A Career of Learning Through Play

January 03, 2024 |

Jodi Malecha has several copies of a concept plan depicting an aerial view of the green space outside her window in Wiecking Center. She points toward the different areas on the plan— areas dedicated to dirt digging, gardening, music,Jodi Malecha and movement, among others—and she gestures excitedly out the window to the snow-covered landscape where she can envision these plans coming to life.

Parts of the plan are already in place, and it’s these accomplishments that Malecha (pictured here) finds satisfying after 33 years working at The Children’s House, including 14 as director.

“When I began as director, I wanted to see our playground grow. I loved the idea of building an outdoor classroom,” Malecha said. “It’s been such a great experience.”

Malecha admits there are numerous “great experiences” to choose from during her tenure at The Children’s House, which provides early learning opportunities and all-day care for infants through preschoolers.

Her time in Wiecking actually began 40 years ago while she was earning her bachelor’s degree in Family and Consumer Science at Minnesota State Mankato. After graduating in 1985, she worked in childcare in Eden Prairie, Minn., at Children’s World, where she became director. But she returned to her alma mater just five years after graduation when she was hired as lead teacher in a preschool classroom at The Children’s House in 1990.

Malecha was a lead teacher for 19 years before earning her master’s degree in Educational Leadership in 2011 from Minnesota State Mankato. While finishing her degree, she served as interim director of The Children’s House and was then hired as the permanent director.

“We wanted to be sure we stayed true to our philosophy. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be director,” Malecha said (shown below celebrating National Mud Day with the kids). “We’re very play-based. Children learn from play, and we didn’t want somebody else to come in and change that. So I said, ‘I’ll get my master’s and apply for it.’”

Director during Mud Day with the kids

Dr. Jean Haar, dean of the College of Education, said Malecha’s passion for her job has been clear in both her roles as educator and director.

“I can’t make someone be passionate about their work and commitment to the students. She definitely is. She’s willing to take on whatever role is needed,” Dr. Haar said. “She truly does care, and she loves the children.”

Malecha is proud that the learning-from-play philosophy has remained consistent, but she’s also been happy to see certain things grow and improve over the years. For example, many more University students serve as staff at The Children’s House now than when she first started.

“It’s fun to see the different ideas they bring,” Malecha said. “They’re always very happy to be here with the children.”

Kids playing at TCH

Accreditation through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is also an accomplishment that both Malecha and Dean Haar are very proud of. Haar said Malecha has achieved a balance of meeting the more technical aspects of accountability related to accreditation while maintaining and championing experiential learning and active play.

Dr. Haar was also impressed with how Malecha handled the immense challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even while most of the campus and the community at large shut down, The Children’s House remained open.

“Jodi took a lot on with staying open and adjusting and keeping the children safe. She had to set up a different environment and still make sure the children were safe and felt welcome,” Haar said. “That was a big deal, and it demonstrates how much she’s willing to go above and beyond.”

Kids playing on playground

The kinds of memories that make Malecha smile most always involve the kiddos. Young men and women who used to attend The Children’s House will come back to say hello. Sometimes they’ll arrive in their graduation caps and gowns with friends whom they met during their preschool years at The Children’s House to take pictures together outside.

“We get all kinds of visitors,” Malecha said. “I taught a dad when he was 3, and now his child is here.”

There’s a small berm in the yard where the staff have sleds for the children; as adults come back to visit, the slope often appears different than in their childhood memories.

“The biggest thing they ask is, ‘Was the hill always that size? Was it that small before?’” Malecha says with a laugh.

At the end of this month, Malecha’s tenure as director of The Children’s House is coming to an end as she moves into retirement. “On behalf of the college and the university, we wish Jodi all the best as she begins a new phase in her life,” Haar stated. Andria Swafford has been selected as the next director for The Children’s House and will begin later this month.

Nationally accredited, The Children’s House provides early learning opportunities and all-day care for infants through preschoolers in a secure, fun, and educational environment. The Children’s House program is based on the philosophy that an individual develops best in an atmosphere of care, trust, and respect. This atmosphere can best be achieved by demonstrating caring behavior through mutual respect that allows each child to grow to their fullest potential.

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