WEST CHESTER, Pa. — In 11 years of teaching, ditching students' desk chairs in favor of yoga balls is one of the best decisions Robbi Giuliano thinks she ever made.
Replacing stationary seats with inflatable bouncers has raised productivity in her fifth-graders at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School, making students better able to focus on lessons while improving their balance and core strength, she said.
"I have more attentive children," Giuliano said. "I'm able to get a lot done with them because they're sitting on yoga balls."
The giant rubber spheres, also called stability balls, come in different sizes, colors and degrees of firmness. By making the sitter work to stay balanced, the balls force muscle engagement and increased blood flow, leading to more alertness.
The exercise gear is part a larger effort to modernize schools based on research linking physical activity with better learning, said John Kilbourne, a professor of movement science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.
Traditional classroom setups are being challenged as teachers nationwide experiment with yoga balls, footrests and standing desks, which give children outlets to fidget without disrupting class.
"It's the future of education," Kilbourne said.
Stability balls, frequently used in yoga, Pilates and physical therapy, have even begun appearing in offices in the wake of recent studies stressing the dangers of sedentary work environments.
The balls first began to surface in schools as aids for kids with attention problems or autism, said Michelle Rowe, executive director of the Kinney Center for Autism at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. The equipment has since gone mainstream.
"It takes away the taboo of wiggling, which most kids do anyway," said Rowe, who also is a professor of health services.
Giuliano began using the balls in her class in West Chester, a Philadelphia suburb, about three years ago after her husband mentioned how they increased productivity at the holistic wellness company where he worked.