Nelsonville firm transforms playgrounds
Fresh off a move from the city to Cold Spring 17 summers ago, with the first of her three sons starting kindergarten at Haldane, Pam Gunther found herself co-president of the PTA and co-chair of the playground committee.
Little did the architect know that the skills she developed on the blacktop would years later lead to her own business.
Fit & Fun Playscapes, which is headquartered in Nelsonville, has flourished over the past few years, although, like many firms, the COVID-19 crisis has forced Gunther to re-think her product line.
“When I volunteered with the playground committee, the push came from Maggie Davis, who was the elementary school principal,” Gunther recalls. “They had repaved and enlarged the blacktop area, but there was nothing for the kids to do on it. Maggie wanted to put some games down on the blacktop, but they had to be arranged so that an uninterrupted line could go from the bus drop-off to the side door of the elementary school.
“A bunch of us went out and started sketching cool things like seahorse hopscotch. We had ordered stencils, but they turned out to be flimsy, plus we couldn’t figure out how to use them. We spent days painting by hand but it was all so worth it when the kids came running off the buses and jumped on everything for the first time.”
Gunther continued to work on blacktop improvements. She found herself talking to classroom and physical education teachers to get their takes. She came to realize, she says, “how even short bursts of activity are crucial in a child’s school day, now more than ever, when you’re competing with devices like phones, which are constantly evolving, and which kids are so drawn to.”
Her three sons, now in college, high school and elementary school, became research subjects, and Gunther realized she had a business in the making.
She created Fit & Fun Playscapes in 2011. “When my youngest son would nap, I would work on ideas in the car at Tots Park” in Cold Spring, she says. “I was five or six years into it, and trying to hold down a part-time architecture position, when I decided the time had come. My husband was reluctant, because it meant adjusting the family budget, but he was supportive.”
She attended local and national PTA and physical education conventions, looking for inspiration for products. “I’d think, ‘I can help with that’ — and I’d design it,” she says. She decided to focus on products related to recess, with designs that “respond to the need for colorful, innovative games that engage kids longer, motivate them to be more physically active, keep them productive and integrate educational concepts kinesthetically.”
With a range of rollout activity mats, reusable stencils and sensory stickers, most of her products contain fun ways of tucking in some learning, such as developing math skills through hopscotch, or making letter designs to assist with spelling.
Many designs also contain a social-emotional component, with activities like a buddy circle, creative mazes and a peace path, where, if there’s a conflict, the kids are prompted to have a conversation on how to work out the problem. These can be “a comforting place for the kid who doesn’t get chosen for kickball to hang out,” says Gunther.
Fit & Fun Playscapes also has products designed for indoor use. “About two years ago I started with a new product line: roll-out activities, which take outdoor designs indoors. We also came up with a series of stickers for school hallways. These are sensory tools, which offer supports for teachers. We worked with the Sensory Integration Motor Lab at SUNY Cortland, which helped us identify movement and patterns.
“This was a hot item in 2019, and I was able to hire more staff,” she says. “Most of the 10-year-ride has been me, plus part-timers, many of whom are local moms.”
Playtime in Nelsonville
After testing it out on her sidewalk, Pam Gunther came up with an idea for a project in Nelsonville that could bring a little color into these drab times.
Members of her family, accessorized in gloves and masks, and each keeping 10 feet apart, plan to use spray chalk and stencils to create a springtime design on the sidewalk at Pearl and Main Streets, alongside Village Hall.
The project has been approved by the Village Board, which purchased the paint. Fit & Fun will donate the stencils. Any leftover paint, plus a loan of the stencils, is available to residents who want to make their own designs. The chalk should last for a few months.
“We’re a month into stay-at-home,” Gunther says. “Most kids don’t want to go for another walk; they want something different. It made me think that a community-wide project that can be done individually can turn into an interconnected pathway of movement. There’s nothing like looking out the window and seeing kids play.”
To bring her design ideas to life, Gunther researched suppliers — “Made in the USA” is important, as is using material that can be recycled — obtained samples and tested prototypes in her backyard or driveway.
COVID-19 has prompted Gunther to consider how her products could be adapted for home use. “What are kids doing for physical activity at home?” she says. “As a small-business owner, you can’t stick your head in the sand. And I have employees now, so there are whole different feelings of responsibility. We quickly launched an at-home roll-out product, and we’re trying to reposition some products that we already have. We’ve also created two new products for home use, with a low price point, and we’re working on more.
“Just to have the option of repositioning is really lucky,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to go into the consumer market, but didn’t think we were ready. Now we’re testing the waters. I’m having 12-hour days trying to shift our products, but I feel grateful, overall. It’s a challenging environment, but it pushes us.”