Commissioner Jesson visits ‘Panda Playhouse’ daycare

by Dennis Dalman

As a daycare operator, Amanda Rupar of Sartell said she feels as if she has five or six arms and then, at the end of day, when she says goodbye to the last child, she reverts to being “a normal human with two arms,” as she described it.

As busy as she is, she loves her job, she loves the children.

“That’s my reward – the kisses, hugs and loves from the children,” she said. “When they do something new, something they’re proud of and I see that look on their faces, that’s all the reward I need.”

Rupar’s dedication to her daycare children was recognized Nov. 1 when a special guest visited. Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson spent some time at Rupar’s home to interact with the children, chatting with them and taking part in a fingerpainting session. Jesson visited Rupar because her daycare, “Panda’s Playhouse,” has a prestigious top four-star rating from “Parent Aware,” a statewide service that rates daycare businesses for their expertise in preparing pre-school children for kindergarten. Parents seeking quality daycare providers can go to the Parent Aware website to find out if there are Parent Aware-rated services in their areas.

Commissioner Jesson, during her visit to central Minnesota and other areas, was also promoting a $19.4-million investment by the state legislature and governor for increasing access to quality early education for children with high needs. Daycare providers who voluntarily join the Parent Aware-ratings program are an important part of the renewed state emphasis on pre-school readiness.

After interacting with the children, Jesson asked Rupar about why she chose to participate in Parent Aware and what benefits she has experienced.

Rupar told Jesson she had always wanted to have the very best daycare services for the children, including school readiness.

“I’ve always wanted to get them started on both feet in the right direction,” she said. “I want to make sure they are all ready so they don’t get behind in school. If they are the best they can be, they will always be ready no matter what comes in the schools.”

She told Jesson the benefits are many: seeing the children learning so much, watching their social skills develop and the hugs, warmth and affection they give back.

Jesson, said Rupar, was “fantastic” and a welcome guest.

“She sat right down with the children,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a nicer guest in my home. In fact, I would love to have her visit again.”

Rupar, who opened her daycare business seven years ago, heard about Parent Aware in October 2012 and decided to volunteer for it. To qualify, she met with a training coach periodically for a six-month period and filled out paperwork about her daycare activities, programs and ongoing training skills. She submitted all of that material last March to Parent Aware and was thrilled, weeks later, to learn she’d been given the highest rating, four stars.

As part of the Parent Aware program, Rupar starts working on pre-school skills when a child is six weeks old. Even at that age, she said, children can develop social skills. There are four categories of emphasis at Panda Playhouse: physical health and well-being, teaching and relationships, assessment of each child’s progress, and teacher-training and education.

Rupar plans her days around all kinds of interactions: between her and the children, between the children in a large group and in smaller groups, one on one with each other and solo activities. One of her – and the children’s – favorite activities is cooking and baking in which children can learn numbers, measurements, teamwork and the sheer fun of creating something tasty. Together, they’ve made cookies, pizza, apple sauce, cinnamon rolls and “Stone Soup” based on the storybook.

Rupar and the children also do a lot of art projects, such as fingerpainting the day of Jesson’s visit. Art, she said, teaches children motor skills and processed thinking, such as how to mix certain paint colors to make other colors. All activities promote social skills.

“Social skills are as important to children as learning numbers and letters,” she said. “Friendships, relationships, working as a team – all those social skills should be developed in children. Many kids nowadays seem to be lacking in social skills because of social media and all the time they spend on phones and computers. I believe there needs to be more face-to-face social interactions.”

Born in St. Cloud, Rupar was raised in Paynesville and graduated from Paynesville Area High School in 2000. In 2006, she was looking for a home in which to open a daycare business. She chose a home in Sartell and moved to the city that year. At first, she started her business with a woman whose name was Pam. They named their place “Panda’s Playhouse” by combining the names “Pam” and “Amanda.” The name stuck quickly with parents and even the children, who still like to play with the stuffed-toy mascot – a female panda with a red dress. Later, Rupar’s business partner resigned to pursue another line of work.

Rupar has no biological children.

“God has other plans for me,” she said, smiling. “And so, here I am, blessed every day with the love of these kids. I’ve never given birth to children and yet I’m a mother. And I’m still being blessed with children.”

Rupar is licensed for up to 12 children, although she tries to keep that number at 10 or under to make sure she can have more one-to-one interactions with each child.

Rupar is also a volunteer for the Lutheran Social Services’ Crisis Nursery, based in St. Cloud. One of her tasks is to serve when needed as a 72-hour foster mother for children who are in sudden-crisis situations.

Her philosophy of daycare also extends into her work for the Crisis Nursery.

“There are so many children in our communities who need a safe place so they can feel secure, warm and loved,” she said.

Her daycare children do, indeed, consider Rupar a special mom. Last Mother’s Day, she received a number of Mother’s Day cards from the children.

“I was so happy that my heart,” she said, “melted into a thousand pieces.”

contributed photo
Amanda Rupar, owner/operator of Panda Playhouse daycare, gives a high-five to one of her daycare children, a budding fingerpaint artist.

contributed photo
Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson has a ball visiting with daycare children Nov. 1 at Panda Playhouse daycare in Sartell. Jesson visited the business, owned by Amanda Rupar, because it has a four-star rating (the highest possible) from Parent Aware, a statewide service that rates daycares for the excellence of their activities and programs that prepare children for kindergarten and beyond.

Dennis Dalman

Dennis Dalman

Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.
Dennis Dalman
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