may promote concentration and learning in chapter two of her book “The Power of Mindful Learning” (bold font added to emphasize the most related part of these quotes):

For us to pay attention to something for any amount of time, the image must be varied.  Thus, for students who have trouble paying attention the problem may be that they are following the wrong instructions.  To pay constant, fixed attention to a thought or an image may be a kind of oxymoron.  Yet this is the very way people try to attend to the external world of things or to the internal world of ideas…

People naturally seek novelty in play and have no difficulty paying attention in those situations.  When something is novel we notice different things about it. If we see a stimulus as novel,  for example, if we see a rosebush along a railroad track, we sit up and take notice.  If we were to stare at the rosebush long enough, eventually we would become habituated to it.  This pattern begins when we are infants and continues throughout our lifetimes.  Changes in context or perspective lead us to notice novelty…Successful concentration occurs naturally when the target of our attention varies. 

The idea that to pay attention means to act like a motionless camera is so ingrained in us that when we do pay attention successfully we are usually unintentionally changing the context or finding novel features in our subject…

There are several ways to increase variability.  As educators we can present novel stimuli to our students.  We can introduce material through games, because in games players vary their responses to fool their opponents or look more closely at all aspects of the situation to figure out how to win.  Another approach is not to vary the stimulus, but to vary our perspective in relation to the stimulus.  This situation happens often in physical play; in tennis or table tennis or any sport, we move around so that the stimulus is never quite the same.  Perhaps bringing about  a change in perspective through movement is how so-called hyperactive children increase novelty for themselves.

The most effective way to increase our ability to pay attention is to look for novelty within the stimulus situation, whether it is a story, a map, or a painting.  This is the most useful lesson to teach our children, because it enables them to be relatively independent of other people and of their physical environment.  If novelty (and interest) is in the mind of the attender, it doesn’t matter that a teacher presents the same old thing or tells us to sit still and concentrate in a fixed manner.

As to the balls being used, I saw the WittFitt logo on a few of the balls in the pictures posted in the Daily Herald article.  I’m not sure if Spring Creek Elementary is using just the WittFitt balls or a combination of different vendors to see which works best.  Here’s another article on another school in our nation using stability balls in the classroom:

http://readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=132860#

As to the lifetime of such balls, the WittFitt care and safety manual advises replacing them after 1-2 years, depending on usage:

http://www.wittfitt.com/safetyusecare.htm

How does the cost of such balls compare to more traditional school chairs?  Here’s one link to a website that sells school furniture:
http://www.furniture4schools.com/showproduct.php?catid=18

The cost of a traditional chair is comparable in the cheap range and 2-3 times the price for good quality chairs.  However the lifetime of a traditional chair could potentially be 10+ years.

Despite the much lower “mileage” of the stability balls compared to traditional chairs, the benefits however could outweigh the costs.  Likewise the cost of $30-$40 a year for a child could be seen as but a small fraction of the total costs of education.  Additionally the choice of whether to have such balls in the classroom could be given to the childrens’ parents who could rent a ball for their child to use in class during the school year.   Likewise children could time-share such balls — i.e. only use the balls for a few hours a day.  Then the costs per child could be divided.  A ball that might normally cost $40 per year per child if used by that one child for 8 hours would only cost $10 per year if they timeshared to only use the ball 2 hours per day.  Some experts even recommend against using such balls for extended periods of time anyway.  It all goes back to having a proper balance of things.
Other Related links:
http://student-health-issues.suite101.com/article.cfm/no_more_classroom_chairs

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