I loved recess. My best friend, Ryan, and I spent our morning classroom breaks plotting our fun: kickball, soccer, flag football? We had a lot of options and the equipment to match. I’m sure our teachers were thrilled to see us playing hard but we also learned valuable lessons about teamwork and friendships, things that aren’t easily taught in a class.

Today, in many elementary schools, recess is very different from my experience. With restricted budgets, schools often have to put off updating playground and gym equipment. At the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), we wanted to provide schools with resources to meet their students’ needs for nutrition and physical activity. We created the Healthy Playground Makeover Sweepstakes and Smart from the Start Awards.

The Healthy Playground Makeover Sweepstakes (HPMS) awards two grand-prize-winning schools with a playground from Playworld Systems and a $30,000 grant from HWCF to update cafeteria or gym equipment. Over the past six years, entries have grown as awareness of the program expands and needs increase. This year, we received more than 530,000 entries from schools nationwide. We are thrilled the randomly drawn winners are so deserving.

Woodland Elementary School in Puyallup, Washington, is a Title I school built for 500 students but currently enrolls 712. The additional students are taught in portable classrooms that sit on blacktop where students once played basketball and tetherball. The field is often underwater or muddy but even when they can use it, the school only has two kickballs and one basketball for the 100 students that are often outside together. The PTO at Woodland worked tirelessly to raise money to build a playground. When Kristi Giste, a parent, saw the sweepstakes on Facebook, she said, “I decided to send it out to every friend I had and even friends I had yet to make. It caught like wildfire.” Her efforts paid off. Woodland plans to build a running track and buy more athletic equipment. The additional funds they raised will be added to their prize to build a bigger playground.

Our second grand-prize winner is Plains Elementary School in Timberville, Virginia. The playground there is over 40 years old and falling apart. A rung on the rusted chain ladder broke and when a student grabbed the railing, it came off in her hand. Plains held a mud run, silver coin drive, and even challenged the principal to jump out of a plane. The efforts raised $10,000 for a new playground but it wasn’t enough. After the assistant principal saw the sweepstakes poster, the PTO encouraged parents and teachers to enter every day and generated more than 2,100 entries. Now, the school will be able to replace the dilapidated playground and provide a safe place to play.

We didn’t stop with the sweepstakes. Our Smart from the Start Awards focus on preschools and Head Start programs. Teachers create detailed action plans for healthy change and this year competed against schools from all 50 states.

Treadwell Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee, received our $20,000 grand prize. Treadwell went beyond its Pre-K and utilized all the Together Counts™ materials so all 660 students could benefit from the health and wellness resources. Despite the school’s many challenges, Treadwell’s principal has instilled in the students that “there are no excuses when it comes to excellence.” As a Title I school with 96 percent of students considered economically disadvantaged, Treadwell relies on partnerships to increase the impact of the program. It is because of that hard work that the school will be able to build a playground and expand a garden to provide healthy options for students who can’t afford snacks.

Over the past six years, HWCF has awarded nearly $1.4 million in grants and prizes to schools that strive every day to help their students, inside the classroom and out. I hope these winning students will make lasting memories and build friendships on their new playgrounds. We are thrilled to meet the incredible and deserving people who enter and win our programs, and encourage you to be one of them when the entry period begins again in August.