Image: Stephanie Mueller
Janet Hostetter  /  AP
Stephanie Mueller works at a "standing" desk in an experimental classroom at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minn. Mayo Clinic obesity researchers want to learn whether classrooms really need desks, or if being able to move around helps students fight obesity and learn at the same time.
updated 3/28/2006 7:07:05 PM ET 2006-03-29T00:07:05

The fidgety boys and girls in Phil Rynearson's classroom get up and move around whenever they want, and that's just fine with him.

In fact, stretching, swaying and even balancing on big wobbly exercise balls are the point of this experimental classroom. The goal is to see if getting children to move even a little can help combat childhood obesity.

As an added perk, there's some splashy technology, too — laptop computers, a wireless network and iPods.

The data aren't in yet. But anecdotally, Rynearson and Superintendent Jerry Williams say the fourth- and fifth-graders are more focused on the curriculum than their peers in a comparison group in an ordinary classroom. And there are fewer distractions than in the traditional setup — where a lot of time is spent trying to get children to sit still.

"Sitting isn't bad," Rynearson said. "But I think kids need to move."

The classroom is the idea of Mayo Clinic researcher Dr. James Levine, also the mastermind of an office of the future that encourages more movement from deskbound white-collar workers.

For schoolchildren, Levine says, "My dream was kids shooting hoops and spelling," much like the American basketball game of "H-O-R-S-E."

But the classroom at Elton Hills Elementary School doesn't go quite that far. Instead, the school replaced the standard desks and chairs with adjustable podiums that allow students to stand, kneel on mats or sit on big exercise balls.

Sensors track calories burned
To measure movement down to the last muscle twitch, sensors are on their legs. Levine will calculate how many calories the students are burning in the new classroom compared with their old, traditional classroom.

The concept is interesting, said Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, executive director of Action for Healthy Kids, a coalition of more than 40 health and education agencies.

While the experiment sounds "like a fun way to learn," she says that at best it would be one of many changes in diet, exercise and lifestyle students need.

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"Will this really help with the obesity epidemic?" she said. "That's the area that we don't know enough about."

In Levine's experiment, a lot of the movement depends on technology. During a nutrition lesson, a group of students stood at their desks following along on their computers. Meanwhile, another group downloaded an audio file of Rynearson reading a book; a third group listened as their iPods walked them through a spelling test.

The students had mixed views of the experiment. Stephanie Mueller said she liked working on the computers, especially being able to repeat parts of lessons. And the freedom to move is "better than sitting down all day," she said.

However, another student, Mariah Matrious, didn't much like it. "I don't like standing up," she said. "My legs get tired and I like sitting down."

The experiment is due to run through the end of the school year. Rynearson said he plans to add old-fashioned desks and chairs for any students who want them.

Williams, the superintendent, has already been converted to the new concept and thinks it could be expanded, with or without the computers and iPods. "I would love to have this move from a single classroom to the whole school," he said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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