It’s an open secret among the students at Custer Elementary School: If you look hard enough in the playground or library, you may find a colorful little surprise. Every day, a handful of vividly painted stones called Polly rocks are hidden throughout the campus by paraeducator Polly Barnreiter. These rocks are treated like priceless valuables to Custer students and can even spark friendships.
“I remember a kindergartener one year was having a hard time making friends,” said Janelle Savage, a speech therapist at Custer. “She found a Polly Rock and it helped her connect, because everyone wanted to see her Polly Rock!”
“I was a little shy the first day of 2nd grade, but I knew you could find Polly Rocks,” said Custer third grader Waylon Casteel. “I found three on my first day. It felt really awesome!”
Barnreiter paints multiple rocks each day, either with a colorful pattern or a character kids know and love – from Pikachu to Harry Potter to Angry Birds. Before students arrive, she hides them in the nooks and crannies of the playground and library, like the holes of a Big Toy pole or between books on a shelf. Of course, Barnreiter keeps them mostly in plain sight.
“I don’t hide them really well, because I want them to be found,” she said.
Barnreiter began painting rocks on a much smaller scale in 2009 for her own children and their classmates at Eagleridge and Cascadia elementary schools. After they got older, she kept painting rocks and hiding them around Ferndale as a hobby. One day in the spring of 2019, Barnreiter decided to hide a few of them in the Custer playground before work. Students quickly found them and wanted more.
“I guess I do it because I like putting smiles on kids’ faces,” Barnreiter said. “It gives me a sense of purpose.”
Some Polly Rocks can’t be found on the playground but are reserved for special occasions. The student’s in Barnreiter’s class receive birthday or holiday rocks, each Jump Start student at Custer received one this fall, and Barnreiter saves a few for resource room teacher Janice Hawkins to give out as rewards.
Polly Rocks are popular not just with Custer Elementary students, but older kids as well. Savage, the speech therapist, said her child’s middle school friends were starstruck by the massive collection of rocks in her home.
“They were like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all these Polly Rocks!’” she said. “They were picking them up, and our daughters said, ‘Put those down, don’t mess with them!’”
Even grown-ups aren’t immune to the charms of finding or receiving a Polly Rock. Some Custer staff have a stash of their own, such as Principal Kim Hawes, who even has a rock with her face painted on it.
“It’s super special, it’s a big part of our culture,” Hawes said. “People get over-the-roof excited – even adults will say, ‘Oh my gosh, I found a Polly Rock!’”
Because they’re such a commodity, Polly Rocks have been used to help new Custer students feel more at home.
“Sometimes, older kids who have already found a few on the playground, they’ll leave them for a kid who hasn’t,” Hawes said. “If they know a kid who hasn’t found one, they’ll help guide them to help them find one on their own.”
Barnreiter said she loves brightening students’ days using Polly Rocks. And many of those students hold on to their rocks for a long time, she said.
“When I went to get pizza the other day, there was an Eagleridge teacher in front of me,” Barnreiter said. “We were talking about our kids and she goes, ‘Oh by the way, I still have some of your rocks.’ And that was 10 years ago!”