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University of Minnesota Duluth nature preschool set to reopen

The Preschool in the Park program is set to open its doors again Monday. The preschool services 3-5 years old and is licensed for 15 students.

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Parent Oscar Toftegaard, left, of Duluth, talks with assistant preschool teacher Katie Michela, of Duluth, about the nature preschool program at the University of Minnesota Duluth during an open house Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Duluth. The program is set to reopen its doors Jan. 10 after closing in March 2020. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
CLINT AUSTIN
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After closing its doors in March 2020, the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Preschool in the Park is again accepting applications for students.

The program will open its doors Jan. 10, services kids 3-5 years old and is licensed for 15 students. Leslie McFadden, director of the program, said they closed due to the lockdown and lack of available staff. Then a hiring freeze was put in place at UMD, which caused the reopening to be delayed, she said.

McFadden said they received approval last summer to hire staff members and it took some time to hire teachers and line up substitutes and student aides.

“January is not the best time to be opening, but we just wanted to make sure that we could provide service, because we know there’s a need out there,” she said.

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A sensory play station seen at the University of Minnesota Duluth nature preschool Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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Katharine Grunseth was hired as the lead teacher for the program. Grunseth has a background in elementary education and a bachelor’s degree in forestry, so a nature preschool seemed like the perfect fit, she said. Originally from Minnesota, she spent over 10 years in Portland, Oregon, teaching English as a second language and fourth grade before moving back to the state.

“Just getting out and being able to be outside most of the day within nature and learning from nature was definitely appealing,” Grunseth said. “I did some work before I went back from my masters at a preschool that was a similar model in nature-based, and it was just reaffirming that children thrive outdoors, away from screens and there’s so much to learn from nature.”

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Insects and arachnids encased in resin are among the nature-related items available to use at the University of Minnesota Duluth nature preschool, seen Wednesday Jan. 5, 2022, in Duluth. The program maintains a small class size that’s capped at 15 students and operates Monday through Friday from the first day of UMD fall semester classes through the end of May term. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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The preschool, located at 31 W. College St., is ready for students on Monday. There are many activity centers all set up for the students to explore. There is a reading center with many books to read, a science center with X-rays of animals and bugs preserved in glass for the students to examine, and much more. The preschool also has access to a school forest, a nature playscape and other things to explore on campus.

“We even have snowshoes for the students to use,” Grunseth said.

It's a 10-month program from August to the end of May and is open to the community at large.

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Assistant preschool teacher, Katie Michela, of Duluth, gestures while talking to a parent about the nature preschool program at the University of Minnesota Duluth during an open house on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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“We’ve been working so hard to be able to get this program reopened,” McFadden said. “It is much loved by the university and we know that there’s also a need out there for parents who have been struggling to find care.”

For more information about the Preschool at the Park or to get an application, visit cehsp.d.umn.edu/preschool-atthe-park , email preschoolpark@d.umn.edu or call 218-726-7547. As of Wednesday, 12 of the 15 spots in the program were still open.

Adelle Whitefoot is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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