ScienceWorks opens exhibit with preschoolers in mind

If you're the parent of a child who's 5 or younger, you know there aren't many places in the area where you can take young kids to play indoors. "Since the Inner Child Café closed," says Karen Carnival, mother of 3-year-old Parker and 2-month-old Leo, "there's no place besides the library to go on a winter day. I used to meet with other mothers at the Inner Child regularly, and we'd hang out while our kids played. It was a great part of living in Ashland. I've really missed it."

That has changed with the addition of a new exhibit at ScienceWorks. Today is the grand opening of a permanent 1,000-square-foot exhibit for preschoolers at ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum. It's called Discovery Island, and admission is free for members all year round.

ScienceWorks is working to become the community center that families of young kids in the area haven't had. So today, in conjunction with Discovery Island, ScienceWorks is also introducing their Preschool Family Network.

"The ScienceWorks Preschool Family Network is a new, exciting idea for our museum," says Executive Director Mark DiRienzo. "We want to offer families of young kids a place to get together and get to know each other. We want to offer a place for mothers' groups to meet. We want to have family potlucks, lectures about child development and special events year-round, just for preschoolers."

The thinking behind this, DiRienzo says, is that parents who take care of young children often feel isolated and will welcome a chance to socialize with other parents in the same situation.

"I can't wait," says Allison Wildman mother of 4 year-old Wilson. "It's great to know that I can take my son to a place where he'll have fun, but where I can also spend some time chatting with grown-ups. And for a basic membership, I get to go as often as I like. That's a great deal."

Membership in the Preschool Family Network is free. All a parent has to do is sign up on the Web site, at Members will get a notice about every upcoming event, will receive a regular newsletter, and will be entitled to reserve the Discovery Island space for a mother's or father's group during the week. There's also a Facebook group that will enable member families to network with each other.

ScienceWorks is also working with preschools in the area.

"We're trying to set up special time for each preschool to bring its families to Discovery Island, so we can help them build their own school communities," said Lucy Whitridge, the Family Network coordinator. "This is a new role for ScienceWorks, but an important one. We're very proud to be involved with local preschools. They're an invaluable part of our community, and they deserve our support."

Discovery Island was funded by the Oregon Community Foundation and the Sharkey Family Foundation. It is the product of more than a year of research by early childhood development experts, Southern Oregon University education students, museum exhibit designers and ScienceWorks' staff and volunteers. It has five permanent hands-on exhibits to explore: The Lagoon, a multilevel water table; Shipwreck Playhouse, a "pirate ship" with interactive fun; Coconut Hollow, a forest of trees that launch air-powered balls through vacuum tubes to different spots on the island; the Yellow Bird, a hand-operated crane; and Crawler's Cove, an enclosed area for kids 2 and under, with ramps, crawl tubes, hidden objects and storytelling activities. There's also a "thatched hut" for mothers to nurse their children and for parents to sit and chat.

"We've got a lot of great things planned,' says Whitridge. "We'll have regular art classes, a 'Fun through music' class, children's yoga, and a circus-inspired movement theater. There'll also be regular 'Make It and Take It' activities especially designed for kids 5 and under, and a 'Curious Scientist' story-time once a week." In addition, the Chaney Family Foundation has provided financial support to enable ScienceWorks to provide free classes to Head Start preschoolers.

Parents can use to find out about classes and to preregister for them. They'll also find a community calendar, and a variety of parenting resources. Discovery Island will be available to reserve for mom's or dad's groups and special events. ScienceWorks will now also host preschool birthday parties.

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