Gray’s Woods Elementary first-graders use exercise balls to hop to it when classwork beckons

When you say kids are bouncing around the classroom like they are on big rubber balls, it sounds like a bad thing. In Jennifer Lawrence’s classroom, it’s just another school day.

Twenty-one students in her Gray’s Woods Elementary first-grade class spend much of their time balancing on large orange balls instead of using more typical desk chairs. The thought might sound more like gym class than reading, and there’s a reason. That’s how it started.

In January, it started with one student using a ball that came from an occupational therapist. Lawrence noticed how well it worked, focusing attention and improving performance, so she went to the physical education teacher to see if there were any more big balls bouncing around.

“(The students) started to say things like, ‘I can concentrate better,’ ” she said.

Some people have been skeptical. Parents have wondered if their energetic children were really the right fit for something that could literally have them bouncing all over the place.

That hasn’t happened.

“So many parents say they don’t think this would work for their kids,” said Lawrence. “I see that being exactly the kids it works for.”

On a recent classroom visit, the half-dozen pupils seated on balls at their desks while working on iPads were motionless, with feet flat on the floor and hands flat on the desks except when they were touching the screens. Meanwhile, the squirmers were sitting in real chairs at the math station or on the reading rug.

“Sometimes it hurts when we are in a chair, but you get a ball and it feels better,” said student Gaby McTavish.

While the novelty of having balls instead of chairs does lead to a little playtime in class, that’s OK.

“I think kids need to wiggle sometimes,” said Gray’s Woods Principal Kristen Dewitt.

Lawrence said the balls let the students work out any antsy feelings without going crazy, then they get back to work. Bouncing never goes too far though. The class has strict rules about how the balls are used for safety reasons. Break the rules, and a pupil loses ball privileges until he can prove himself again.

Dewitt said that also extends to taking care of the equipment. One student last school year lost ball access after popping one with a pencil.

“The kids know it comes with responsibility,” she said.

It also comes with potential health benefits.

“It’s very activating,” said paraprofessional Angela Petrick. “It actively engages the muscles.”

When someone sits in a chair, the chair does most of the work, supporting the sitter from the bottom and the back. With a ball, however, the sitter is doing the work of keeping him or herself balanced and upright, which is why the balls are used for therapy and exercise.

“The research supports it,” said Dewitt.

The balls are optional. If students don’t want to use them one day, that is their choice. The children, however, are full of reasons why the balls are better.

Mason Castel said they make it easier for him to settle down in class, because they help him relax and do his work. Cooper Brumberg thinks they make it easier to work with other kids.

“It helps you learn a lot better,” said Brooke Weaver.

Students notice aspects that might not even occur to adults. Cooper Thumma said the balls make it easier to get things that he drops without stopping what he is doing, while Xavier Smith thinks the balls are less disruptive in class because they don’t make noise when you move them like a traditional chair.

But it’s hard to argue the most obvious point.

“It’s just very much fun to bounce,” said Elizabeth Prenatt.

The balls are being used in some other classrooms at Gray’s Woods with different degrees of success. Dewitt supports the idea but leaves it up to her teachers to implement and the students to utilize, as they see fit.

“They know their bodies,” she said. “They can determine for themselves.”

So far, Lawrence’s first grade is having a ball.