Having a ball

Front Royal teacher uses novel idea to promote focus in the classroom

By Josette Keelor

FRONT ROYAL — In Justin Birckbichler’s fourth grade class at Hilda J. Barbour Elementary School, the fun of learning has taken on another meaning.

The 22 students finishing math or reading assignments on a recent afternoon perched on yoga balls instead of desk chairs — a practice Birckbichler said has helped students pay better attention in his class.

“Hocus pocus,” he called out when voices started getting too high.

“Everybody focus,” 22 voices replied.

A second-year teacher, Birckbichler said his idea of using yoga balls in the classroom was inspired by a high population of students with learning disabilities such as ADHD.

“I would say we have a solid probably 30, 33 percent diagnosed.” Last year, he said, the percentage was even higher.

The yoga balls have seemed to help, and students have rolled with the idea, even though it isn’t without risk.

Brayden Eckert, 9, almost fell of his ball earlier this school year — “Almost, but I saved myself,” he said.

“I’m a football player, so I’ve got fast reflexes, and I got lucky.”

But staying on a yoga ball isn’t really that hard.

“They’re actually pretty easy,” he said.

“The way you most likely would stay on, like keep your balance,” — he demonstrated with his shoes shoulder-width apart — “is put your feet to the side.”

On yoga balls, students can’t lean back like they can in chairs because they’ll fall off, Birckbichler said, “so they have to really sit up.”

It makes class time more fun, and it offers a bit of a workout, too.

“I would definitely be inclined to say they’re burning way more [calories] than sitting on a chair for the whole day,” Birckbichler said.

Yoga balls are also a reward, which 9-year-old Hailey Oyler said is fair.

“If you lose it, it’s ’cause of your choice,” she said. “If you bounce, when you bounce and then your butt comes off, that’s when you lose the ball.”

In the beginning, Birckbichler admitted, the seating arrangement was a bit of a distraction, but the novelty has worn off enough that students can burn off extra energy while still focusing on class work.

For students like Brayden, it adds a unique layer to class time.

“He does like to do enthusiastic stuff,” Brayden said of his teacher, “but we’re mostly in our seats, so it just allows us to fidget and all that. And it’s just awesome. It works for me, and I’m one of those kids who likes to move.”

Other classrooms at Hilda J. Barbour feature a yoga ball or two and another teacher used yoga balls at her previous school, but Birckbichler was the first at Hilda J. Barbour to outfit a whole classroom with yoga balls. After getting approval from Principal Joey Waters, he bought the first 11 on eBay last March. His parents covered the cost as an early birthday gift to him.

Then he set up a crowdfunding site through “http://www.peerbackers.com”>http://www.peerbackers.com, but fitness equipment company Gaiam donated enough yoga balls for the rest of the class. He and his class filmed a “thank-you” letter to Gaiam, which they posted to YouTube at http://tiny.cc/e06fmx, and plan more “thank-you” messages to Peerbackers donors. He intends to use the $400 he raised through Peerbackers for classroom electronic tablets, and he has been loaning out extra yoga balls to other teachers at the school.

“I just would really advocate for people to try it,” he said. “You know, times are changing, education is changing.”

Hailey would agree: “Chairs, you just sit there, and when you’re on yoga balls it’s funner.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com