RICHMOND — Every one of the 21 second-graders in RaeAnna Fields' classroom has a big rubber ball, but there isn't a bit of chaos from bouncing or tossing going on.
Instead, the Glenn Marshall Elementary School students sat quietly on their rubber balls on a recent Friday morning, completing a reading test.
Fields said trading the classroom's hard plastic chairs for stability balls was not only helping the kids build a strong core; it was helping them stay focused on their studies.
"They have to be more alert because they're sitting on a ball," she said.
With chairs, Fields said, students were prone to slouch or put their heads down on their desks. Now, she said, "they can't do that."
She also said she had seen a decrease in how often children get out of their seats and move around the classroom without a good reason.
Jimmy Phelps, 7, thought of several reasons he likes his stability ball.
"They're really helping me think," he said. "It helps me because I use a lot of energy. It's more comfortable because the chair is hard, and this is filled with air."
Mariah Mercer, 7, agreed.
"It's very comfy and it makes us very strong," she said.
Fields' classroom isn't the first to try the balls, which have been seen in office cubicles for years. Schools around the country have used them enough that at least one company now markets them in a "classroom pack."
Fields bought the balls last year through a grant from Madison County's Coordinated School Health program, which promotes health and wellness among the district's students.
"They're having to use those core muscles," she said. "We were (jokingly) saying the whole class is going to have a six-pack."
She said parents signed permission slips allowing their children to use the balls.
Laura Lucas, a special education para-educator at Glenn Marshall Elementary, has a 7-year-old son, Tre Buckner, in Fields' class.
Lucas said she had noticed that Tre wasn't as "energetic" at home, meaning he probably was staying more active as a result of sitting on the ball at school.
"Our family's really into exercise," she said. "I'm excited about it."
The more wiggly students tend to bounce absentmindedly or rock slightly on their stability balls from time to time, which Fields said helps them stay on task.
"For the most part, they sit pretty still," she said. "They have to have their bottom on the ball and their feet on the floor," she said. "I stress all the time that it is a privilege."
Not one student has lost that privilege, she said.
Fields said all the classrooms at Glenn Marshall Elementary have a few of the stability balls, but her classroom is the only one where they are used exclusively.
She is collecting data from test scores to help determine whether the use of stability balls might be expanded.
Fields said she had hoped to use the balls last year with the fourth-grade class she was teaching, but the balls were too small, so she stowed them until December, when she brought them out for her current crop of second-graders.
Fields, who has been a teacher for 17 years, said she began using the balls three or four years ago at her classroom's computer stations.
"The kids loved them," she said. "They would fight over them, actually."