MANKATO — A teacher pokes her head in the door.
“Do you have your camera?” she says.
“Yes. Why?” day care owner Elizabeth Webb says.
“Because Reese put on a dress and is running around,” the teacher says.
In a little gray building just north of town, Mankato’s newest kid on the day care block has set up shop.
In many ways, it’s just like any other day care. There are toddlers. There are books and toys and rooms separating the little ones from the not-as-little ones. Little coats hang on little hooks, and little boots can be seen lined up against the walls on little trays.
The approach at Here We Grow, however, is a little different.
Nowhere are there schedules rigidly dictating when a child will read, play, or work on math. There is a structure, but the structure is heavy on giving kids a choice in how they want to spend their time.
The theme of the day was the rainforest, so kids were given options for how they’d spend their time. There were books about the rainforest, stuffed animals lying about that you might find in a rainforest, a water tub with monkeys, and another tub with large-leafed plants.
Kids went where they wanted to go. They had fun, and according to owner Elizabeth Webb, they learn better that way.
“Everything here is hands-on learning,” Webb said.
Here We Grow is one of the few day cares that use what is known as the Reggio approach, a style of day care named after the city in Italy where it was developed. It was developed by Loris Malaguzzi, a teacher in the village of Reggio Emilia, in the years just after World War I. According to Reggio Emelia entry on Wikipedia, it was developed following the destruction of the war in a time when parents wanted a way to teach their children quickly but effectively.
The Reggio approach emphasizes the child having control of their learning. They must be free to choose. And when they do, learning is built into the activities. Learning happens via sensory experiences. They discover life’s answers by experiencing life instead of being told what the answers are.
Also big in the Reggio world is the environment. Practitioners treat the classroom as the “third teacher”— parents are the first, child care teacher is second. They advocate for open, well-light areas, often mimicking the European plazas. Integration of the outside world with the inside is key, with big windows, plants, etc.
Mom Tatia Brende, who followed Webb from Webb’s previous job as director of Bethlehem Lutheran Church’s day care, says she’s a fan of both Webb and the Reggio approach.
“The learning is based on hands on and not just, ‘Let’s throw a book in front of a child,’” Brende said. “Her teaching and parenting style is how I would do it.”
Brende said she’d never heard of the Reggio approach before dropping her son off at Here We Grow. But she’s done her research since then and like’s what she’s learned.
Right now Here We Grow is half full, but with the current day care situation in Mankato, it’s likely to fill up soon.
“No, there’s not enough,” said Deb Evan, a day care provider in Mankato.
It’s nearly as tight now as it was several years ago, when she’d routinely field calls from people who would say things such as, “If I have a baby, will you have an opening?”
“It’s too tight right now, people don’t have choices,” she said.
Webb left her previous employer in August. She spent the time between then and late January trying to carry out her dream of starting up her own day care business.
The building she found is that gray building you drive by if you’re heading north toward Kasota on Third Avenue, just past Pilgrim’s Rest Cemetery.
It was built to house Lime Township’s school, but within a few years, Lime students were brought into the Mankato district. Later it was used by All-American Foods as a food-testing site. It had been dormant for years until Webb came along.
She spent hundreds of hours getting it ready for a day care, working days as a nanny and spending her nights and weekends getting Here We Grow ready.
“I wouldn’t put that much work into it if I didn’t believe in kids,” she said.
The facility sits on 1.5 acres and has a large fenced-in outdoor play area.