BY REBECCA ISENHART
Craig Elementary School’s annual ice cream social fell on one of the only drizzly, damp days in recent weeks, but nobody seemed to mind.
Sure, the grass was a little slippery underfoot, but that didn’t stop the horde of ice cream-powered children from sprinting among outdoor activities on Sept. 10. The playground, as always, was packed, but this was the first year kids could also play tetherball, funnel ball, or even giant chess on Craig’s fields.
The new sports equipment was part of an outdoor update collaboratively planned and funded by the school district, Craig PTO and the Niskayuna Community Foundation.
“The before pictures were dismal,” said PTO member and Craig parent Deanna Bouton with a laugh. Her son Jack is in fourth grade, and her son Wally will soon attend kindergarten.
“You could barely even see the four square,” she added.
Parents had been talking about updating the playground, blacktop and play equipment such as sports balls and pop-up soccer goals for several years, but finally decided to make the changes during the 2014-2015 school year. Bouton and Becky Stansbury, also a PTO member and parent, led the charge. Stansbury’s son, Luke, is in fifth grade this year.
When Stansbury consulted the fifth-grade council at Craig, asking what they wanted, the children confirmed what Jack had been telling his mother since first grade: The pavement was full of cracks, and a lot of the fun play equipment like kickballs had become deflated or simply worn out over the years. The outdoor play space needed an upgrade.
The PTO decided it wanted to repair and seal the blacktop, then paint it with interactive game boards and maps of the United States and the world. They wanted to add a basketball hoop and other sports equipment sized properly for the smaller children, and they wanted to install tetherball and funnel ball stations, among other upgrades.
The project would not be cheap, so Stansbury volunteered to coordinate grant applications. When the group finally got a thumbs-up from the Niskayuna Community Foundation, members were stunned, then ecstatic then a bit panicked.
“Two weeks before school ended, we got word about the grant,” Bouton said. “We knew we wanted to open at the ice cream social.”
That only left the summer to complete the many upgrades, and even something as simple as hiring a contractor to seal blacktop takes longer for the school district than it might for a private home. All vendors have to be approved by the district, for example, and every piece of equipment has to be commercial grade.
Once the contractor work was completed, all that was left to do was paint the blacktop, a finishing touch that made a big impact. The PTO relied on families to volunteer, with some kids as young as first grade showing up to help.
“People would be out here playing and they’d say, ‘Oh, what are you doing?’ ” Bouton said. That often led to their recruitment as map painters. Craig Elementary School alumni also pitched in.
The volunteers laid enormous stencils, eight long strips that were more than 40 feet long and 4 feet wide. The stencils provided a framework of white dots that outlined every country in the world and every state in the country. The volunteers then connected the dots with white paint and filled in the geography with bright colors.
“We thought it would be fun to bring the classroom outside,” Bouton said.
The PTO is planning to create keys for the maps that will teach kids about geography, but they’ve already seen learning in action. It happens organically: Parents bring their kids to the playground and ask questions like: “Which state does your uncle live in?” or “Where do we go on vacation every year?”