Stability balls have been a long-standing tool to help not just with exercise. They started out as a physical therapy tool. During the late 1960s, Dr. Susan Klein-Vogelbach of Basel, Switzerland, was the first individual to use the balls, particularly with those having orthopedic problems. Despite their Italian origin, “Swiss balls” got their name from American physical therapists who witnessed the use of the balls while visiting several Switzerland clinics. In 1989, physical therapist Joanne Posner-Mayer began instructing U.S. therapists on the neurological, orthopedic, and fitness applications of stability balls. Today, athletic trainers, strength coaches, personal trainers, and physical therapists around the world use stability balls in fitness and rehab programs. Most recently, teachers and principals have discovered the use of stability balls in a classroom as an effective teaching tool. My classroom has been the recipient of ten stability balls, due to the generous contributions of a grant organized by my principal Patricia Ransford, vice principal Jo Ross, and a non-profit organization called Donatenow.org. Mine is a typical special-education classroom where students spend a portion of their day with small group instruction. Due to their various disabilities, my students must be given unique tools to keep them focused on tasks with limited adult interaction. It is typically like a one-room schoolhouse where there are up to three to four different groups functioning at one time, with just one adult in the classroom. The challenge is also how to keep students focused for many hours a day preparing for their ISAT testing in the spring, with the added, challenging Illinois CORE Standards. Stability balls are not the complete answer but are an effective tool in teaching students to sit, concentrate, and move for longer periods of time using the stability ball.
First of all there are specific rules for using the ball. The students are allowed to bounce their balls not more than one inch off the floor at one time, and at teacher-directed times they are allowed to dance and bounce on the ball. They must keep both their feet on the floor at all times and their bouncing must not interfere with another student’s learning. When they are careless and fall off the ball, the ball takes a time out outside the room, and if there are more than two times that the ball must be taken out, it is left outside for the remainder of the day to keep the student and others safe as well as remind them of the rules. Next, the children have the option themselves if they want to use the ball sometimes during the day, and many––including me––choose to basically sit on them all day. When the students move it from one place to another, they either roll it or carefully put it above their head and watch where they go. Bouncing the ball on the ground is not allowed as it will be another opportunity for the ball to spend a time-out outside the classroom. I have learned that many students actually monitor themselves when they need a little more activity or their medication is wearing off or is non-existent. They will bounce more as they are concentrating and, when they are ready to take a break from the ball, they have the option to sit on either their chair or a balance disk on their chair.
In our model classroom, students have both the option of using their own ball and the chair as they see fit. I knew that many classrooms had used stability balls but I was basically floored by how many classrooms had successfully used them and reported them favorably in just the last few years. Here are some of the statistics that I found in many classrooms.
First of all, they allow children to be engaged for longer periods of time with active listening and sitting. They increase active memory and focus. With the use of the balls they are able to active learn and be able to roll, bounce, and twist as they are doing their work. I can really tell it is effective when work becomes difficult and they learn the strategies to move. They improve posture, brain activity, and blood flowing. The balls basically tire students out because of their core needs to be more focused and balanced. The power of stability ball training and its importance to core strength cannot be underestimated. Core strength refers to the muscles of the abs and back, and their ability to support the spine and keep the body stable and balanced. Various muscles contract to help produce movement, balance the body, stabilize the spine, and hold the body in a safe, neutral position. All of these muscles work together, so sitting on stability balls both within and outside a fitness environment has been found to be highly effective in engaging the core muscles. And since most of the body’s movements are initiated and supported with the core muscles, good back health is ensured.
The balls help them dissipate excess energy. I even have seen some of my student improve their handwriting. For four of my students particularly, the ball is a blessing. They naturally use the ball to bounce to get out their excess energy, and they can contain their activity to a smaller space when they are allowed to do a brain music-movement activity break. Memory is also enhanced. Since I teach third grade and adapt district-mandated curriculum, the work is often challenging and I positively engage the students in doing their absolute best at all times. At times this can be hard for the students. In the short time I have integrated the ball, I see my students move around more and spend more time focused on the ball––and even their handwriting has improved. Difficult math concepts can be presented more often because if the students get frustrated, they can bounce or roll on the ball to help them think. A side benefit that the teacher also likes is that calories are burned by just sitting on the ball, and the strength of both the upper body and lower body is enhanced by just spending time on the ball. I hope as time goes on, other teachers in my building and other classrooms in District 162 will see the value of the stability ball and get them for their classrooms.
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