Children play on a new aparatus Wednesday following a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new playground at Montpelier’s Union Elementary School.

MONTPELIER — Play on, kids.

More than five years in the making, Union Elementary School celebrated a $1.5 million upgrade of two playgrounds at Union Elementary School in the Capital City at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday.

The area between the school and the main playground was packed with expectant students and parents to hear brief speeches from school and community leaders before the ceremonial ribbon was cut and scores of kids swarmed the playground with its “state-of-the-art” features.

Major pieces of the $1.5 million project included remediation of contaminated soil; stormwater erosion control and improvements; the construction of an elevated outdoor education arena; better access to playground equipment; the creation of a small activities field; and a four-seasons-of-play activity program. The project also included improvements to the kindergarten and pre-K playground in the center courtyard of the school complex.

Funding for the project came from a $4.9 million bond for capital improvement projects in the Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools District approved by voters last year, a $150,000 federal Land and Water Conservation grant, and $30,000 from fundraising efforts.

Superintendent Libby Bonesteel welcomed the assembled group to the “grand opening of the best playground in Vermont,” adding thanks to taxpayers for funding the project, neighbors affected by the work involved, and playground committee members, school staff and school board members who coordinated the project.

Jay Ericson, a founding member of the playground committee, said it was almost five years ago “to the day” that former longtime UES teacher Theresa Giffin walked into former Principal Chris Hennessey’s office and said, “’Hey, you know, I think it would be a good idea to get a new swing set for the playground.’ If Theresa were here today, I don’t think she would believe her eyes.”

Ericson said the project was a result of “the love of the children in our community and a passion for providing the best educational experience for them. Without realizing it, Theresa lit a spark that day.”

Ericson said the playground committee had to become experts in brownfield sites, corrective action plans, stormwater runoff, ADA regulations, street closure permits and fundraising.

Playground committee members included Jenny Sheehan, Terry Holloway, Stephanie Hurley, Sarah McKearnan, Jolynda Burton and Kristin Darcy.

“You made this happen,” Ericson said.

Under the direction of Facilities Director Andrew LaRosa, contractors involved included landscape architects SE Group in Burlington and Engineers Construction in Williston, and DeWolfe Engineering in Montpelier, which donated hours of free time and labor.

There was special thanks to Tolya Stonorov, a local architect and an associate professor with the Architecture Design Build program at Norwich University, which specializes in building projects for underserved populations such as the homeless, people with mental health issues and veterans.

Stonorov explained that the project also involved committee members talking to students about what they “envisioned, wanted and dreamed of for their playground.” They requested an outdoor classroom, she said.

The result was the construction by Norwich students of the NEST, a playhouse that is accessible to people with disabilities and is made of local hemlock and white cedar from local lumber sources and sealants from a local company.

“This project has been an honor to be involved in and I’m so thrilled to finally see it at completion,” Stonorov added.

Principal Ryan Heraty thanked everyone for supporting the school and the community.

“I feel so lucky to be principal of this school, be a principal in this community, to work with these incredible parents, our incredible school board and all of our neighbors that make this such a wonderful place to be every day,” Heraty said.

Speaking after the ceremonies, school board chairman, Jim Murphy added: “It’s incredible and I couldn’t be more pleased the way the playground turned out. I’m so thankful to all the community members that supported this and the administration that was supportive ... this is a phenomenal playground and it’s a gem of the district now.”

There was pandemonium as children ran through the playground and formed long lines to access some of the equipment.

LaRosa described some of the features.

“So, we now have a grass-sodded play field; we now have a large Exploradome, a climbing structure; we have a new ground slide that is built into the hillside; we have the NEST that was designed and built by Norwich students; and we have new swing sets,” La Rosa said. “In the lower courtyard, which is for the youngest kids, we have a log play structure, we have sand boxes and sand tables, swing sets and another play structure.”

Student Vivian Sheldon, 8, of Montpelier, said of the facilities, “I think it’s awesome and it’s probably my favorite playground.”

Her aunt, Tara Reynolds, of Moretown, added, “It’s really exciting. We’ve been looking around Montpelier for playgrounds to play on and having one here at her home school has given her a lot of pride.”

UES Physical Education teacher Emmannuel Riby-Williams said: “The kids will not only get physical education during PE, but also play time in a state-of-the-art playground.”

stephen.mills @timesargus.com

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