When balance balls were originally developed in the 1960s for physical therapy purposes, who knew that one day they'd be recommended for children who have trouble focusing in school?
But today, that's just what's happening. Balance balls might be just what the doctor ordered to help children with sensory processing disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or just a strong need to fidget reach their full potential in the classroom.
Around the same time that fitness fans began using balance balls (also called exercise balls, stability balls or therapy balls) in their exercise regimes as a way to strengthen abdominal and back muscles, ball chairs were developed as a way to strengthen core muscles and improve posture while sitting. During the 1980s, some occupational therapists began recommending them to educators for classroom use, deeming them particularly helpful for children with special learning needs.
Then in 2003, a study was published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy concluding that in students with ADHD, sitting on therapy balls improved behavior and legible word productivity. In other words, students using ball chairs were able to sit still, focus and write more words clearly.
Mayo Clinic in Rochester seconded those findings in 2007 with a study on the benefits of a chairless classroom. In the Mayo study, which focused on improving learning and reducing obesity by making children more active, researchers found that the ability to move around more while sitting made the students more attentive. Mayo Clinic communications consultant Bob Nellis told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune that he believes this is because kids are able to burn off excess energy by bouncing on a ball.
"Sitting still" isn't always a good thing
"Generally speaking, people don't sit still," says Diana Henry, an occupational therapist who travels the country in an RV to offer school-based and individual occupational therapy services. "They are always wiggling around. The littlest kids are even more wiggly because their sensory systems are still developing."
That's why children need recess at school. "Running and jumping and spinning and twirling and swinging," says Henry. "Those activities are very important for the development of children's central nervous systems, their brain and their body."
Some kids need more movement than others. And for some kids with a sensory processing disorder or ADHD, being in motion allows their brains to be engaged. "There is a neurological pathway that goes from your body's balance and movement system to your alert system in your brain. Movement actually allows for alertness and attention," says Henry.
That's where ball chairs come in. In response to the ball's instability and in order to remain balanced while sitting on one, the body instinctively — and continually — engages core muscle groups. Constant movement is required in order to stay seated on the ball. And that movement, however slight, helps them focus.
Parents and teachers put ball chair benefits to the test
"Ball chairs are very good for children who need to move a lot," says Kay Barrows, a retired elementary school teacher from Monument, Colo. Barrows had such success in her classroom using a ball chair for one special needs child that she pushed for and was awarded a district grant to get ball chairs for her entire class. "The chairs were helpful for special needs students in particular, but I also saw a big difference in kids who were just always rocking in their chairs and needed to move."
When a child sits on a ball chair, they are able to direct their natural kinesthetic energy and need for movement in a positive way, because the child on a ball chair has to constantly move his body on the chair to maintain his balance.
So rather than squash a child's innate need for movement, ball chairs channel their physical energy in a positive way, allowing them to focus on their work more completely and reach their full potential as learners.
Darcy Lewis, a mother of two sons with ADHD in Riverside, Ill., has started using a ball chair at home. "They feel less fidgety and more relaxed when they sit on a ball and, by their own assessment, are more able to concentrate, whether on homework or dinner conversation with the rest of the family," says Lewis.
Parents like Lewis are utilizing the concept of classroom ball chairs and allowing their child to use one in a home setting. To this end, a ball chair can be a great tool for your child, however, it is extremely important that a small child doesn't sit on an adult size ball. "It's important that the ball fits the child." says Henry. Strive for a 90-degree angle in the knee bend when the child is sitting comfortably on the ball. A regular sized chair or ball may be fine for an older or taller child. Or try these resources for child-sized ball chairs:
What if your child is just plain ol' fidgety?
You can act on this research whether or not your child has SPD or ADHD. As Henry and Barrows both note above, every kid has a need for movement. With or without a real ball chair, here are some things you can do to give your children more wiggle room while doing homework or other seated activities at home:
- If a child-size ball chair isn't in the budget, have your child sit on an appropriate-sized Balance Ball stability ball (just the ball on the floor) while reading, doing homework, even watching educational programming on TV.
- Place a resistance band on the legs of a chair so your child can bounce her feet up and down while she works.
- Tape sandpaper to the underside of a table or desk so your child can rub his fingers against it while sitting for any task.
- Provide a bin filled with objects your children can fidget with during time they are expected to sit still. (Try Koosh balls, squeeze balls, stretchy animals and other tactile toys.)
UPDATE: Gaiam gives kids the gift of bounce
After reading this article (originally published in September 2010) and reviewing more research recommending balance balls as a strategy to help students focus in school, second grade teacher Lana Ray in Connelly Springs, N.C., convinced her school's principal to let her purchase six ball chairs for her classroom.
Many of Ray's students have ADD or ADHD; shortly after the chairs arrived, she started noticing marked behavioral improvement from students on the days they got to sit on the ball chairs (Ray rotated the chairs around the classroom so that each of her 16 students got to sit on a ball chair every third day). One student even stuttered less when he sat on the ball. Ray's local paper covered the story, raising awareness among other educators and parents.
When Ray wrote to Gaiam to share her success story and ask if the company would consider selling her additional chairs at a discounted rate so that each student could use one every day, Gaiam responded by donating 11 additional chairs to her classroom — one for each of the remaining students, and one for Ray.
The heartfelt thanks we received, as well as the knowlege that the chairs will continue to help students for years to come, made the donation more than worth it. Each student sent back a thank you note and drawing, depicting how the ball chairs are helping them in school, two of which are pictured here (click on the images to view them larger). Ray wrote that "in August, these students came into my classroom 1-2 years below grade level. If they continue to grow in the next semester as much as they have in the first, they will be on or close to grade level at the end of the year."