By Valle Dwight
Start by talking with your school’s administrators to get their support. The project may require school board approval, depending on the district. Next, recruit parent volunteers. Start now by sharing this article with five friends or teachers who you want to join your cause. Stowe made a presentation at her school’s fall picnic and passed around a sign-up sheet. You can also get the word out through your school's parent group, list serve, school newsletter, or just by calling other parents.
Twelve parents volunteered for Stowe's playground project. The group began meeting every two weeks and broke into three subgroups: a design group (to design the playground), a fundraising group, and a site group (to prepare the site and oversee installation). Their goal was ambitious: to raise $50,000 and complete the playground renovation by the end of the school year.
New play structures can be pricey, so your group should start fundraising right away. If your school's PTO provides funds for school projects, that's the first place to start. The fundraising committee for Stowe's playground project also solicited local businesses, conducted a direct mail appeal, ran a can and bottle drive, organized a benefit concert, and threw a fund-raising dance that included a silent auction and raffle.
Along with community support, look for grants: For more grant-writing tips, go to the Peaceful Playgrounds website (look especially for information on the Department of Education Physical Education Progress grants). Companies such as Lowe's and State Farm Insurance provide playground construction grants. Or approach playground vendors directly and ask if they offer donations or discounts. For online fundraising, try DonorsChoose.org, which provides a platform to describe your project and an easy way for donors to contribute.
Next, decide what the new playground will look like. Stowe’s group went straight to the source: They asked kids to describe their dream playground. Many asked for swings and slides, but some had more elaborate requests, including swimming pools, hot tubs -- and even a flying pig. Stowe's committee also surveyed staff, teachers, and parents and visited other schools for ideas. Based on input from the entire school community, they created a playground plan.
Picking the right vendor is key, Stowe says, because you want to be sure to find a reliable product and good support. Stowe's committee researched companies online, checked their reviews, and talked with parent groups that had recently built playgrounds. To find vendors in your state, check the Member Directory of the International Playground Contractors Association.
After narrowing your search, invite the finalists for a site visit so you can hear their proposals and get their estimates. Make sure you're clear on the final price tag, which includes playground surface and other “hidden” costs that may not be included in the estimate. As with Stowe's group, look for a vendor that offered a fair price, good warranty, and had solid reviews and references.
Be sure you have your work crew lined up when groundbreaking day arrives. Your vendor can tell you how many workers you'll need and the kind of work required. (Do you need people skilled with tools, or is schlepping all that's required?) Then put out the call for volunteers. Stowe had around 70 volunteers divided into several shifts, and the project took an entire day. Some parents dug holes and carried equipment, some poured concrete and tightened bolts, others prepared food for volunteers. Local landscapers provided the finishing touches with donated labor and equipment.
The beauty of a playground project is that all your work has tangible results. The Monday after the renovation, Stowe and other volunteers spent the morning at the playground watching the kids enjoy their new structure. According to Stowe, even the most jaded fifth-graders were playing like little kids again. "It was an amazing thing we did,” she says proudly.
You'll probably want to collapse when the project is finished, but Stowe says that sending out thank-you cards (made from kids' drawings of the playground) to donors and volunteers was well worth the effort. Saying thanks will earn you a sandbox full of goodwill for the next time your school is looking to fund a project – maybe to buy those flying pigs!