For the past four years, the New Jersey State Museum has offered the engaging and educational, Small Explorers program for children ages five and under and their families to attend. Each month, the young children get to explore different themes through storytelling, museum objects, crafts, games and playtime.

Around March of this year, like most organizations, operations and programs, the New Jersey State Museum shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving the Small Explorers program with little time to readjust. However, with the help of Early Education Coordinator, Kerry Scott (or Miss Kerry to the children), the Small Explorers have been able to continue their adventures virtually.

“Even though we were home, I wanted to have something for them,” said Scott. “It’s hard to have someone that little, especially over the winter, stuck inside for so long.”

When Scott received news that the museum would be closing, she immediately thought of the children in her program and prepared for the shift. “I was able to get into the building to pack up a ton of educational materials from the office and bring them home. That was on St. Patrick’s Day; they allowed me to do that right before we closed and nobody could get into the building,” she said. “I grabbed as many puppets and storybooks and craft materials as I possibly could [and] I took them home.”

Until the end of June, Scott and the museum were releasing pre-recorded videos every week for the Small Explorers. Those videos contained footage from inside the museum that Scott was able to film prior to shut down. As that footage began to run out, Scott used her home as a new recording studio. She said, “With one of my housemates filming, we started making videos every week here at the house using the museum’s materials.”

Screenshot photo of Kerry Scott’s Small Explorers’ video about toolmakers.

To provide a similar experience to the prior in-person sessions, Scott structured her videos in the same style. Before, the children and their families would meet “Miss Kerry” in the Discovery Den of the museum for a welcome circle and song, and a story-time related to the theme of the month. They would then go visit an exhibit or gallery for a game or a hands-on interactive activity and end the session with a variety of free choice activities. “The videos kind of follow that format with the addition of a sign language sign each time,” said Scott.

With help from PNC Grow Up Great, an organization that has helped fund the Small Explorers since the beginning, the New Jersey State Museum has been able to add a monthly live session for children and families to attend. “We have one live session over zoom per month and two pre recorded videos available on the on the museum’s Facebook and Instagram TV each month,” said Scott. The programs are officially funded until June of 2021.

The new live Zoom sessions allow families to pick up free activity kits at the museum to bring home and use during the virtual sessions.  Scott said, “It has all the materials the families need to to do the activities that we do during the zoom session.”

Although this interactive, live video-chat is not the same as in-person sessions, it has some benefits. According to Scott, the Zoom sessions allow for more families to take part in the experience. “The in-person programs were limited to 12 families each and we ran them three times in a weekend. In the Zoom sessions, we can have up to 30 families.”

This month, the Small Explorers will be learning about the solstice lights, one of their most popular sessions (next to dinosaurs). On their live Zoom event, children will the the opportunity to look up at the starry sky and learn more about the vastness of light and dark. To correspond with the theme, the Small Explorers will also get read along with a book called Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett. Scott said, “The little boy in the story, Orion, is afraid of the dark, so it’s exploring ways that the dark can be fun.”

The Small Explorers: Starry Skies Zoom session will be held on December 12 from 11:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Space is limited to the first 30 families and all families must fill out a form to register. Registration closes at 5:00 p.m. Monday, December 7 to allow those partaking time to visit the museum to receive their activity packages. You can register at: https://forms.gle/eSFhFTPqz4fNGodz9 . After registering, participants will receive a welcome email with a Zoom invitation and instructions on where and when to pick up your kit.

With all of the changes the Small Explorers program has been through over the last year, Scott wishes she could see the children again. “I miss my students,” she said. However, she is more than eager to provide the education, entertainment and emotional support for her Small Explorers whether in-person or online.

“What we have while we’re all staying in and staying home is the internet, and we have nature outside of our windows,” said Scott. “I’m going to do, hopefully, as much as I can do from my little corner of the internet.”