The WSU Children’s Center raising funds for improved outdoor play spaces


Joseph Eichele

Winona State University Children’s Center plans to make upgrades to their playgrounds on the premise of Helble Hall. These changes will seek to better the safety and enjoyment of children.

Gabriel Hathaway, Editor-In-Chief

The Winona State University Children’s Center has been offering childcare opportunities to Winona State student parents, faculty and staff, as well as the broader Winona community for decades. Since the center moved into its current home on the first floor of Helble Hall in Education Village in 2019, the center has been raising funds to upgrade their outdoor play spaces. This fundraising was put on hold during COVID-19 but Karen Sullivan, Director of the Children’s Center since May of 2022, has made fundraising for the improved playgrounds a priority once again.

The Children’s Center offers play spaces for two age groups, infant/toddler and preschool/school age. These wood-chipped play spaces lack modern and varied play equipment. Also, glass, debris, rusted metal and other “treasures” from building renovations and the construction of Education Village can be found by teachers and children in the play spaces.   

Sullivan identified issues with the current infant and toddler outdoor playspace, pointing to the wood chips and hilly make up of the space. 

“It looks great visually from an adult perspective, but if you’re a year old or just learning how to walk, you’re down more than you’re up. And if you’re falling down on cement or wood chips, it hurts. And so we want to level that and put in turf,” Sullivan said. “We need some swings. I mean, we’re not asking for the world.” 

The preschool and school age playground similarly needs updates according to Sullivan. This includes cleaning up the playground of wood chips and debris, putting in turf and adding new equipment more suitable for the needs of the Children’s Center. Sullivan described the main attraction of the preschool/school age play space, a backyard wooden playset, and why it needs to be replaced. 

“The play structure…is designed to be in a backyard. And it’s amazing to me that it’s held up, but it also doesn’t offer a whole lot,” Sullivan said. “I mean, when you have 25 children outside and you only have three swings or what, you know, and that’s fine, but it’s just crowded. They just need more variety.”

In regards to the debris in the playspaces, Sullivan commented that Jon Olson, Vice President for Advancement, and Erin Paulson, Safety Administrator, are in the process of assessing the safety of the two play areas.

Various piece of glass and debris have been picked up in the surrounding area of the playgrounds, often by children. (Contributed by: Karen Sullivan)

Progress towards funding a new playground for the Children’s Center is slow going. The Center has hosted a number of different fundraising efforts including a holiday sale and date night fundraisers, but the Center’s limited staff have limited time for these efforts.  

“The dilemma really, and I’ll be perfectly honest, is all of my teachers, I’ve got six licensed teachers, they’re all working all day long,” Sullivan said. “So, we don’t really have the time to write grants or to go out and solicit funds, so I’ve taken that position on myself.”

Combined with this, the Children’s Center has been facing financial stress which has led to an increase in tuition costs by 9 percent, according to Sullivan. This has also led to Sullivan making enrollment a priority for the Center. 

The Children’s Center currently has 79 enrolled children. This number is up from the 56 of a year ago, and it promises to continue increasing.

To aid with the playground fundraising efforts, the Children’s Center has been working with the Office of University Advancement. The Office’s Director of Development, Paul Brunsdon, has been personally working with Sullivan and the Children’s Center to create messaging, organize and coordinate solicitation and create the donation page ( 

Brunsdon emphasized the importance of the Children’s Center.

“The WSU Children’s Center is a vital childcare facility in the city of Winona. There always seems to be a dearth of childcare available in the community and our center helps alleviate that stress,” Brunsdon said. 

Of the 79 children enrolled in the Children’s Center, more than half are children of those in the Winona State community. One such figure is Tesla Mitchell, Digital Content Manager for Winona State University since January of 2021, who has two children enrolled in the Children’s Center. Mitchell commented on what a big deal the Children’s Center was for her when she was looking for a new job.

“When I started, it was January of 2021 and at that time childcare is really in high demand and low availability. So honestly, the only reason I was able to start this job was because there was a spot for my kids at the Children’s Center. If there wouldn’t have been, I wouldn’t have taken the job…and so there being childcare was the big determining factor,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell also talked about how the educational value of the Children’s Center was very important to her and that she has been impressed with the educational rigor of the Center.

Above is the proposed plan for a future playground for the Winona Early Childhood Center. (Contributed by: Karen Sullivan)

“My son, who is three years old, knows his alphabet really well, can sing songs, can count up to 30, which is pretty advanced, I mean, for that age,” Mitchell said. “And I can tell that he’s getting the type of education that I would have provided at home. So that’s really important to me.” 

The Children’s Center is also important to Winona State students, those that are parents and those in the education program. The Center provides experience and training vital for students of the education program, Brunsdon emphasized.  

“The children’s center is also a crucial education and training ground for students in the WSU Education program,” Bunsdon said. “The playground is an essential facility for the center as play is a critical part of early childhood development, and it’s currently in need of an upgrade.”

Presently, the Children’s Center has been able to raise just over $40 thousand with a conservative goal of $150 thousand. Those interested in supporting the Center can visit their giving page. A $75 donation will earn donors a historic Lincoln School tile.  

Sullivan highlighted how important play is in a child’s learning.

“Fred Rogers, who’s a real favorite of all of ours. But he really talks about how play is the work of childhood. It truly is. It lays the foundation,” Sullivan said. “And what we do for our infants and toddlers and then when they get to preschool, it prepares them for communicating and getting along with one another. The social emotional skills that we hear so much about that really happens in early childhood.”