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by: BARBARA SHERMAN - SOFT SEATS - Participating in classroom activities is more fun for Hopkins Elementary second-grade students like Payzlee Sarano-Ramos and Corbin Patterson (on the right) when they sit on exercise balls, and teacher Sari Hedges (rear) sees the benefits of using them.In the old days, when schoolmarms ruled classrooms with yardsticks and loud whistles, toys were left at the door when students marched in from recess.

Fast forward to Sari Hedges’ second-grade classroom at Hopkins Elementary in 2012, where students sit on huge exercise balls instead of conventional chairs.

Traditional plastic chairs are stacked in a corner, and kids can roll and wiggle a little tiny bit on the balls while learning their lessons, and while the balls might be considered toys under other circumstances, in Hedges’ classroom, they are strictly utilitarian.

“Not only does this increase their ability to pay attention, it also improves posture and helps build core muscles,” Hedges said. “I’m a firm believer that exercise improves memory, self-esteem and the ability to concentrate. Research has shown that movement helps increase blood flow to the brain.”

Last year Hedges learned through a colleague about, a nonprofit organization that connects donors with public school teachers who need classroom materials.

Her colleague, who works in a less-affluent district, received free school supplies, but Hedges had something else in mind.

“I had wanted to use the exercise balls for about six years,” said Hedges, who is teaching in the same Hopkins classroom for the 12th year. “I have read articles about teachers on the East Coast and in Astoria using the balls, so I really am following in their footsteps. I had my own experience with the balls, using them at home and the gym.

“All the articles I read were about fourth-graders. My students are younger, but they’re handling it really well. Some of my former students come by the classroom and say, ‘Not fair.’

“I heard a comment from someone about the safety and liability issues, but I think the balls are safer than chairs. More kids fall off chairs.”

She followed through with the application process, and the balls were funded by The Horace Mann Company.

Hedges ordered 27 balls of different sizes, and a school family helped by filling them with air and returning them to school a few at a time.

“I ordered the ‘bust-proof’ ones, which are a little more expensive,” she said. “When the first ones came in around the third week of school, a couple of the kids modeled the correct behavior to use while sitting on them and then passed them on to kids who they thought would be responsible. It took a week to get them all.

“The kids are good about following the rules, but if they don’t, they have to sit on a chair for the rest of the day, but then the next day, they start fresh. We have a saying, ‘You choose the action, you choose the consequence.’”

Outside Hedges’ classroom on a bulletin board in the hallway were posted letters that her students wrote about the balls, cute misspellings and all.

Kaiser wrote, “Our classroom is the only classroom who as Exercise Balls. I like the Exrcise Balls because they make me think better.”

Owen wrote, “Our classroom sits on Exercise Balls. I have never sat on an yellow Balls. The Balls are different sisise.”

Corbin wrote, “Our classroom sits on Exercise Balls. I like siting on them. Thou help your brain. I rile like them.”

A couple of the kids mentioned the rules in their letters, such as not rolling back and forth, and keeping their feet on the floor.

Ilyana wrote, “When you’re bouncing on the ball, it makes your cheeks move up and down,” and Gabi wrote, “Teacher will take it away if you bounce really high.”

Isabelle wrote, “I like the ball’s beacase I can do my work better and I can do my work faster,” and Garrett wrote, “Our classroom sits on a exercise balls. It helps me lern so so much. It is osim.”

The kids keep Frisbees under their desks, and at the end of the day, they place the balls on top of the Frisbees on their desks to clear the floor.

In late October, there was a bit of a media frenzy when some of the metro television stations sent crews to Hopkins to do stories on the balls. While the attention was fun for the kids, Hedges and Sherwood Horace Mann agent Thad Miller had hoped more attention would be paid to to let more teachers know about the grant opportunities.

Hedges is among 140 public school teachers in Washington County who have received donations totaling $137,761 to fund 243 classroom projects through in the past 12 months. In the metropolitan area, 281 teachers have received $249,355 to fund 470 projects.

Horace Mann is the largest national multi-line insurance company focusing on educators’ financial needs, and it provides different types of insurance. Since February 2011, Horace Mann has contributed $1.5 million to school projects nationwide.

Hedges encourages other teachers to look into the “Help Us Exercise Our Minds” project and apply for grants, and she intends to do it again.

“They encourage you to keep applying, and you earn points,” Hedges said. “Maybe next time I will apply for something more conventional.”

For more information, visit, or call Miller at 503-625-8942.

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