Kindergarten classroom has no chairs

MONTEAGLE, Tennessee - The quietest kindergarten classroom you'll ever see might just be in Monteagle, Tennessee.

Five and six year olds at Monteagle Elementary School just doing their work; no wiggling, and staying out of each other's hair.

What's different about them?

They get to sit on a ball, all day, every day.

"You get to roll around, do fun stuff and exercise!" says 6-year-old Lauren Vanlone. "It helps us sit up straight," adds 6-year-old Riley Taylor.

From time to time, a little bouncing gets the wiggles out.

Any kindergarten teacher will tell you, that's a good thing.

Dawn Foutch, a 14-year teaching veteran, is a believer.

She and fellow kindergarten teacher Robin Colston applied for a UT Extension Office grant after reading about a Mayo Clinic study.

The Rochester, Minnesota medical center reported that students with attention problems focused better when using a stability exercise ball for a chair.

After some classroom tryouts, teachers reported a quieter, more orderly environment for kids from pre-school to middle school.

"The classroom has been quiet," according to Ms. Foutch. "We've had no chairs squeaking, no wiggling, no scrunching down in chairs. You can imagine how tough it can be for these little ones to be asked to sit in a stiff chair all day. It's just not their nature."

Ms. Foutch and Ms. Colston take occasional breaks from the usual classroom fare to encourage the little ones to bounce and stretch.

Almost immediately, after "getting it out of their system," they're engaged in learning again.

The balls have an additional use for 90 minutes each week, when students take them to the gym for physical education classes.

In the classroom the balls allow movement, but none of the noise associated with traditional chairs and desks.

Students who tend to be "wiggly" continue to exhibit extra movement, but are able to do so quietly.

The Mayo Clinic study also revealed students had better concentration, improved posture and fewer discipline problems.

That's why Marion County school administrators are taking a close look at the two Monteagle classrooms, considering an expansion of the no-chair philosophy.

"Sitting on the ball seems to keep them focused. It really keeps them grounded, so to speak," says principal Janet Layne.

Mark Griffith, Marion County's Director of Schools, admits he had to be sold on the idea of replacing chairs with exercise balls.

"I was a little skeptical at first. I had to do some research to see what they were talking about. But every time I see it, I'm impressed with what's going on in this Kindergarten class," he says. "I wish I had one of those to sit on in my office."

As for the old chairs, they're so unpopular they're hidden away in a corner of the classroom, used as punishment.

If you misbehave on your ball, you get the chair, and everyone would rather have a ball.

Ms. Foutch says after one month, no one has had to give up their ball, even for a minute.

Principal Layne hopes to expand the usage of the balls into other grades in the near future.

As part of the grant agreement the school is doing a study comparing the students' physical conditions, discipline referrals and learning abilities before and after the balls were installed.

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