The new virtual format of the Oak Park Conservatory’s highly popular Toddler Exploration Time program debuted Feb. 19 to great success, entertaining kids with the “Winter Fun” theme and coordinated activities.

“It was heartwarming,” said Judy Klem, executive director of Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory.

Normally occurring once each month during the school year, the program went on hiatus due to COVID-19. During the 30-minute session the conservatory’s education docents teach children to engage in the natural world through storytelling, crafts and lessons. 

“This program is super popular under normal circumstances. It usually sells out,” said Klem. 

To bring the program back, the conservatory pivoted to an at-home model, with kids following along with the lesson through Zoom, which had the added benefit of allowing more kids to participate. Previously, the program was held in person with spots for 15 to 20 kids. 

“Right now, we have 50 spots,” said Klem.

The success of the first virtual Toddler Exploration Time is owed in large part to Linda Smith, the conservatory’s education chair, who led the session. A retired elementary school teacher, Smith “lit up the showroom,” according to Klem.

Klem, who worried that kids might not pay attention, was pleased to find that kids were very much absorbed by the program, despite its new virtual format.

“They were enthralled. They were engaged,” said Klem. “They were mesmerized by [Smith’s] storytelling, and her animation.” 

Klem, monitoring the session behind the scenes, was also swept away by Smith. 

“I was gripped by her energy, enthusiasm,” said Klem. “It’s giving me chills. She is so talented and was back in her element.”

Laura Flamm told Wednesday Journal that virtual programs are kind of hit or miss for her three-year-old son Louie, who tuned into the virtual Toddler Exploration Time. 

“This one actually was really good,” said Flamm. 

Louie is in a developmental stage where he is very interested in imaginative play, according to Flamm. 

“That is a lot of what they did,” said Flamm. “It was really great for him. It was ideal.”

All of the February session’s activities fit into the “Winter Fun” theme, including a book Smith read to the children. 

The kids sang a song and made a special snowman out of homemade Play-Doh from their activity kits, which were assembled by volunteers and picked up by parents ahead of the lesson.

The wintry theme was perfect for little Louie Flamm, who has been very interested in snow of late, according to his mother.

“We’ve been building snowmen with him. And so, to have an activity like this, where he’s making a snowman out of playdough when it’s too cold to go outside and do it in the actual snow because it was one of these super freezing days – it was great,” said Flamm.

 In addition to craft supplies, the kits also included written directions for snowman assembly and a copy of the lesson plan, which Flamm appreciated.

“They had everything ready for us,” said Flamm.

Sessions already scheduled for March, April and May – each with different nature-related themes. Participants must pay an $8 fee to attend.

“Everything we’re trying to do is spark an interest in our young ones, so that they can get excited about the planet’s climate and Earth,” said Klem.

Flamm has already signed Louie up for the session in March.

“We’re looking forward to it,” said Flamm.

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