Teacher's DIY tennis ball chairs for kids with special needs go viral on social media

 
 
Updated 2/15/2017 4:42 PM
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  • Speech language pathologist Amy Maplethorpe talks about a tennis ball sensory chair she designed and is using at Raymond Ellis Elementary School in Round Lake. The specially designed chair helps children with special needs and has become a Facebook sensation, reaching at least 15 million people over social media.

      Speech language pathologist Amy Maplethorpe talks about a tennis ball sensory chair she designed and is using at Raymond Ellis Elementary School in Round Lake. The specially designed chair helps children with special needs and has become a Facebook sensation, reaching at least 15 million people over social media. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Speech language pathologist Amy Maplethorpe works with Michal Kozupa, 9, of Round Lake Beach as they sit on tennis ball sensory chair she designed and is using at Raymond Ellis Elementary School in Round Lake.

      Speech language pathologist Amy Maplethorpe works with Michal Kozupa, 9, of Round Lake Beach as they sit on tennis ball sensory chair she designed and is using at Raymond Ellis Elementary School in Round Lake. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

A speech language pathologist's do-it-yourself chairs made with tennis balls have become part of an effort to help students with sensory problems at a North suburban elementary school, and brought the instructor and her school district unprecedented national attention.

Amy Maplethorpe, a first-year teacher at Raymond Ellis Elementary School in Round Lake, made two tennis ball chairs for a "sensory room" for students with special needs. The room was created this school year for Ellis students who need physical stimulation to perform standard tasks.

Speech language pathologist Amy Maplethorpe with the tennis ball sensory chair she designed and is using at Raymond Ellis Elementary School in Round Lake. The bumpy texture can help students who need physical stimulation to perform tasks.
  Speech language pathologist Amy Maplethorpe with the tennis ball sensory chair she designed and is using at Raymond Ellis Elementary School in Round Lake. The bumpy texture can help students who need physical stimulation to perform tasks. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Maplethorpe sliced tennis balls in half and glued them to the seats and backrests of the two chairs. The bumpy texture helps students who may have difficulties processing from their senses and the world around them, particularly those with autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome or developmental delays, she said.

So far, she's found that some first-grade students have become more patient and follow directions better while in the chairs. They're also not as restless.

"It is important to note, though, that students have different sensory needs," said Maplethorpe, who visits different Ellis classrooms during the day to work with students. "What is successful for one student may not be for another student."

Speech language pathologist Amy Maplethorpe works with Michal Kozupa, 9, of Round Lake Beach as they sit on tennis ball sensory chairs she designed and is using at Raymond Ellis Elementary School in Round Lake.
  Speech language pathologist Amy Maplethorpe works with Michal Kozupa, 9, of Round Lake Beach as they sit on tennis ball sensory chairs she designed and is using at Raymond Ellis Elementary School in Round Lake. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Maplethorpe's chairs have became a social media hit since a post on Ellis Elementary's Facebook page in late January.

Although the page is geared primarily for parents and others connected to Ellis, the Facebook post has reached at least 15.1 million people and received about 435,000 reactions, comments and shares. The chairs have been written about on numerous news websites, including ABC News and Huffington Post.

"I have never seen this type of response to any posts within district," Round Lake Unit District 116 spokeswoman Heather Bennett said.

Maplethorpe said the social media response has been gratifying. Some of the feedback has come from parents looking to help their children.

Speech language pathologist Amy Maplethorpe created two tennis ball sensory chairs in use at Raymond Ellis Elementary School in Round Lake.
  Speech language pathologist Amy Maplethorpe created two tennis ball sensory chairs in use at Raymond Ellis Elementary School in Round Lake. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

"I am excited that students across the world may benefit from this DIY project and that it has provided educators and parents with possible seating alternatives for children with sensory needs," she said.

Diego Casillas, a District 116 occupational therapist and the designer of Ellis' sensory room, said the tennis ball chairs have been a good addition to a space that includes swings and a scooter ramp to help stimulate students and improve learning.

"The fact we have a space specifically designated for (sensory problems), it is not common in every district," Casillas said.

Casillas said instructors at the K-5 Ellis school are encouraged to find different items to add to the sensory room. Maplethorpe was doing her part online when she found a Pinterest tutorial about affixing halved tennis balls to the seat and backrest of a chair.

Bennett said teachers typically have opportunities to share classroom success stories with others across District 116.

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