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Friendly Faces of the Friendly City: Ms. Melanie Veith

May 20, 2020 by Katie Mitchell

This is Ms. Melanie, a Museum Educator at Explore More Discovery Museum, rubbing a balloon onto some unsuspecting victim’s head.

And here she is, jumping around outside with a bag attached to a stick.

I know the pandemic has got us all going a little crazy, but I’m starting to wonder if we should worry about Ms. Melanie.

As it turns out, Ms. Melanie is just showing the lengths she and the staff at Explore More will go to deliver educational content to their customers’ homes. After all, on a normal day at the Museum, you would catch Melanie Veith doing all sorts of fun, informative, and even silly things. She’s often surrounded by a swarm of kids as she explains the various parts of a large beetle or describes in colorful detail what happens underground that causes a volcano. As much as she’d genuinely love to play with museum patrons all day, her work as Program Manager requires her to retreat to the office to collaborate with her team and the Harrisonburg community in dreaming up new activities to engage children of all ages, to meet them where they are, to inspire them to keep exploring and learning, to help them see the ways they’re connected to the rest of the world, and to bolster both their imaginations and their confidence. 

Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown on non-essential businesses, Melanie and the rest of the 13-person team at Explore More are figuring out ways they can still meet their mission of engaging young minds through interactive, multi-sensory learning experiences, like Explore More at Home videos. As Melanie explains, “We believe playing and open-ended play are the best for learning, but we can’t offer that at the Museum right now.” And they are not alone in that belief. According to an article cited by the Museum’s website, several research studies indicate that students in play-based school score better on flexible thinking, self-control, and working memory, attributes that are consistently linked to academic achievement. So providing opportunities for children to play imaginatively while they’re home from school might help them re-adjust to academic life when school resumes. And that’s why turning your bed into a fort and hiding in there is a perfectly acceptable behavior right now.

So what is Explore More doing to reach kids during this time? Here’s a rundown of their current offerings:

  1. Your membership is paused. If you have an Explore More membership, you’re not losing weeks and weeks that you’ve paid for. The Museum will honor your membership past its original renewal date.
  2. Explore More at Home. This series takes a theme, like All About Birds, It’s Magic, or Marvelous Marbles, and explores the theme through several activities, like building a birdfeeder, backyard bird watching and journaling, reading The Best Nest, and extension activities related to bird species and habitats. Each theme contains a few hours worth of material, but each item can stand alone so kids don’t have to engage with that theme for a long time if they don’t want to. It’s really quite flexible, and I have enjoyed several of the themes.    
  3. College for Kids. The Museum is offering two virtual classes in partnership with JMU College for Kids. Become a Globetrotter and explore new places with Mr. Landon or join Ms. Melanie for a Storybook STEM adventure.
  4. Discovery Kits. Anyone can purchase a Discovery Kit filled with all of the supplies and recipes to create their own Museum experience from home. They’re now offering contactless, curbside pickup on Newman Avenue on Thursdays from 4:00 – 6:00 PM. All kit items will be sanitized and distributed by masked and gloved staff members. Order by Tuesday for Thursday pick-up. FYI, this is the same time slot as Magpie & Friends’ curbside pick-up right across the street. 
  5. While you’re at it, the gift shop is online. Not every item in the Explore More Gift Shop will fit on the website, but there are several fun items available, and you can add them to your Discovery Kit order if you want. 
  6. Play It Forward. The Museum is accepting monetary donations all year, pandemic or not. But they will soon feel the strain of lost revenue from admission fees. You can help mitigate that by buying Museum passes, gift certificates, and even gift memberships now for use later. Personally, I am loving the idea of giving gift passes as holiday or birthday gifts. The Museum can use the cash now to cover their operating costs, and you and your friends will have a pre-paid playdate later on. 

Going forward, Melanie indicated there might be some changes afoot at the Museum, for safety’s sake. They’re considering installing a handwashing station for people to use when they enter the building. Right now, lots of people wash their hands on the way out, but COVID-19 has shown us all to be mindful of what we’re taking into spaces AND carrying out of spaces. The Museum is also looking at their sick child policy and might add language to it that is more specific. They’ve gotten great feedback about their Explore More at Home options, so they’re hoping to continue those once the Museum opens back up. This break from the norm has given them more time to develop these at-home options, thereby reaching more kids, which is the ultimate goal. Once school starts again, the Museum is looking at ways for teachers to bring their students on virtual field trips. No one knows yet what teachers will be faced with when they return to the classroom. They might not have time or permission to take in-person field trips. Virtual field trips will provide learning opportunities (and fun experiences!) efficiently and safely. 

Most of all, Melanie wants you all to know that she and the staff at Explore More are thinking of you and your kids during this time and wishing you all good health. They miss seeing and hearing the kids at the Museum, the energy they bring, the quickness of each day. She adds, “We still believe that kids should be playing as much as possible as the best way to cope. I hope kids look back at this time and remember that they got to play more.” There is a lot of pressure around school work right now, and that pressure is different for different families. Some families worry that their kids might fall behind academically. Some are worried about the social impacts of isolation. Some are dealing with financial hardships and the additional level of stress those bring. When kids get stressed, their behavior changes in different and sometimes unexpected, unfamiliar ways. Some days I don’t recognize my children, because we’re all a little weird right now–we don’t know how to behave normally. Any chances that kids get to play, to imagine, to explore, whether inside or outside, will help reduce their stress and get them ready for school again. Let’s all just do the best we can and support each other. And if Explore More can be part of that support system for you, they’re ready to be just that.

Katie Mitchell is a mom, educator, and writer who has called Harrisonburg her home since 1993. She loves books, beer, fire, sunsets, spicy things, trees, water, live music, and unexpected naps. She is the writer and founder of Harrisonburg’s popular blog I Love My Burg and is currently working on her Masters Degree in Communication and Advocacy.