Johnston County

Alternative chairs help River Dell students get the wiggles out

Some students sit on “wobble stools” in Beth Tetterton’s River Dell classroom. The chairs have a curved bottom which forces the students to keep their balance, which some say helps them concentrate on their work.
Some students sit on “wobble stools” in Beth Tetterton’s River Dell classroom. The chairs have a curved bottom which forces the students to keep their balance, which some say helps them concentrate on their work. jdjackson@newsobserver.com

If you follow the bouncing ball at River Dell Elementary School, it might have a student on it.

As children have come to learn, there’s a time to sit still and a time to move about, but in some River Dell classrooms, it could be the same time, depending on what chair one’s sitting in.

Several classrooms in the school have replaced some of their chairs with inflated yoga balls and wobble stools. The aim is to help keep minds on schoolwork by offering an outlet for the boundless energy of elementary school students. A distraction for the distractions.

Over the summer, River Dell teacher Beth Tetterton sat through hours of the planning and training meetings teachers attend to get ready for the new year. Days of sitting still in cold, hard chairs left her exhausted, she said, and inspired her to remake her classroom.

“Every time I went to a teacher meeting and had to sit there for hours, I was always so uncomfortable,” Tetterton said. “I just thought about the kids, every time I went to a meeting, I thought how awful it was for the kids to sit there in chairs and desks all day long.”

Tetterton said she began reading about alternative seating and at the beginning of the year started stocking her classroom with couches, stools, crates and yoga balls. She said parents donated a few chairs and that donations paid for several wobble stools, which have a rounded bottom and are made to never sit still.

In the first few weeks of class, her students spent time with each of the chairs and filled out evaluation charts describing what they thought. Now, with the school year winding down, there’s a clear order in the room, even though there are no rows or desks, only scattered tables and places to sit.

“It’s really been awesome,” Tetterton said. “It’s a good thing it’s worked out, because they took all my desks and put them in different classrooms.”

The year has taken its toll though. When once the classroom had re two couches, now it has one; only one yoga ball survives, and favorite chairs have emerged, mostly the low bowl-shaped chairs, as have least favorites, the colorful plastic egg-shaped chairs that look like a mash-up of mid-century modern and Fisher Price.

“The egg chairs were popular in the beginning, but the novelty has worn off,” Tetterton said. “The rule is, if your seat is not helping you be productive and focused, it’s not a good seat choice for you. For some of them, it comes down to needing that movement. Some of them prefer not to sit at a table with people; quite a few will find a spot to tuck away by themselves. I have one who’s on the floor every day. That’s just the way he works.”

The wobble stools and yoga balls have been the biggest experiment, attempting to solve fidgeting with more movement, akin to driving into the skid when a car begins to fishtail. Tetterton said, overall, it’s been a success. Some yoga balls have popped, but kids seem more focused and responsive to the outlet for their energy.

“If they can just get the wiggles out, they’re a lot more focused and a lot more engaged,” Tetterton.

To the students, it doesn’t feel like an experiment. They draw the comparison of the chairs to fidget spinners, the twirly triangular toy that’s swept up many households and is held up by some as a welcome stress reliever for those with attention disorders or autism.

“They’re good for people who like to move,” student Symone Taylor said. “If you’re like me, you love to move, but these help me concentrate during my tests, and I get 100s all the time.”

The students have started to look at normal chairs with a certain disappointment, saying it can be hard to move from a classroom with a couch or yoga ball to one with cold plastic.

“I think it’s harder to sit still in a normal chair because you want to move, but you’re in a desk next to people most of the time, and that’s not the most fun at all,” Kathryn Weston said. “Your legs are under something and there’s something on your back, and you feel like you’re closed in.”

“And the seats are cold,” Taylor said.

River Dell teacher Chelsea Stilley added a table of yoga balls, a table of cushioned crates and a tent to her classroom this year, saying the idea came from Pinterest. She said most of the alternative seating came from parent donations or back-to-school sales, and her classroom has managed to avoid any popped balls so far this year.

She said the idea was to get the blood flowing in her students and stave off clouds of boredom.

“It’s a way to get them up out of their seats,” Stilley said. “I know for me to sit in a cold chair all day, it’s tiring, and it’s just stimulating to get up and move around and for them to move. They have all that energy balled up in them.

“They don’t seem bored in here; they seem really engaged,” Stilley said.

Her students agreed, some saying it helped them concentrate and one saying it helps work core muscles, a rare concern for an elementary school student. Stilley uses the yoga balls as chairs at one of her small-group tables. Occasionally a student will start bouncing with purpose but after a few seconds settles down into a gentle rock. All the while Stilley continues teaching.

Principal Janet Lebo is in her first year at River Dell after previously leading Cooper Elementary in Clayton. Her support of the school’s embrace of alternative seating ranges from physiological – that the moving chairs foster more effective breathing –to simple choice, that sometimes kids like to make a decision without adults telling them what to do. She told a story from her own home, of how her kids often enjoyed doing homework on the backyard trampoline, the subtle movement and bounce of the springs helping them concentrate.

“That little bit of bounce-and-give fed some sort of sensory piece for them and they’re able to focus a little better,” Lebo said.

This is the first year River Dell has used bouncing balls as chairs, but Lebo said Cooper tried it last year in a classroom for students with social and emotional concerns, saying the students seemed to respond to having a choice. This year at her new school, she said, it’s helped limit distractions.

“It helps with them not being so fidgety and doing things that might distract other folks,” Lebo said. “If they’re sitting on an exercise ball and are concentrating on keeping their own body still, it’s a little less distracting to others.”

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