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Willmar, Minn., Public Library to unveil its new play area to the public next week

Beckett Gustafson, 23 months, of Willmar, on Wednesday explores the new Smart Play Spot at the Willmar Public Library. The Smart Play Spot is a hands-on early literacy environment created by the Minnesota Children's Museum. The Play Spot includes a barn that makes animal sounds, a fishing boat, a farmer's market and a picnic/grill area. A mural shows trees, a fishing lake, corn and a wind turbine, all under a blue, sunny sky. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

he new Smart Play Spot at the Willmar Public Library wasn't officially open, but it was already drawing little kids like a magnet this week.

The Smart Play Spot will have a grand opening celebration beginning at 8 a.m. Monday at the library, 410 Fifth St. S.W. The Minnesota Children's Museum built the Play Spot, which reflects the local area. The Children's Museum used Legacy Grant funding for half the cost, and local funds were raised for the other half. The total cost was $50,000 for the original Play Spot equipment and maintenance and props for a number of years, said head librarian Ryan McCormick.

"They do these throughout the state, but no two are the same," he said.

Willmar's Play Spot was built the week of Nov. 12. It includes a barn that makes animal sounds, a fishing boat, a farmers market and a picnic/grill area. A mural shows, trees, a fishing lake, corn and a wind turbine, all under a blue, sunny sky.

All of the equipment is sized for children to sit in and crawl around on. Accessories that aren't made of wood are made of sturdy plastic. Most of the accessories were still safely tucked away earlier this week, awaiting the grand opening. Everything will be ready for learning and play on Monday.

When the Play Spot opens, kids will be able to play with animal puppets in Zuckerman's Barn (inspired by "Charlotte's Web"), use a fishing pole with a magnet on the line to angle for fish with letters on them. They'll be able to buy and sell produce at the market, using a cash register with a built-in calculator.

Local funding was donated by BNSF Railway, Jennie-O Turkey Store, Empower: Women United in Philanthropy, Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative and Southwest Initiative Foundation.

To honor those who donated, McCormick said, a train carpet will be part of the Play Spot, and one of the puppets in the barn is a turkey.

The Willmar Smart Play Spot is the eighth of 18 planned around the state, according to a release from the Children's Museum. The site selection process ensures access to low-income populations where children face the greatest educational disparity in school readiness.

Children's librarian Kathy Torkelson said she's making plans for how she will be able to use different parts of the Play Spot for story hours. Already, she has enjoyed watching the parents looking at the new play equipment with their kids and asking kids questions about the letters and colors.

Even without all the accessories in it, library visitors have been drawn to the area.

"We had lots of books in there yesterday," she said, gesturing to the boat. "Three boys were sitting in the boat and reading."

The spot will be useful for story hours or for class visits, she said. "Organizations that serve children will definitely find it very useful," she added.

To allow a photographer to see what the finished Play Spot would look like, McCormick and Torkelson put out some of the accessories for a short time on Wednesday.

Just then, Beckett Gustafson, 23 months, and his mom Beth stopped in.

Beckett went straight to the Play Spot equipment and would have stayed all day had they not needed to leave. The little boy strongly resisted the idea of leaving.

"It's great," Beth Gustafson said, and laughingly warned the librarians that they would probably be hearing a lot of protests from kids who don't want to leave.

The plan for the Smart Play Spot is "to develop literacy through play," McCormick said. "Part of the goal is to make parents aware of their role in developing literacy."

Torkelson said the area will help kids learn colors, letters, counting and sorting.

"I'm excited for it to be open," she said. "I just can't wait to see kids playing with all of it."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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