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Posted March 16, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Learning by exploring

preschool group poses in the honeycomb
A preschool group poses in the honeycomb at the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Dayton Culp, 3, carries a box of fake apples
Dayton Culp, 3, carries a box of fake apples up the stairs at the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Brady Jones, 3, climbs the rock wall
Brady Jones, 3, climbs the rock wall with the help of Dana Ann Bowers, his grandmother. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Courtney Bowman 3, and Chrissy Gates treat babies
Courtney Bowman, 3, and Chrissy Gates treat babies in the ambulance at the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Levi Redmond
Levi Redmond, 3, swings a magnet over other magnets and watches the actions as his father John watches. Dennis Grundman/Daily

By J.R. Williams


WINCHESTER --Next to the pretend ambulance is the snake. Next to the snake is the library, which is next to the American Indian long house.

At the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum, small children can bounce from one exploration to the next in what for them must be a very exciting world.

Teaching them about science, history and teamwork without much adult influence is the museum's business. And that unrestricted learning is the point, said Mark Lawson, who has been the museum's gallery manager for eight years.

"It would be foolish to give them just information," he said on a recent morning as a group of 3-year-olds explored. "Preschoolers need to be in the thick of it. Little ones need experience. The opportunity is important without adult constriction."

It's never too early to let young ones start building on their understanding of how the world works, Lawson said, an understanding that is based on science.

Young visitors to the museum can learn about simple machines, gravity or flight just by finding a pulley, a magnet or an incline. But for a greater hands-on illustration of these principles, the museum offers several programs to pique their interest.

Lawson -- known to everyone as "Mr. Mark" -- is very much a part of those programs. For the past several years, he has hosted several summer camps that guide children through those principles "out in the real world," he said.

Sharon Gormas said she brought her 5-year-old son, Hayden, to the weekly "wee discoverers" class, where he and about 10 others played with prisms, kites, and even experimented with water filtering techniques.

"I loved the idea that it was different every week," she said. "It was very creative the way that Mark planned it. It got the children thinking."

Hayden left the class not with definitions of scientific terms, but with an exercise in creativity, Gormas said.

"I don't think that the kids learn this plus that equals the other," she said. "They learn that it's OK to experiment."

At last count, the museum has nearly 20 camps on tap for this summer, from gardening to art to theater to sculpture.

Creative writing workshops are available alongside an introduction to magic, gardening and exploration in the park with Mr. Mark.

The programs cost $95 per person for members of the museum, or nonmembers can pay $125 for most programs.

The museum says all the instructors are "highly qualified in their fields and have experience working with children."

In most cases, the fees cover the cost of supplies and a snack.

The museum holds different Saturday events as well. The second Saturday of each month, an artist visits. There's a story theater and a National Geographic program for middle-schoolers.

Anne Brewster and her 5-year-old son, Jonathan, are two-year veterans of the wee discoverers class. She said Jonathan benefited not only by the experiments but also by working in groups.

"He definitely learned in the class to be a little more interactive and got to know people," she said. "It helped with his social skills ... and gave him something to base his experiences on."

Brewster said Jonathan and the other children learned about problem-solving by building structures.

"It's very stimulating," she said. "It was as much fun for me as it was for him."

Museum officials are planning their biggest exploration yet -- they just kicked off a campaign to build a state-of-the-art environmentally friendly new museum at Jim Barnett Park.

Of the $10 million required to build, the museum has already raised $7 million. Dee Dee Barbour, capital campaign director for the museum, said reaching their goal this campaign is possible.

The new museum will have new exhibits, including a paleontology exhibit, a life-size dinosaur and a new watershed exhibit. Design plans for the facility call for a platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program certification -- a point of pride for those behind the project.

Geothermal heating and cooling and solar power all will be a part of the new building.

Barbour said the "Dollars for Discovery" campaign will continue with direct mailing.

The Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum is located on the southern end of the Loudoun Street Walking Mall in Winchester. Visit Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. On the first Friday of each month, visit from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Admission is $6 per person, or free for members. Children under 2 are admitted free. For more information, visit www.discoverymuseum.net or call 722-2020.

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