Lakes Area Yes Network gets kids to play and off their screens

Unstructured free play is linked to better mental health in children.

LAYN at Itasca
Contributed / Lakes Area Yes Network
One of the field trips the Lakes Area Yes Network took this past summer was to Itasca State Park. Of the 56 kids who participated, only three of the children had ever been to the park before.

DETROIT LAKES — Former Detroit Lakes school teacher Mike Labine says research shows the average American child now spends only 6 to 7 minutes per day in unstructured play. And no, that’s not a typo.

Labine, who retired from teaching after the 2021-22 school year, says despite other research that demonstrates the positive connection between free play and good mental health, kids are not getting enough free play. And for kids who are underprivileged, or live far away from Detroit Lakes where kids’ activities are ample, the struggle to provide free play opportunities is even greater.

So, he, and local insurance businessman Mitch Wimmer, are on a mission to get kids away from their screens and into more outside play, art projects, S.T.E.M. learning opportunities and even field trips through the launching of the Lakes Area Yes Network this past summer.

LAYN group.jpg
The Lakes Area Yes Network leaders place the utmost importance on getting kids outside to play, whether it’s an athletic endeavor or creating some art with sidewalk chalk.
Contributed / Lakes Area Yes Network

Labine’s mission isn’t that strange given that he taught school for 35 years — 18 years at the middle school level, and 17 years at the high school level — before retiring. He admits, though, that by 2021 he knew that his “time in the classroom was coming to an end, and I wasn’t ready to be done with kids yet.”

That summer, he was talking to his son, who had worked for the original Yes Network, a nonprofit organization created to serve underserved neighborhoods in the St. Cloud area 11 years ago by retired Riccori (Minn.) Elementary School Principal Jerry Sparby.


Labine, who was trying to figure out what his life after teaching would entail, felt an instant pull to the program. Connections were made; an invitation was sent; and Sparby was soon visiting Detroit Lakes to meet with stakeholders of what would become the Lakes Area Yes Network.

The basic premise of the Lakes Area Yes Network is to offer kids an opportunity to play and learn away from screens, be they phones, televisions or computers.

Lakes Area Yes Network.jpg
By midsummer the Lakes Area Yes Network was seeing 30 to 40 children per day participating in the program. The children received two free meals a day, and a healthy mix of outdoor activities and learning opportunities.
Contributed / Lakes Area Yes Network

“Yes isn’t an acronym; it’s an affirmative,” Labine said during a presentation at a recent Detroit Lakes Noon Rotary meeting. “It’s an affirmative that we are going to invest in children.”

In addition to providing the opportunity for kids to play more, the Yes Network’s goals are to increase food security, increase learning opportunities during the summer without making it “summer school,” and make a positive impact on children’s mental health through creativity.

Labine said he knew that the initial investment in kids had to be made outside of Detroit Lakes because while there are a lot of kids’ activities in town, not all kids live in Detroit Lakes. Among the factors keeping kids out of activities are the cost, lack of transportation and kids who live outside of town don’t feel welcome. So, he said, he wanted to bring the opportunities to the kids, describing it as “rec on wheels.”

LAYN Aspen.jpg
Aspen was one of 30 to 40 children each day who participated in the programming offered by the Lakes Area Yes Network at two sites last summer, at the elementary school in Callaway and the Boys and Girls Club in White Earth.
Contributed / Lakes Area Yes Network

Any such effort, of course, would need funding, and Labine said this is where the Detroit Lakes schools stepped in to make the first year of the Yes Network possible. Renee Kerzman, the director of curriculum, instruction and technology for DL schools, contacted Labine to share the news that the district had a one-time COVID relief grant of $50,000 that could be used.

With funding secured, the program had its legs for the first summer.

Labine turned his eyes north to communities such as White Earth and Callaway, where he said the needs are greater than in the city of Detroit Lakes. “Becker County is not just Detroit Lakes,” he said.


He met numerous times with community leaders, and it was settled: The first two sites for the Yes Network were the Boys and Girls Club in White Earth, and the old elementary school in Callaway.

Given his connections from teaching, he was able to hire a handful of high school students to be site leaders fairly easily, and he also attracted five college students from Minnesota State University Moorhead, the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., and Bemidji State University. He said he partnered with AmeriCorp so that the college students would receive tuition assistance, and the MSUM teachers program even gave its two participating students practicum credit for participating.

LAYN Lizzy.jpg
Lizzy took part in the Lakes Area Yes Network’s summer program, where she was given the opportunity to participate in free play, creative learning and received two meals a day.
Contributed / Lakes Area Yes Network

The programs ran at each site for 32 hours per week, Monday through Friday, from June 1 until the end of July. Children in kindergarten through sixth grade were able to participate free of charge, and they also received two meals a day, breakfast and lunch.

The days were jam-packed with outdoor activities, including games and using sidewalk chalk, art projects, and even field trips. On one memorable trip, they took 56 kids to Itasca State Park. Labine said that only three of the children had ever been there.

Admittedly, the program took off slowly. “When we first started, we had more staff than kids showing up,” Labine said. “By July, 30 to 40 kids were showing up each day.”

In the two months of the program, Labine said he didn’t measure success in the growing numbers of kids participating, but rather that the kids grew in a number of ways including learning about self-control, better anger management and increased conflict resolution skills. “We didn’t go there saying this was going to be summer school,” Labine said, but the kids did learn.

HEADSHOT - Maggie Cory (1).jpg
Maggie Cory, a student leader for the Lakes Area Yes Network.
Contributed / Lakes Area Yes Network

The student leaders, many of who may soon be leading classrooms, gained valuable leadership skills as well. Labine said they were the onsite leaders, helping to lead the activities, serve the food and ensure that every child was cared for. He took their requests, and made a lot of trips to buy art supplies, sports equipment and other necessities. “I did the running, and they did the leading,” he said. “They just ran with it.”
The program obviously had a lasting impact on the student leaders as well.

“Many kids don’t have a positive role model in their life and need some place to go during the summer,” said student leader Maggie Cory. “I watched these kids grow and turn into amazing individuals … and it was the most rewarding thing I could’ve ever experienced.”


Another student leader, Devyn Ullyott added: “Something special about the yes network is that it not only changes the kids that attend, but it also changes those who work along with the kids. I have taken part of many internships and practicums that involve working with students; however, the Yes Network program is the one experience that has really left an impact on me.”

HEADSHOT - Devyn Ullyott.jpg
Devyn Ullyott, a student leader for the Lakes Area Yes Network.
Contributed / Lakes Area Yes Network

While looking back on the success of the Yes Network’s initial year, he said there are a number of thank yous to go around. First, thanks to Sparby’s encouragement and guidance, Labine said they were able to avoid many pitfalls for a first-time program.

In addition, he said the Detroit Lakes school's COVID grant was instrumental in the launch, and the Food Service program provided all of the meals, packed and ready to go, every morning and lunchtime. All he had to do was drive them to the sites. That was 1,500 meals in one summer that he didn’t have to scramble to put together. Finally, he said a nod also goes to the community leaders in White Earth and Callaway who were incredibly welcoming in the program’s first summer.

Now, Labine has his sights set on year two. Without the school’s COVID money, he now has to raise funds to power the program for another year, but he’s not daunted. In fact, his goal is to raise $60,000 this year, so that he can fund three fully operational sites. “If we get the funding, we definitely will open a third site,” he said, adding that the future site hasn’t yet been selected.

To fund this ambitious goal, Labine and Wimmer have been visiting with local businesses and service organizations, anyone who will let them speak. While he said they were still in the “securing commitments” phase, he is betting on the generous nature of the Detroit Lakes community to come through. “We’re going to get there,” he said.

Ideally, the funds would be raised by March 1, Labine said. This would allow him to confidently begin to hire his staff, with the goal being six college and nine high school students this year. “A number of the student leaders from last year said they would be back if they are still in the area,” Labine said.

To donate to the Lakes Area Yes Network

You can help support the Lakes Area Yes Network by contacting founder Mike Labine at:

Financial donations are greatly appreciated, but Labine also said they are accepting donations of art supplies, sports equipment and science and math learning materials, as well. He said they can make use of nearly any learning resource.

Devlyn Brooks is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and serves Faith Lutheran Church in Wolverton, Minn. He also works for Forum Communications Co. He can be reached at for comments and story ideas.
What To Read Next
Get Local