Children’s Museum of NH Helps with State’s Childcare Crisis 

As has been reported over the past year, there is an overburdened childcare system in New Hampshire. Childcare centers have faced staffing shortages and others have closed, leaving long waiting lists and a lack of available spaces. Families are turning to home-based childcare, family members and community resources like family resource centers, libraries and the Children’s Museum of NH (CMNH) to fill in the gaps and nurture their children’s growth.

“The Museum has prided itself on being a trusted resource for play-based learning for nearly 40 years,” said Jane Bard, CMNH President. “When we saw the childcare crisis growing, we began reaching out to childcare providers, surveying families and speaking to other partners like UNH about ways we could use our expertise to help.” 

What emerged was the need to reach young children wherever they were and to provide the adults caring for them with the tools they need to support healthy cognitive growth. This includes licensed childcare centers, small in-home care settings, libraries, family resource centers, families and grandparents caring for their own children.  

“Once we realized the need was so great and so widespread around the state, the challenge was how to best serve all of these audiences,” said Bard. The solution was to give all of these audiences different tools and ways to participate in a variety of activities over the course of the year. 

The first and most exciting, according to the childcare providers, is the Museum curated Play-Based Learning Kit, a 40-lb jumbo box filled with quality materials for children ages birth – five being distributed to 83 childcare providers, libraries, and family resource centers throughout the state of New Hampshire reaching over 9,000 children. “I would love to show parents more ways to encourage play-based learning,” shared Nicole Daniels from the River Center, a family resource center in Peterborough, NH. “I think with Covid, a lot of children lost the art of play, especially with peers and in groups, and we want to help bring that back.” Christi Mooney from High Street Child Care Center in Littleton, NH agrees. “Our facility is primarily play-based, and after Covid, we are seeing a lot of the 2-4 year olds who do not know ‘how’ to play. It has been a struggle to just get them to show us their creativity, use their imaginations, etc.” Each kit will come with monthly activity guides giving educators ideas on ways to use the materials in new ways to engage children and sites get to keep the kits beyond the end of the grant. “I love the idea of having more resources for the children, but especially love the idea for the teachers,” shared Alicia Tonelli from the Seacoast Community School in Portsmouth, NH. “It is always helpful to have different ideas, and perspectives. It sparks creativity!”

Beyond the kit, the Museum is collaborating with the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies to host two free Play-Based Learning Open House events at their Dover location and four online workshops, open to all early childhood educators. “Partnering with CMNH has been extremely rewarding. We have united our expertise on active playful learning to empower our early care and education providers to share enriching and joyful learning experiences,” shared University of New Hampshire Associate Professor Kimberly Nesbitt.

“The online workshops are being created for childcare providers who find it challenging to take time from their day to participate in professional development,” said Xanthi Gray, the Museum’s Education Director. “We want to support both existing and new childcare providers entering the field, and share ways they can create play-based learning experiences that support children’s developmental milestones.”

Back at the Children’s Museum of NH in Dover, the education team has launched three new weekly drop-in programs for visitors to spark ideas on ways to use common household items to create play-based learning experiences at home. Tinker Time Tuesdays are held every Tuesday at 10:30am, Baby Storytimes are held every Thursday at 9:30am, and Little Learners Play Groups are held every Friday at 9am. All three of these programs are included with normal museum admission, and free for museum members. In addition to giving kids a chance to practice play-based learning, these programs serve as a way for parents to connect and socialize with each other in a supportive environment. 

These play-based learning experiences are funded thanks to an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) INSPIRE! grant for small museums. The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire was one of 59 museums nationwide to receive this highly competitive grant. These programs are also funded in part by the NH Preschool Development Grant, sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (Award# 90TP0060).