When it became clear the Children’s Museum of Richmond would have to close its buildings for a period of time, the innovative folks of its staff and leadership put on their thinking caps to find a way to continue to fulfill their mission to “inspire growth in all children by engaging families in learning through play.”

Their creative solution was to produce a series of blogs featuring videos, step-by-step instructions, and tips for parents to engage in fun-filled activities that promote family bonding and skill development. The blogs are both readily accessible from the museum’s website and are easily updated. The bonus of their content and the lessons they relate is that they can become part of families’ everyday engagement long into the future.

One special element of the blogs is that they stimulate resourcefulness and an awareness of the multiple uses of household items. “Our youngest learners take in everything around them—we strive to ignite their imaginations and take in all of the possibilities that exist in the world,” said museum president Danielle Ripperton. “From the blog, you can see that the tools you need are everyday objects you can find in your own home.”

Children and parents who may wish they had purchased art materials in advance of the coronavirus lockdown will be delighted to learn they already have all the elements of an imagination-inspiring art studio at hand. Want to create a work of art, but think you don’t have any paint? Think again! Watch a winsome museum educator show how a spectrum of paints can be created with water, flour, salt and food coloring.

But little artists will also need a brush to paint, and what if you don’t have one? Our innovative educator comes to the rescue again, and shows that, by focusing on the function rather than typical appearance of the tool, we can discover that all the elements of a paint brush are at hand. A cardboard roll from paper towels or toilet paper can serve as a handle, and bristles—to apply the paint and add texture—can be created with everything from a fringed cardboard roll or aluminum foil to a dandelion flower and variety of sizes and shapes of leaves—all attached to the “handle” with a clothespin. Even a pan scraper can serve as a palette knife and paint can be applied with a folded paper towel or dinner fork.

Once so equipped, families can go on to experiment with a variety of styles, including “splatter painting fort fun” (think Jackson Pollock), no-mess tape-resist art, relief rubbing art, making art with music, shaving cream watercolor painting, and sweet potato prints. In addition to paints, other media can be created from household ingredients, such as play dough. This opens the door to a gamut of crafts that can be done at home, including creating dyed-noodle necklaces and crafting with cans.

In all of the museum’s offerings—both on-site and online—activities are designed to incorporate the “five basics” that promote the healthy development of children’s skills and capacities. These basic types of parent–child engagement include: maximize love, manage stress; talk, sing and point; count, group, compare; explore through movement play; and read and discuss stories. These activities are not only fun bonding experiences for family members, but they can also set the stage for a child’s vibrant, fulfilling future. Research has found that 80 percent of brain growth happens by age 3 and development is enhanced by interaction with family members.

“Play is how children learn—it’s critical for brain development and kindergarten readiness,” said Ripperton.

In the blogs, the museum’s crew incorporates “talking, singing and pointing” in read-aloud story times as well as in everyday tasks such as cooking, as shown in the “bringing the basics to baking” video. The goal of “exploring through movement play” engendered activities that range from building toilet-paper towers (which can also entail “counting, grouping and comparing” when boxes of different shapes and sizes are the building materials). Movement-based play also includes building obstacle courses outdoors and inside the house, which provide a great release for pent-up energy. In addition, some blogs incorporate scientific principles such as the “sink or float,” an exuberant exploration of density and weight, and an experiment with a celery stick and food coloring that explores the process of osmosis in a way that’s fun and easy to understand.

The blogs also provide a threshold for memorable and thought-provoking parent–child discussions. While mealtime conversations may lag when the discussions involve questions that can be answered with one word, such as “Did you have fun at the school fair?,” the blog shows that discussions can perk up with open-ended questions such as “Tell me about the school fair.” And conversations can blossom wide when families consider the 40 questions posed in “dinner discussions” that include “If I were invisible, I would …,” “If you had a time-machine, where and when would you visit?” and “What cartoon character would you like to be and why?”

Likewise, family members can learn and appreciate new things about one another when they participate in a “Gratitude Scavenger Hunt” in which they are prompted to describe someone who makes you smile, something you can do to make others smile, one thing you love about yourself, and something that makes a nice sound.

Recently, blogs have been written to parents with advice on approaching timely and sensitive issues with their children, including “Talking with children about racial injustice,” which presents links to a number of articles written by experts on the issue. “Why are people wearing masks and covering their faces?” gives guidelines to parents and caregivers in answering related questions that children may have, and “Talking to children about COVID-19” presents excerpts from the writings of Dr. Shu–Chen “Jenny” Yen that empathize, with a children’s perspective, the way they see their neighborhood has changed with suggestions for explanations parents could provide in their discussions.

In recognition that parents are going through stressful times, the blogs also include an empathetic touch of humor with “pandemic parenting—when truth is stranger than fiction,” written by HR Director Whitney Fogg, from the perspective of “a working-from-home-while-homeschooling, social-distancing, short-order cooking, mask-making, not-toilet-paper-hoarding, pandemic-surviving mom.” The lighthearted blog also includes different resources and tips for parents in home-bound families.

That optimistic spirit continues with a blog about the museum’s Fredericksburg branch, which was recently closed due to budgetary restraints. The folks at the Children’s Museum hope families in the area will be able to make the drive to its Richmond-area locations when they reopen, and, as a tribute to our local branch, they created a blog, “Celebrating Fredericksburg,” that features photos of their dinosaur mascot Seymour at favorite sites in the ’Burg.

Visit childrensmuseumofrichmond.org for more details and learning opportunities.

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