UPDATE: The Birchwood playground will be ready for play in September. Organizers are still waiting for the special shock-absorbing floor to be installed for children’s safety.
BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Anyone at Birchwood Elementary School, from kindergartners to administrators, will tell visitors about the importance of teamwork. But it’s rare to see it illustrated as plainly as it was July 10 and 11, when volunteers gathered to erect a playground in less than 24 hours.
The construction project was precipitated by the disappointing, but crucial discovery in mid-December of last year that the playground’s wooden posts were rotting beneath the soil. The playset was immediately closed and wrapped in caution tape; it disappeared days later.
A few pieces of newer equipment were left behind, but mostly, the play area was reduced to dirt.
As work began the first morning, Principal Debra Berndt looked on as district crews, parent volunteers and contractors collaborated to prepare the grounds for a brand-new play area to spring up.
“I really play a sideline role in all of this,” she said. “Our PTO has really been in charge.”
Parents and children worked together to raise $20,000 in the six or so months since the old playground was demolished. When they reached their goal, the PTO matched their contribution with another $20,000. And that’s in addition to the school district’s $85,000 contribution.
“We’re a little bewildered right now,” said Sandy Augstein-Collins, whose daughter Kiley just completed kindergarten at Birchwood.
After selling massive amounts of cookie dough, cookies, popcorn and stationery, as well as collecting donations from parents and local businesses, the school community breathed a collective sigh of relief and started picking out the coolest playground equipment they could find.
They picked a company called Parchitects, Inc., and bought plenty of fun obstacles, including a piece called a “topsy-turvy” — apparently the only one of its kind in the Northeast.
“We’re really excited,” Augstein-Collins said. Her daughter’s recess was on her mind as she helped organize volunteers.
“I feel so bad she hasn’t had a playground for half the school year,” she said.
Berndt noted that though the playground disappeared for about six months, the children at Birchwood really only lost a month or two of playtime on it, because when the ground is frozen it’s too risky to be used at recess.
“If it had to happen it was a good time for it to happen,” she said. “They found other creative ways to play.”
Jen Brown, PTO co-president, was at the build site bright and early the first morning. Brown said her love for the school started even before her three children, two of whom are in second grade at Birchwood and one of whom is in fifth, began attending the school.
That’s because Brown herself is an alumna; she attended Birchwood and graduated from Niskayuna High School in 1981.
“I’ve seen the growth and the involvement,” she said. “To be able to give to my kids what my parents gave me … the school was always more than reading and books.”
Brown fondly recalled her PE teacher, Sandy Shoor, who inspired a love of athletics in her younger self and also carved out the school’s nature trail, which is still functional.
“As he cut through, we learned everything that was there,” she said. “That’s where I got my love of sports. I always attribute it to Sandy Shoor.”
Brown said the intense community support for the playground represents a deeper truth about the priorities of Birchwood School and its families. The families there understand that kids need time to play and be young, she said.
“Too many times society is keeping up with the Jonses,” she said. “It’s about balance. Non-structured play is so important.”
Thanks to about 100 volunteers, including parents, National Guard members, teachers and custodian Al Garrison, that unstructured playtime has an exciting new setting.
“It’s just an amazing community we have,” Berndt said. “People don’t blink an eye for coming out and supporting their school. As educators we never feel alone in this community.
“This is a fun example of that,” she added.