The kindergarten students in Maple Grove Elementary School spread throughout their classroom, busy at work on the day’s early-morning activities.
Some of them flipped through books while sitting on a cushion on the floor. Others sat on an exercise ball chair, bouncing gently while they solved problems on an iPad.
The choice of where and how to do their studies was up to them. In the hands of 5-year-old children, such independence could have been a disaster.
But no one was out of control; everyone was working in the way they were most comfortable.
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“What makes it so successful is because it’s not just one way of learning. There are so many different ways for every child, and no one is assigned to a seat,” said Melissa Gardner, their teacher.
Gardner’s experiment in classroom design has drawn positive reviews from her students, their parents, fellow teachers and the education community in general. Her unique take on seating is inspiring her fellow Maple Grove teachers, as well as educators throughout the country who read her teaching-centric blog, Little Smiles, Big Sunshine.
Most importantly, her kids spent the last quarter of the year gaining confidence in themselves and learning better than they previously had.
“They’re really proud of the chance that they get to make choices,” Gardner said.
The idea of alternative seating has been circulating in schools throughout the country. The concept isn’t unique to Gardner’s classroom, even within Center Grove.
Teachers have tried different ways to get their students to learn more efficiently by having them stand, spread out on the ground or sit on chairs with exercise balls as seats.
But Gardner has taken all of the different concepts that teachers have used, and combined them into one classroom.
“What has made this successful is they all have choices,” she said. “One thing I’ve stressed for them is that they’re all different, and they all learn differently. It’s important for them to have different choices.”
Student Emma Karns preferred the seat with a bright green exercise ball, because they bounce, she said. Beckett York liked to choose different seats depending on his mood.
“You can figure out where you can sit, and you can work better. I work better when I can choose,” Beckett said.
Gardner used to have four tables, with six chairs at each table. Now, her room doesn’t have a desk and seat for every student.
Rather, students can sit on an exercise ball chair at a low table, or stand to do their work at a taller table. They can lay on their stomachs if they want.
Wobble stools, which rock gently back and forth, are popular for kids who fidget. Chairs have elastic kick bands on the bottom for children whose legs tend to be in motion.
“Now that they have this, they can release that energy, they can move about but they can still be engaged,” Gardner said.
Gardner came up with idea for her seating a few weeks before Maple Grove’s spring break. She was in front of her classroom, going through the normal routine of essentially corralling 24 students into sitting and paying attention the same way.
The thought occurred to her that the seating situation was in opposition of the rest of the way she taught.
“In my classroom, we use a lot of movement. We do stations, 15-minute increments where we’re moving to different places,” she said. “Then I started thinking about it, I was asking them to sit in these chairs more than I ever sit in a chair. I was just expecting these 5-year-olds to sit.”
Gardner is a blogger, connecting with other teachers and educators sharing ideas across the Internet. As she did research on alternative seating, she found an idea that she liked.
She had spoken with her principal Brooke Phillips about trying it, and she was receptive to the idea if she could fund it herself. Finally, Gardner implemented the concept slowly.
The first day she tried it, the children embraced it.
“It was the week before spring break, when most kids are all over the place. But they were so engaged, so quiet and actually working,” she said.
Gardner calculated that she’d need about $1,200 worth of seating and supplies to make it work. She created a proposal on the crowdsourcing site Donors Choose, a public charity that lets people donate to teachers’ projects around the U.S.
Within 24 hours, donors helped her reach her goal.
With the equipment she needed, Gardner has structured her lesson plans to accommodate this new seating arrangement.
Gardner explained her idea to her students, framing it in a way that kindergartners could understand. She told them that they are all different people, and they all learn in unique ways.
Some days, they might focus better if they’re standing up. Another time, they may want to sit on a cushion on the floor.
“One student told me that when she’s reading books, she likes to lay on her stomach. But when she’s doing work, she likes to sit this way,” Gardner said. “They’re making a choice, being responsible for themselves and their learning.”