Nature Explore Center gets its wings — and legs

n Ribbon-cutting gives lift to new deer, artistic entrance at Handke’s new nature exploration center


by Jim Boyle


The dressed up Nature and Explore Center at the Handke Family Center has officially opened.

Sue Seeger, the winning artist behind a $20,000 gateway and entrance to the outdoor play area and classroom cut the ribbon and opened the floodgates to a new era.

Photos by Jim Boyle Rebecca Dey (outside left) and Liz Frank (outside right) led honored guest Sue Seeger and a parade of children, families and staff from the Early Childhood Family Education and School Readiness program of the Elk River Area School District to the entrance of the Nature Explore Center.

Photos by Jim Boyle
Rebecca Dey (outside left) and Liz Frank (outside right) led honored guest Sue Seeger and a parade of children, families and staff from the Early Childhood Family Education and School Readiness program of the Elk River Area School District to the entrance of the Nature Explore Center.

More than 100 people turned out in less than desirable weather conditions on Oct. 12  to enjoy a 5K, some music, food and take time to watch and interact with children.

Pre-school and school-aged children played with dominoes, rolled pumpkins down a hill, made leaf rubbings at pint-sized tables and gave the nature center a full workout as The Wrong Omar — featuring Joe Shaheen and special guest Becky Shaheen — played original music and guests nibbled on fruits, cheese and crackers before washing them down with hot apple cider.

“Even though it’s not the best of days, we’re still here and having fun,” said Kathy Simonson,  the manager of Early Childhood Family Education.

She and Charlie Blesener, the director of community engagement for the Elk River Area School District, talked about how the entrance was a capstone to a project that has been five years in the making.

The site has already hosted a Night to Unite party and trainings for staff, but its more distinctive than ever with a completed entrance adorned by an artist’s creations of deer and other wildlife.

Process started     five years ago

In 2008, the District 728 Early Childhood Family Education Advisory Council and ECFE program staff decided to pursue creating an Outdoor Explore Nature Classroom.

Their vision called for  connecting young children with nature in a historic, safe, and natural setting where all community members are welcome and invited to participate. Their intent was to use nature to facilitate children’s overall academic, social and physical development.

One feature still being developed is the creation of a replica eagle’s nest thanks to a grant written by the Friends of the Sherburne Wildlife Refuge and received from the Three Rivers Community Foundation.

The advisory council applied for a got a grant from Dimensions Foundations, part of Arbor Day Foundation, to create Nature Explore Classroom.  A committee of members from the early childhood and school readiness as well as the advisory council and others interested in the project was established.

This group created a master plan and ground was broken in the spring of 2009 and an Earth Day celebration was held.

In 2010, the group got a a grant from City of Elk River to purchase fencing and materials for climbing crawling structure (all recycled materials)

A grant from Great River Energy was used to create the explore center and the building of a greenhouse.

“At this point we still needed an entry feature in order to meet the requirements of the nature Explore Classroom certification,” Simonson said.

Blesener heard a presentation about the Legacy funding and a grant opportunity that could connect the dot, and in 2011 the group received a Forecast Public Arts Grant to begin planning for a public art installation for the gateway feature. Once that was in hand, a request for proposals was created, seeking applications from artists. Nearly 20 applications from around the country were received.

Through the Central Minneosta Arts Board  grant the group was able to select three artists to create a presentation of what they would create for the space.   They each received a stipend for their work.  A charrette was held for the artists to meet with representatives from several groups: staff, parents, community members, artists and Handke’s building and grounds staff.

After the charrette the artists were given a date to come back and present their ideas for the entry feature.  They presented to the selection committee and a public artist’s reception was held for them to display their work and for the committee to get feedback from the community. Seeger, who lives a few blocks from Handke, was selected.

The final part of the creation of the public art was made possible through another Public Arts grant from Central Minnesota Arts Board.  This grant provided funding for the artist to create the Public Art as earlier proposed.

Istallation started in 2013 with the hope of a fall completion. Meanwhile, Liz Frank, an early childhood teacher at the school coordinated more than 500 hours of volunteer effort to make the play area what it is today.

“Thank you, Liz,” Simonson said. “Thank you volunteeers.”

The final touches to the installation will be added along with the proposed renovation of the north wing of the Handke Center.

This past year a greenhouse was assembled and put into use.  The Friends of Sherburne Wildlife Refuge put on a workshop and led by Dave Ellis from Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, of Fergus Falls.

Early Childhood Family Education is a non-profit program for Minnesota families with children between the ages of birth and kindergarten enrollment.

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