Learning outside of the home, what once seemed a common activity but now a precious rarity, is back in downtown.

After six months of closure, downtown’s Explore More Discovery Museum reopened last week under limited hours and reduced capacity for pre-scheduled play sessions.

Museum Director Lisa Shull said staff has worked for months tracking information on the virus, working to find ways to bring the multisensory museum to families in a safe, accessible manner. After watching half the year go by without children occupying the play and learn spaces, Shull said it feels good to reopen, and parents are sharing similar sentiments.

“We have a lot of parents ready to come back for some time. … We had just as many parents saying, ‘We’d just like to get back. Our kids need playtime. We need socialization,’” Shull said.

For now, families are able to sign up for visits three days a week at Explore More. Each visit is limited to 50 guests and is capped at two and a half hours. Shull said the staff will continue to monitor the virus and response rates to adjust hours and days. Tickets for next week can be ordered in advance for Wednesday and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to noon or 1:30 to 4 p.m. and Thursday from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Shull said Wednesday and Saturday are popular visitation days, but Thursday may change as the additional opening day depending on response.

At the entrance, guests are greeted with a hand washing station, a temperature reading and requirements to wear masks while inside. Areas of the museum such as the barn slides, individual face painting and hanging noodles in the rain were removed and Maker’s City is closed.

The Estep family has practiced extra caution during the pandemic, home-schooling the kindergarten-age child and only ordering food for takeout when dining outside the kitchen. Andrea Estep made plans to take her family to the museum next week and said she is excited the museum is back open so her two daughters, Charlotte and Amelia, can have a nice, safe change of scenery to play.

“There’s so much that we love and have missed while they were closed,” Estep said. “We are most looking forward to a safe change of scenery. We know that the museum is working incredibly hard to provide that to our community.”

Staff are cleaning high-touch surfaces before, during and after each visit and loose part play toys are gone from Over in the Meadow and Wonderwoods exhibits. Instead, each family receives a personal bag of toys for use during their session.

“Lots of things are still available as they were, but what they’ll find is we’ve significantly reduced the number of manipulatives in there,” Shull said. “It really feels like you have the museum for yourself, and it allows us to walk around and monitor and make sure there’s space for social distancing.”

For families staying at home, Explore More offers virtual and take-home options for learning such as Discovery Kits, which come with custom videos and instructions for fun learning opportunities. The current Discovery Kit is a Weather Watchers Kit that instructs children to build a weather station equipped with a barometer, anemometer, rain gauge and wind vane to record the weather patterns. In addition to the instructional video, a bonus recording featuring meteorologist Chris Holtzman walks kids behind the scenes of his work.

On the third floor of the museum, student learning is offered at The Academy. After summer camp programs ended, Explore More reached out to families and offered 15 slots for children to have enrichment opportunities, outdoor time and a place to complete virtual learning classes for six weeks.

Program manager Melanie Viss said The Academy is designed for grades first through fifth to offer instruction and interactive activities for families unable to supervise their children’s virtual learning.

“We make sure they get all of that done here, so when they go home, it’s family time and their families don’t have to deal with online learning as much as possible,” she said.

Harrisonburg resident Lena Kovalenko has four children who love going to the museum: Emily, 11, Tony, 9, Benjamin, 4, and Julia, 3. Kovalenko said taking the kids to the museum is a great indoor recreation option in the town, and she hopes to stop by sometime next week.

“I was very excited for it to finally reopen,” she said. “All of my kids enjoy it very much. And we really like being downtown as well.”

Josh Shulruff enrolled his first-grader Ana, 6, in The Academy after she completed the summer camp program at Explore More. Shulruff said it helps the parents focus on work while feeling confident their daughter is still under safe and talented educator supervision.

“It makes it possible for us to work in a slightly more normal way and know she’s safe and receiving support with her online classes and additional enrichment opportunities,” he said. “She’s learning as much as she can under the circumstances, and there is just so much value to get from her being at the museum with the really tremendous educators there.”

Booking play session reservations or signing up for the newsletter to stay up-to-date with changes at the museum is available online at https://www.iexploremore.com/ or by calling (540)442-8900.

Contact Kathleen Shaw at 574-6274 or [email protected]. Follow Kathleen on Twitter @shawkareport

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