This article appears in the December issue of 400 Life Magazine
The kids at Sawnee Elementary School, much like kids across the county, could not help but feel a little disappointed at first when they found out their classes would have to be separated for recess this year.
Each class started to go to their own designated spots that they would switch out of each week. A class bubble near the monkey bars, a class near the basketball hoops, and so on. After a while, kids started to dread spending a week in the most boring spot for recess — the bus lanes.
“Our kids told us, ‘We hate this area! We can only do so much sidewalk chalk, and we need other stuff to be able to play.’ So they didn’t want to go to recess,” Principal Derrick Hershey said. “Then, of course, our amazing [Parent Teacher Organization] said, ‘Well, let’s think about how we can make this a little more engaging.’”
Then, one Monday afternoon, the kids ran outside for another dragging week of recess in the bus lanes when they noticed something new. It was a colorful alphabet snake, painted on the blacktop. It offered the younger kids a break from the chalk as they jumped from letter to letter, excitedly spelling words they learned in their class.
The next Monday, the kids ran out again, excited to see what might be on the blacktop next. After three weekends, the kids had two activity courses, two hopscotches, two four square centers, an alphabet snake and a chutes and ladders game that they could have fun with during their time outside and away from the classroom.
Nicole Hale, a member of the PTO and a mother to two Sawnee Elementary students, imagined the idea for the kids, looking up ideas and photos on Pinterest to try to get an idea of how to best utilize their space so that their kids could start to enjoy their recess again whether or not they were assigned to the bus lanes.
Hale and other PTO members started to reach out to artists in the area who would be able to come out and bring some of these ideas to life on the blacktop, and eventually, they found the perfect artist — Andy Burt, the owner of The Wall Nut.
Hershey said that Sawnee Elementary School’s assistant principal used to work at Matt Elementary where Burt had painted a mural inside of the school. He knew that Burt had also painted murals for nearby Brookwood and Mashburn Elementary Schools, so he and the PTO figured they should reach out to see what he could do.
“We gave him a call and asked him, and he blew us away,” Hershey said.
Hale spoke with Burt about her ideas for the space and what she had found online, and together, they started brainstorming ways to make it a perfect space for the kids at Sawnee. Hale and PTO President Emily Hawkins even sent out an email to the other parents asking them to send ideas that their own children might have for the space.
“It was really cool because we kind of showed the artist some ideas and he designed it all,” Hale said. “And so this was like a question and answer. We [told him] we want some hops, we want some jumping — and so we created this from looking at different pictures online.”
After coming up with the idea, Burt immediately started to get to work, coming to the school after hours and on weekends to accommodate everyone’s schedule. After only three weeks, the paintings were finished. The PTO and Hershey absolutely loved how it all turned out, and the kids loved it even more.
Hershey said that the most popular activity on the blacktop by far is the obstacle course, a long course that requires kids to jump, skip and balance their way to the finish line. As everyone runs out for recess in the afternoon, kids assigned to the blacktop congregate toward the courses to challenge each other to race across as fast as they can.
“My son drew an obstacle course on our driveway after he saw that,” Hawkins said. “He’s five, so it looked hilarious. But he was like, ‘Look! It’s like the one at school!’ So he was enamored with that. He just thinks it’s the coolest thing.”
Hawkins has been working with the rest of the PTO to connect the school with the community during the pandemic. She said that not only is it a great way to have the school feel more connected to the area, but it also helps to fund projects such as the blacktop activities as they are not holding a traditional fundraiser this year.
The PTO felt that, with the pandemic this year impacting community members in so many different ways, they did not want to make parents feel pressured if asked for donations. Instead, the group has decided to start Take Out Tuesdays, partnering with local restaurants to hold spirit nights where a portion of the restaurant’s sales goes to the Sawnee PTO.
Hawkins said that the school has held spirit nights in the past that have been incredibly successful, but before this year, they have only held them once or twice a year. With them holding one now every week, it is an opportunity for them to not only help out local restaurants who may be struggling right now, but also earn some donations for future projects.
“We’re trying to get local businesses and people just interested in seeing and contributing to this school,” Hale said.
The PTO has been holding Take Out Tuesdays since the beginning of the school year in August, and they were able to pay for the entire blacktop project with those donations from the community.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Hawkins said. “Several of the restaurants have reached back out and asked for extra days because it’s so successful and it’s driving their business so much, and that just warms my heart because not only are the kids able to get stuff like [the blacktop activities] because of that, but the community is also benefitting.
“And as a parent, I don’t have to cook dinner on Tuesday night, so I’m super excited about that,” Hawkins continued. “I feel like it benefits so many people.”
Before this year, the PTO had also worked to create Sawnee Valley, a space near the school’s playground with a track that loops around, which gives kids an opportunity to do more outside. Near the track, they have built gaga ball pits and literacy walk stations along the track.
Especially now with the pandemic, Hale and Hawkins said that they want to add to this area in their upcoming projects for the school. One of their ideas included an outside pavilion where teachers could take students outside for class.
“What we’ve really doubled down on this year is simplicity because it’s the simple things that really make the difference,” Hawkins said. “I mean, this [blacktop project] cost, for what it brings to the kids, very little. And who knew something that’s not technology-based, that’s not super complex would be such a big hit? That just seems to be the winning combination with families, with the kids, with everything. Just make it simple.”
As the PTO continues to partner with local businesses to raise money for future projects while also helping out their community, they intend to continue with creative projects like the blacktop activities because, for Hale and Hawkins, nothing beats seeing how a simple alphabet snake or small obstacle course can bring such joy and excitement to their kids.