Linking Families and Communities introduces new program

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Jenn Becker, program director for the Fort Dodge Play and Learn Center, and Elizabeth Stanek, executive director of Linking Families and Communities, demonstrate some of the toys available at the new Fort Dodge Play and Learn Center.

A new childhood play experience is coming to downtown Fort Dodge.

In partnership with Linking Families and Communities, the new Fort Dodge Play and Learn Center will be opening at the end of the month.

“The Fort Dodge Play and Learn Center has been a dream of mine for over two years,” said Program Director Jenn Becker. “Fort Dodge needs a space for children and families to play, learn and connect with each other. The FD Play and Learn Center will be a huge asset to our community in a social, educational and economic way.”

An open house will be held on Wednesday from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the center’s site on the second floor of the downtown Wells Fargo building, 822 Central Ave.

The program is open to all younger children and their families, but is mostly geared toward kids between the ages of 2 and 5, Becker said. The center features five activity stations focusing on imagination, art, engineering, sensory play and movement.

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Elizabeth Stanek, executive director of Linking Families and Communities, organizes the dress-up station at the new Fort Dodge Play and Learn Center. Jenn Becker, right, is the center's program director.

“I have two young kids of my own and I’ve found that in the wintertime especially, there just aren’t many places to go as a family,” she said. “We’ve driven to Ankeny to an indoor playground one weekend, so I just wanted to create a space like that in Fort Dodge.”

Becker used to be an elementary school teacher at Butler Elementary and understands the importance of family engagement.

“I definitely wanted to have that aspect to it to teach families about development and behavior and academics and things like that,” she said.

Children learn through play and Becker said the plan is to create structured program opportunities to come in and learn things like kindergarten readiness skills or behavior strategy skills.

“I have two toddlers and it’s always helpful to learn how to manage meltdowns and tantrums,” she said. “So we’ll have learning tools and tips and strategies to use with your own kids.”

Becker has a degree in early childhood education.

“A passion area of mine is social skills,” she said. “With the shift in academics, parents are so worried about letters and sounds and numbers and reading and counting. I had first-graders who I was working with who had the same social skills as what I’m currently working with my 2-year-old on. So if we can teach families those foundational things, then in kindergarten and first grade, they’ll have more time and energy to spend on their academics because they won’t struggle as much to control their behavior and manage their emotions, because they’ll have that foundation.”

The program will kick-off on Aug. 30 with an eight-week playgroup series that will run from 9 to 11 a.m. on Tuesdays through Oct. 18. The first playgroup will be limited to 20 children, said Linking Families and Communities Executive Director Elizabeth Stanek.

“We’re going to test the waters and make sure we have things right before we expand it,” she said.

“If the Tuesday group doesn’t work for them, they can sign up to receive more information as we open up more slots, because we hope to have a handful of Saturday open play times as well this fall,” Becker added.

The program will also give parents an opportunity to connect with other parents.

“I’m excited to get it started,” Becker said. “Sometimes, as a parent, being in a different setting and your kids being in a different setting and experiencing different toys than what you have at home, it just makes a huge difference.”

The Play and Learn Center is looking for volunteers to donate their time to help run the play times. Prospective volunteers will have to undergo a background check.

“We have to make sure that kids are safe, and that’s our No. 1 responsibility,” Stanek said.

The first play time group will be limited to 20 children and will run weekly on Tuesdays from Aug. 30 to Oct. 18.

Families can still sign up for updated information on the program on the Linking Families and Communities website, www.linking-families.com. A Facebook page has been created for the program, at Fort Dodge Play & Learn Center.

Anyone interested in volunteering or wanting more information on the program, or to donate, can email Becker at FDPLC@linking-families.com.


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