WEST CHESTER, Pa. (AP) - The plastic chair could be destined for the same fate as the slide rule in Laura Gittings' fifth-grade class at East Bradford Elementary School - because the exercise ball rules.
The pupils in her classroom and those in another fifth-grade class now sit on brightly colored exercise balls.
"It's the best thing I've ever done in my classroom. It helps them pay attention," said Robbi Giuliano, who teaches at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School.
AP Photo - - Students at two elementary schools in the West Chester Area School District, Westtown-Thornbury and East Bradford, have traded in chairs for yoga balls in West Chester, Pa. The fifth-graders sit on yoga balls during class time because their teachers believe it helps students stay attentive during class.
"There's no slumping and slouching," Gittings added.
Since the start of the year in the West Chester Area School District, when the teachers offered students the option of using the air-filled balls, nearly all the 50 youngsters in the two classrooms have abandoned their chairs. Only two students alternate between the two.
The teachers, who also sit on the balls, say the chair replacement has helped students channel their energy, reduce their fidgeting, and concentrate.
"I really like the feel of it, and it helps you, let's say, focus," said Audrey Coffey, 10, a student in Giuliano's class. "It's better than a chair. When you sit in a chair for a long time, it hurts your butt."
Staying atop exercise balls forces students to use muscles that engage their lower bodies, said John Kilbourne, a professor of movement science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. The flow of energy that results can have a positive effect on learning.
Kilbourne, a former strength and conditioning coach for the 76ers, used similar balls in his college classroom and reported the results in a 2008 study.
His findings are related to a growing body of research that links exercise and learning. Exercise improves attention, memory, motivation, and self-esteem, said John Ratey, an associate clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and author of "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain."
"You don't realize it, but you are turning on more parts of the brain" by balancing on the ball, Ratey said, than "if you were sitting flat and supported by the backrest."
But another expert cautions that students should be careful. Fatigue can set in after long periods on the ball, and students can slip into positions that change the natural alignment of the spine, said Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. Backrests do have merit, he said. He advocates alternating between the ball and the chair during the day.
In Gittings' and Giuliano's classes, students alternately shift positions on the ball and sit still. They bounce on them when allowed, and one boy even manages to sit upright with his feet tucked under him.
Giuliano, who practices meditation and yoga, got the idea to use the exercise balls from her husband, who works for a company whose employees sit on exercise balls. The bosses found that the chair replacement helped raise productivity.
Trying it out
Giuliano thought she'd try it with her students.
She introduced the idea at a back-to-school night in September. Parents had to buy the balls on their own for about $5. Within three weeks, all the students had them.
"I wasn't sure about the idea at first," said Ellen Chan, whose son Michael, 11, is in Giuliano's class. "When you think yoga balls, you think exercise and the YMCA, but it sounded interesting."
A month after Giuliano's class got the orbs, Gittings' class wanted them, too. The teachers' classes are pen pals, and when Giuliano's students mentioned the balls in their letters, Gittings' students wanted their own.
It took about a week to get used to the balls, the students said, and there were a few tumbles, but no one was hurt. Ryan Richardson, 11, was sitting in a chair last week because he had fallen and decided it was time for a break from the ball.
Teachers in U.S. classrooms started introducing the practice about 10 years ago, Ratey said.
Lisa Witt started sitting on one at her desk and then introduced the practice to her students. In 2004, she started WittFitt L.L.C., a Wisconsin company that has since supplied exercise balls, training, and instructional materials to teachers in more than 600 schools.
"I believe we should invite movement into the classroom in a safe and effective manner," Witt said. "The body is not meant to be still."
In ancient Greece, lessons were often conducted while students and teachers were standing up and going on walks, Kilbourne said. The practice of sitting to learn emerged in the Middle Ages with its strict codes of behavior, he said.
Gittings and Giuliano have established rules about the use of the balls in the classrooms.
Students are allowed to bounce up and down only at certain times. Throwing the balls and rolling them around as toys is prohibited. Students must help store the balls each day, piling them up on top of desks in what they call a "yoga mountain."
Gittings and Giuliano concede that the exercise balls might not be for everyone. There's the constant rubbing rubber noise on the floor - and the bouncing.
Next year, Penn Wood Elementary School in Westtown Township will use the balls in its reading room. Gittings and Giuliano hope the practice spreads. So does Abby Gaskill, 11, who will be entering sixth grade.
"It's going to stink next year," Gaskill said. "I'll ask the teacher if we can buy one, and they'll probably say, 'No.' But I'll deflate one and put it in my locker - just in case."