Smithsonian Early Explorers: A Part-time Caregiver and Child Program

20160113_100700Our Smithsonian Early Explorer program, or SEE as we call it, is about to embark on its third year! We are so excited to see how this program has changed and grown over the years. All along we have hoped to make this program into a community of learners and I think we are well on our way.


What is SEE?

SEE meets Monday and Wednesday mornings for two-hours in the National Museum of Natural History’s Q?rius Jr. room. Most of our children begin the program around 18 months of age and remain with us until they are about three. We begin the day with learning centers that have three objectives: to engage families in playful activities, to provide hands-on learning experiences that connect to a theme, and to allow the child to naturally practice developmental skills. We all convene as a group following the learning centers to say hello to each other and introduce the class’ theme. We include repetitive components into the morning meeting, such as a hello song, that create a routine that helps children transition and feel comfortable in the classroom. Our morning meeting is a time for learning – you will often observe teachers introducing objects for the children to explore, presenting experiments, or leading group activities.


After our meeting we break for the bathroom and a quick snack, and then head out into the community. Most often, this means a visit to a museum on the Mall, but it can take many different shapes. The museum visit is similar to our morning meeting – it often includes objects, experiments, and activities. It is also a time when we encourage families to use their observation skills and really explore an object. We also use the visit as a time to facilitate one-on-one learning with the caretaker. This facilitation helps this audience engage better with the object and is a chance for caretakers to practice different approaches to learning with the child.FullSizeRender

SEE as a Community of Learners


We hope that the classes will inspire our caretakers to model methods they observe in the classroom on their own. It can be something as simple as recreating one of our learning centers at home or noticing that their child is interested in a subject and providing them with more opportunities to learn about it. Of course, we also hope that they will begin to see museums as learning environments for young children and employ some of our techniques on their own, i.e. bringing objects, books, or simply engaging a child in conversations about what they see. Our educators strive to interact with each family and model ways in which parents can navigate tricky behavioral situations or ways that support their child’s development and growth. For example, we may notice that a child is at a block building center and start a conversation in which we discuss what the child is building. In this way, we hope caretakers see the thought that children put into their play, demonstrate the child’s thought process and propose new challenges. These are just a few examples of how we hope that families will take the seeds we plant on these mornings and grow them over the coming months and years – hoping that this experience will provide a foundation for how they approach learning as a family.


What do we want to do better?

We are always learning and growing and this year, we will be focusing on crafting a two-year curriculum, and how best to set our parents up for success. Last year, we did a trimester surrounded by the idea of going on a bear trek. This 12-week study explored the physical features of bears, their habitat and habits, as well as bear-inspired songs, stories, and art. We like to say we are moving full STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) ahead! As for our parents, we are rethinking our orientation strategy and doing a Google Hangout to allow parents and caregivers to attend together and on their schedule. We are also planning social events.IMG_3708

We are always working on nurturing relationships between the educators and the families, and between the families themselves – I think this is an ongoing process and one to which we could devote a separate blog to. Suffice it to say that, like with any group, it can be difficult to meet the needs of each family and child, especially as we often have a range of ages in the classroom. Finally, we are always thinking about transitions and transportation. We have families who are diapering and potty training and trying to get everyone to break at the same time and meet up for our museum visit is not always easy. Then there is the walk to the museum where we often struggle to keep our group going at the same pace. It can be tricky – you don’t want to rush a toddler, but if they are too far behind, the rest of the group gets restless. Over the next year, we hope to smooth out these transitions.

We look forward to beginning our fall trimester in mid-September, we have seven returning families and three new ones. We are also very excited to announce the addition of SEE 2.0 —  SEE in the Community. This pilot program, is a bilingual version that is free to qualifying families. We had our first iteration over the spring at the National Zoo and our second one will begin in the fall. Funds for this program have been generously provided by Battelle. Look for more about this program in an upcoming blog.

Parent’s Perspective

A final thought to share from a family that became part of our community when they first began attending our infant programs and later, joined SEE and has been active since last fall.

We are comfortable going to any museum together. When we enter, my son often says, “We look at the artwork with our eyes Mommy, don’t touch with our hands!”  He understands we are in a museum and he wants to explore the space. He looks around and inquires about what he sees. Noticeably, he’s not bored. I’ve learned from class to bring things he can hold to enrich his experience and help with those busy fingers!


Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii; 1995 Nam June Paik Born: Seoul, Korea 1932; Died: Miami Beach, Florida 2006 fifty-one channel video installation (including one closed-circuit television feed), custom electronics, neon lighting, steel and wood; color, sound approx. 15 x 40 x 4 ft. Smithsonian American Art Museum; Gift of the artist; © Nam June Paik Estate 2002.23 Smithsonian American Art Museum

My son is learning about self-control and socialization, both of which started in the Smithsonian program with sharing, taking turns, sitting down during circle and cleaning up/putting things away. Often these things are done singing a short transition song. They’re comforting, we do them daily and we continue to make up new ones about bath time, cleaning up spills, helping me cook, etc. Thank you Smithsonian!



If you are interested in SEE, we still have a few spots available. Contact Cynthia Raso at