For the past several months, students at Marguerite Vann Elementary in Conway have been receiving double the amount of time for recess than in years past.

The reason behind the change, physical education teacher Jana Hedgecock said, is because of a new pilot program the school is taking part of.

Pushed through the Arkansas Department of Education, the program extends daily recess time for kindergarten through fourth-grade students to 60 minutes or more a day, and 45 minutes for fifth and sixth, in 32 chosen public schools across the state.

The pilot program began at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year and will be completed at the end of term.

Hedgecock said she first saw the idea on the T.V. back in August 2017. After, she took the thought to school administrators who thought it was “awesome,” and then a group worked to complete the application required.

In April they were notified they had been selected and immediately began formalizing the school schedule; due to the new program, they lost 30 minutes of instructional time.

“What we really focused in on was cutting down on bathroom breaks or finding a time to work it in instead of taking a whole group bathroom break, sending one at a time, and focused more on what the quality of what we were teaching versus the quantity and making sure we had quality assignments,” Hedgecock said.

The ADE, along with the physical education teacher, noted research and recommendations cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the need for children to get 60 minutes of play a day.

“In addition to physical and mental health benefits achieved through physical activity, research has shown that physical activity can also help children to improve concentration, memory, and classroom behavior,” the ADE website states.

At Marguerite Vann, Hedgecock said, they have a lot of students who live in apartments or whose parents work at night and they don’t get that recommended play.

“For me, and a lot of kids you ask, their favorite thing about school is recess,” she said. “The research backs up for creative play, social skills, there’s just a lot of bonus that goes along with recess and the kids love it.”

Hedgecock said she can look back on her time in school and remember who she played with and what games they played during recess.

“Those memories, even though people are like, ‘oh you’re just playing,’ they’re ingrained in you, they’re important,” she said.

So far, Hedgecock said, she’s seen only a positive impact in the school’s new program.

“On the playground, I’ve noticed a lot more kids playing [and] the type of playing they’re doing, there’s a lot more creativity, they’re enjoying having the time in the morning and then being able to come back to the game in the afternoon,” she said.

Before, whether it was due to time constraints or too much structure, Hedgecock said she rarely saw that.

She said now she’s seeing that kids are getting their hands dirty, learning social skills and problem solving on their own while bringing more free creativity into their recess time.

“The classroom teachers are loving it [too] because they feel like it’s the perfect time,” Hedgecock said. “The kids get a break, we’re just not forcing information into them, they’re getting that time to kind of reset and come back fresh for the next thing.”

Overall, she said she feels like the enjoyment of school has grown for students.

“Even just in the hallway they look happier, they’re excited, they know a break’s coming,” the teacher said.

All about her kids, Hedgecock said just seeing them get so excited to be able to go outside and play — a joy that was formerly reserved for activities like computer lab — has been exciting for her too.

“I love that,” she said. “I’m glad that they’re excited to be here and that they’re loving the extra time.”

The Log Cabin Democrat asked Hedgecock what she thought caused the shift from more recess time to a focus on the classroom throughout the nation in the past 10 or so years.

“Honestly, I feel like [the people in charge] think the more information we can get into them, the more they’re going to know but I think the research and data backs it up … that sometimes kid’s minds aren’t ready, that they need a break, they need to refocus,” she said. “So, I think, they forgot the value of play and focused more on academics and now I think the research is showing the importance of it, especially in our younger students.”

Hedgecock said she understands the desire to want to have top test scores and more across the nation but feels like the people who made the decision to cut back on recess time, focused too hard on instruction.

“There’s just such a hard focus on academics and scoring and it’s just hard on a young mind … they just want to be kids,” she said.

Hedgecock said it’s good to see the kids have this time back … to learn on the playground what they can’t in the classroom.

“They’re learning so much more as a life skill,” she said. “Academics are as well, but both parts are important, so, I think they’re learning great things at both places but adding that time has been beneficial for our kids.”

Hedgecock said while she doesn’t know the future of the pilot program beyond this year, she hopes the ADE sees the success and through articles and news stories like such, wants to raise that type of awareness.

The LCD asked Hedgecock if she knew how the ADE was planning on measuring the success of the program. She said they are going to be sending out surveys to administrators and more, looking at all behavior referrals in school during the time and will evaluate test scores.

“My hope is regardless, as long as there’s not a dip in test scores, it stays the same, or grows, they would continue the pilot program,” she said, adding if it went away, she would be crushed.

Conway School District Communication Specialist Heather Kendrick said if kids are healthier and happier now due to the impact of the program, she could see that having an affect on both their academics and social and emotional health.

“I think long-term, there is no way this would not be a good thing,” she said.

Kendrick said, for adults, nobody schedules a three-hour meeting without giving a break, so how can kids be expected to be any different. She added that if the ADE continues the program, they would love for more Conway schools to also be able to do it.

“Jana has been phenomenal in spearheading this effort,” she said. “I think it’s just really been a fantastic thing and, like anything that is so successful, it has someone’s heart behind it who really really loves their students and just has such a desire to want good things for them.”

Hedgecock said it’s not about her.

“It really is for the kids,” she said, emotionally. “I love them and I want what’s best for them.”