Manistee County has long seen a need for quality and affordable childcare. Jason Cross, Director of Family Services for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, saw this need and decided to initiate the Next Generation Learning Center, a place to educate and care for young children in the area regardless of their family’s financial means. Three years in the making, the center opened in May 2017 and is already in full swing with almost 100 children regularly in attendance. The center accepts children up to age 12 and is open every day—even snow days and all holidays—from 5:30 a.m. to 12 a.m.

The center was originally the home of the casino but sat empty for 13 years after the new casino was built. With $1.6 million in donations and grants, passionate people within the Little River Band and the Manistee community created an affordable family center with onsite medical and dental services. Tuition assistance and free programming are available for qualifying families. Transportation, another lacking aspect in the county, is also offered to take kids to and from school. Meals are prepared using organic food and a new greenhouse will soon provide fruit and vegetables grown by the children.

The center is collaborating with local farmers to teach children how to grow various fruits and vegetables.

The curriculum at the heart of the Next Generation Learning Center is HighScope, which is focused on active participatory learning. No screens are available to children as HighScope is nature based rather than technology based. Kids might get a little messy, but that’s a healthy part of learning for kids, says Lisa Morley, an education consultant for the center. Kids are also taught about Native American and Polish traditions, language and culture, as Manistee County is home to large populations of both ethnicities.

Another key concept of HighSchope is the illusion of risk. “Kids need safe zones to take risks,” Lisa says. The slide may look tall to a child, but it’s built into a hill and incredibly safe. Jumping off the stage onto the bean bag may feel dangerous, but the child will land unharmed on the soft cushion. The illusion of risk gives children a safe space to explore and experiment with the world around them and to learn what their bodies are and are not capable of performing.

An indoor playground offers a large space for play. Fun gadgets include a chalk spinner, conveyor belt, bikes, balls, a stage and “loose parts.” By itself, a loose part may have little meaning, it could be as simple as a block of wood or a piece of pipe. But with a little imagination, these parts can be used to create a house, ramps for cars, mazes—there are infinite possibilities. This concept fosters creativity and teaches children to think outside the box.

The indoor playground has toys and loose parts along the wall and a circular stage in the center.

A 100-square-foot outdoor playground offers children more space to discover and play. Kids can climb trees, create things with loose parts, play with the giant wheel, paint the walls (yes, we said paint the walls) and glide down the slide. The area is lined with cedar trees which are one of the medicines of the tribe, another way to teach children about Native American culture. The design of the equipment, both inside and out, was carefully chosen. Bright colors were avoided to focus on more natural, wooden products. Children are free to go barefoot, even shirtless if desired.

The outdoor playground also has a basketball hoop.

Climbing trees and loose parts for play

The center itself is 19,000 square feet with a variety of rooms for different age groups: infant, toddler, preschool and pre-teen. In the infant room, there are no high chairs or plastic teething rings. Instead, caretakers hold the babies until they are able to sit up by themselves, and they use wooden rings instead of plastic. The toddler room has a maximum occupancy of 12. This room also has open-ended pieces (“loose parts”) and doubles as a sleeping room with cots. The potty-training station uses a social learning technique with teachers singing and playing games with children while they use the bathroom. In the preschool room children can play with sand, pine cones, moss, and other items found in nature.

The toddler room has lots of space and lots of loose parts!

Tiny tables and chairs in the infant room.

Lots of fun nature items in this indoor sand box.

In the preschool room, the “mirror” in the back right wall is actually an observation room for college students, parents and teachers.

The pre-teen room is for ages 6–12, and thus offers a wide range of activities for kids. A wood shop and tools corner, a clay-making station, an area to paint and draw, a stage with a curtain, a science table with a tarantula, and a whole lot of space for playing. Hanging in the center of the room is an abandoned beehive and bird’s nest. The center is always looking for more natural items to include and use as teaching aids for the children.

Make a clay pot, figurine, anything you want!

The beehive can be seen hanging over the science table.

Preteens can use real tools and learn safety rules. Hard hats required.

Two separate observation rooms were built into the center offering another avenue of education. College students studying young childhood education may use the rooms for their observation hours. They can also see how the center’s teachers, who all have certified bachelors degrees, communicate and interact with the kids. Baker College representatives have already visited the center with positive remarks and plans for additional visits. Of course, parents and caregivers may also use the rooms to watch their kids play and interact with teachers.

The gathering/multipurpose room is used for meals, which are served family style. Everyone pass a dish!

While the center focuses on childcare, the real mission extends beyond that to support the entire family and community. Other rooms in the building, like the gathering and multipurpose room, allow space for adult classes such as budgeting and healthy eating. A full industrial kitchen allows all meals to be made on site. There is even a Northwest Michigan Health Services clinic at the center, offering both dental and medial care for children and adults. Northwest Michigan Health Services has clinics in four other locations—Traverse City, Benzonia, Bear Lake and Shelby—and welcomes anyone regardless of their income or insurance. The on site clinic means sick children can be seen by a doctor at school rather than parents having to leave work to get them to an off-site clinic.

One of the dental chair stations in the health clinic.

The mission of Next Generation Learning Center is to help all families in Manistee County. It’s a safe environment for children to explore, learn and be nourished: the basic needs of all children. The center’s whole family approach helps make every family successful and supports lifelong learning in children.

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Photo(s) by Fallon Gates