New preschool area debuts at Maplewood Library

Preschoolers explored a fun new play area at the Maplewood Public Library on Saturday, Jan. 5, at the grand opening of the Smart Play Spot.

The Smart Play Spot, sponsored in part by a grant from the Minnesota Children's Museum, is an engaging, museum-quality preschool play area that is free to the public.

The Friends of the Ramsey County Library began work on the project in 2010. The Smart Play Spot's first donor was the city of Maplewood, which provided $2,890 from its charitable gambling fund.

"They gave us a starting point," said Sue Gehrz, executive director of Friends of the Ramsey County Library.

From there, Maplewood children's librarian Monica Stratton pursued Legacy Amendment funding through a matching-grant program with the Minnesota Children's Museum.

To be eligible for this program, the library had to raise half of the $40,000 cost. Luckily, Gehrz said, the project was funded relatively quickly by donations from Maplewood area businesses, individual donors and the Minnesota Children's Museum and the new equipment was installed in the Maplewood Library last month.

"We started with a vision that was much smaller than what we ended up with, thanks to our donors," Gehrz said.

The new Smart Play Spot features a "farmer's market," a tree stump with animal puppets, two telescopes that look out on the pond behind the library, a mural depicting Minnesota wildlife and a "police station" that children can change into many different kinds of buildings with assorted props.

"This was such a fun project to work on," Gehrz said.

The Smart Play Spot mixes education, literacy and creativity with a local spin. "The area was designed specifically around things people might see in Maplewood," Gehrz said. For example, the inclusion of the metro bus in the area could help children become more comfortable with public transportation.

According to a press release from the Children's Museum, the Maplewood Library Smart Play Spot is the ninth of 18 planned literacy environments, and the selection for these sites considers "low-income populations where children face the greatest educational disparity in school readiness."

Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt emceed the play area's grand opening. Other speakers included state Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, and Children's Museum president Dianne Krizan. The kids in the audience were invited to join in the ribbon-cutting ceremony and a special Children's Museum storytime took place after the program.

Reinhardt said she was excited to play with her grandson in the new preschool area, and acknowledged the collaborative efforts that took place to construct the Smart Play Spot.

"It's very exciting to have everyone coming together to really create a learning environment for our children."

The Maplewood Library is located at 3025 Southlawn Drive and open daily.

Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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