IF ROCHESTER SCHOOLS superintendent Jerry Williams gets his wish, your fifth-grader may go to school one day and ask where her desk went. That’s what Alicia Karls of Elton Hills Elementary wondered last spring, when she and her classmates participated in a study by Mayo Clinic obesity researchers.
On her first day in her new classroom, developed under the guidance of Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo’s Active Life research team, and Lorraine Lanningham-Foster, PhD, a Mayo child researcher, Karls arrived to find the traditional desks replaced by podium-like stands holding laptops and iPods. There were kids kneeling on carpet squares and bouncing on exercise balls. To the students, it was more invigorating than caffeinated soda—which is the point. The classroom is part of Mayo’s ongoing research into the benefits of non-exercise activity, or thermogenesis—the energy a person burns doing regular, everyday activities, like fidgeting, passing notes, chewing gum, and perhaps even firing spitballs.
More than 15 percent of children in the United States are overweight, according to the national Centers for Disease Control. Alarmed by those figures, Levine and Lanningham-Foster asked a simple question: do children need to sit while they learn? After about 45 minutes of observing students in the researchers’ revamped classroom, superintendent Williams was convinced the answer was “no.” He quickly became one of the program’s most ardent supporters, focusing on how the classroom helps students’ minds as much as their bodies. “The ah-ha moment for me was how quickly the kids were focused on what the teacher was doing in a setting that was so different,” Williams says. “And, with 24 individual learners, you have 24 different ways of learning. You may sit in a very comfortable chair, and I may stretch out on the floor or sit at a table. Here, they can create the environment in which they learn best.”
When teacher Phil Rynearson asked his students who would like to keep their futuristic classroom beyond the planned three weeks of the study, almost every hand shot up. Cheering ensued when they got the official okay. Now, Williams is hoping such classrooms will become the norm across the country, showing kids that exercise means more than just tag or dodge ball. “This could change the way we have been running physical education in school,” Williams says.
Schools, as well as the companies that donated supplies for the study, have responded enthusiastically. “Everyone recognizes child obesity as a serious problem,” Lanningham-Foster says. “Everyone’s starting to feel a pressing need to use drastic measures to come up with solutions.”
This year, Karls and her former classmates are back at desks, in middle school. To stay physically alert and mentally focused, the student plans on using some of the techniques she learned during the study, but she knows it won’t be quite the same. “I’m really bummed about it,” she says of having to leave the desk-free classroom. “I’ll be jealous if this year’s class gets to do it for the whole year.”
Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.