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Wright County News

Posted on: March 25, 2020

County Board Approves Nature Preschool at Ney Park

A growing educational tool around the country has been exposing youngsters to nature by having outdoor-themed preschools that teach and, at the same time, getting impressionable young minds feeling comfortable with the outdoors in a learning environment.

At the March 24 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, Parks & Recreation Director Marc Mattice came before the board seeking approval on a lease agreement with Nature Preschool, a non-profit organization that began operating a preschool in Bertram Chain of Lakes Park in Monticello and is looking to expand the program for the next school year in Robert Ney Memorial Park in Maple Lake.

Mattice said the pilot program lived up to all expectations and that the program at Ney Park is a natural fit.

“We started a Nature Preschool at Bertram last year and it was very successful,” Mattice said. “We’re looking expand that opportunity to the Maple Lake area with Ney Park. We have a lease agreement for your approval. It’s been through the county board, the county attorney’s office and Risk Management. I’d like to have you authorize us to enter into that lease to establish the Nature Preschool with Nature Explorers and Robert Ney Park for the 2020-21 school year.”

The proposal will be a five-day-a-week preschool that is currently being planned as a morning session, but, depending on the numbers that are produced, could be expanded to morning and afternoon sessions. The lease would cover the 28 weeks that preschool is conducted with a lease payment to the Parks & Recreation Department of $8,550.

The hub of the preschool program would be at the Ney Nature Center. It was built in 1994 and gets a considerable amount of usage from several groups, including ongoing rentals from Hamline University and St. Cloud State University. When it was constructed, the Ney Nature Center was intended to be an educational oasis for children and Mattice feels the preschool fits directly into the vision of what the building is intended for.

“It follows really closely with the mission for our Nature Center – environmental education and getting youth involved,” Mattice said. “It’s for ages 3 to 4 – getting ready for kindergarten. They spend about 90 percent of their time outside in the woods and playing in the water. At Bertram this year, they were doing hikes. That was very popular. It’s kind of a new trend with preschools.”

One of the primary benefits of dealing with a non-profit organization like Nature Explorers is that it provides its own insurance, reducing the county’s risk of liability. Parks & Recreation will serve as a facilitator, but won’t be hands-on with the curriculum other than to assist in pointing the teaching staff in the right direction for kid-friendly outdoor areas in county parks.

“We’re excited to have this come out to Ney,” Mattice said. “I think it fits our mission and fits our goals for that building. It allows us to have a little bit of a revenue stream on Monday through Friday when we’re typically a Saturday/Sunday operation at our Nature Center with rentals. It doesn’t conflict with our typical programming use. It expands that without putting a lot of cost or liability on the county.”

There is discussion being had with Nature Explorers about having both morning and afternoon preschool that could allow working families in which both parents work during the day to access the program.

“They also talked about with the location of Ney Park – even with Bertram – that you have working families and double-income families that have a hard time because they don’t have transportation out to the parks,” Mattice said. “They have to drop them and pick them up. They’re talking about maybe having a morning and afternoon session with a break in the middle so some can go to all-day preschool with nap time and snack time during the break time to help double income families to be able to drop them off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon.”

The board unanimously approved the lease agreement to start the Ney Park program up for the 2020-21 school year. The hope is that it has the same level of success that was enjoyed during the current school year at Bertram Park.

Commissioner Darek Vetsch, who lives in Monticello, has seen how successful the first program was and hopes to see similar results in Ney Park.

“This is a great expansion, seeing as it went so well at Bertram,” Vetsch said. “They started off with a morning session right away, but they’ve gotten to the point of adding afternoons and doing it a lot sooner than they expected. They thought it might go longer out to do that, but they ended up filling it up a lot quicker than they thought.”

The intention of the county parks system has been to use it as a resource for county families and as a valuable learning tool for preschool children. Commissioner Mike Potter said Wright County has made a significant investment in its parks system over the last two decades and programs like this are made possible because the county has a robust parks system in place.

“I like things like this because our citizens pay for these parks,” Potter said. “We’re going to get something out of it, they’re going to get something out it and the kids are going to get something out of it. If you get these kids outside and you can teach them a lot of different things when they get to (kindergarten) I think they’ll be better adjusted. It’s a better utilization of our parks and it’s something a lot of counties can’t do. We invested a lot of money in our parks and it’s time to use it.”

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