Meredith Carroll: Every Aspen kid’s first friend: Miss Mare

Meredith Carroll
Muck Off

“I don’t know if preschool will ultimately work out because I am telling you, she will never nap there,” I said matter-of-factly to Mary Wolfer, lovingly known as Miss Mare by everyone from her own children to most of Aspen’s leadership whose diapers she once changed. “On a mat? On the floor? With other kids in the room? No way.”

“Your precious girl will sleep,” Miss Mare said. I could feel her warm smile travel through the phone line. “You’ll see.”

Roughly 11 minutes elapsed between finding out I was pregnant and calling Miss Mare to get on the waitlist for the Playgroup Aspen preschool program that she founded three decades ago next year. She explained how the waitlist was not actually a list but rather a period of time we could use to get to know one another.

“Call me every six months and check in,” she said. “Stay in touch and I promise we’ll have a spot when you’re ready.”

I was seven calls in to Miss Mare when my firstborn daughter’s third birthday approached. The time seemed right for her to fly the coop, especially since the coop at that time was my living room, which is roughly the size of a chicken coop where I regularly trapped her in a spinning musical activity chair that also quacked on demand while I crammed in work. (This is a scenario often, and incorrectly, referred to as “having it all.”)

When she started loudly articulating and frequently repeating her boredom with the spinny chair by abusing the quack feature was when preschool started sounding like an especially good idea. I worried about the nap thing though; my kid had a routine, it worked and I hesitated to mess it up. That ended up marking the first and last time I ever doubted Miss Mare. Not only did my kid sleep soundly at preschool, but Playgroup also sparked open a portal in her spirit that gratified my tired and insecure mom heart every morning knowing we were in the right place.

Three years later Miss Mare, her niece Miss Kadi, her daughter Miss Hilary, Miss Mary Paula, Miss Sam and Miss Brigitte all kept the spell going on my younger daughter with their brand of magic that included fusing magnanimity with the language that is part of the Playgroup air supply. There are no boys, girls or children at Playgroup: Everyone is a friend. It is a noun, a verb and a sentiment. Kindness, self-help (“Try, try, try again. If you can’t do it, ask a friend”) and confidence form the basis of the Playgroup Aspen curriculum. That, and the Letter People (IYKYK).

“We’re not raising kids,” Miss Mare has said. “We’re raising the adults who we all want to send out into the world.”

I regularly took videos of my littlest one running down the hall of the Yellow Brick School Building to greet me when I picked her up from Playgroup each afternoon. Neither of us could contain the joy that accompanied my girl reciting back the minutiae of her day to me, her flapping arms enunciating her exuberance faster than she could speak it. It is always a good day when your kids are happy for you to go and happy for you to come back so they can tell you everything that happened in between.

Eight years ago Miss Mare spread her wings, love and talent past the roundabout, establishing a superlative preschool and hobby farm in Basalt called NJS Kinder Cottage. Miss Mare named it after her mom, who she believes guided her to the enchanting midvalley spot. The Kinder Cottage waitlist works the same as Playgroup: It’s not about a number on a list.

When Miss Mare transitioned to Basalt, Miss Kadi seamlessly took over Playgroup Aspen. At an impasse with the city of Aspen over its lease however, the program is shutting down forever in June. A celebration is planned next week for all current and former Playgroup families, even if Miss Mare’s preference for the under-5 and over-50 crowds has not changed.

After 30 years and hundreds of families, it will be bittersweet to bid farewell to an Aspen institution, even if everyone touched by it will tell you it is the furthest thing from one.

More at and on Twitter @MCCarroll.