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NORWALK, CT – Preschoolers and their parents can explore the aquatic world through books, artifacts, live animals, dramatic play and simple scientific tools in the “Sea & Discover Zone,” a new learning center now open in The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk.
Designed in accordance with the Connecticut Early Learning and Development Standards, the unique, permanent educational space debuted today [March 2]. Attending the special ribbon-cutting ceremony were Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling; State Sen. Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk; Dr. Alexandra Estrella, Superintendent of the Norwalk Public Schools; Johnathan Gibson, Director of the Maritime Odyssey Preschool in South Norwalk; and the Rev. Dr. Lindsay Curtis of Grace Baptist Church in Norwalk.
The exhibit underscores the priority of early-childhood STEM education for later academic achievement and success in 21st-century jobs.
Because the “Sea & Discover Zone” includes an area for books and reading, the opening event included a story time that celebrated national Read Across America Day.
Tom Naiman, Vice President for Education, said the enclosed second-floor center provides a child-sized introduction to the work of the Aquarium. Young children are invited to discover and investigate aquatic animals and environments in fun, tactile and immersive ways.
“The ‘Sea & Discover Zone’ is devoted to how we learn about marine animals, how we take care of them and how we protect them,” Naiman said. “It's a stimulating, content-rich, free-choice environment for our youngest guests and their care-givers, while also providing an improved space for our early-childhood programs, such as the weekly ‘Fish Tales’ story times.”
Imaginatively designed, the new center offers three areas where young guests can play the role of marine explorers, conservationists and animal-care specialists:
• a beach zone, with books and comfortable reading nooks under a colorful mural, as well as an area for story times and live-animal presentations.
• a science lab with such tools as tweezers, simple microscopes, hand lenses and other tools to examine shells, feathers, fur and other “biofacts.”
• and an ocean zone set up with objects for dramatic play, as well as a mock coral reef for seeking and finding animals.
First to enjoy the “Sea & Discover Zone” on March 2 was a class from the Maritime Odyssey Preschool in South Norwalk, of which the Aquarium is a partner. In marking national Read Across America Day, the students listened to a storybook read by Lauren Magliola, the Aquarium’s manager of early childhood programs.
Jason Patlis, President and CEO of The Maritime Aquarium, welcomed the “Sea & Discover Zone” for toddlers and preschoolers as a complementary addition to the Aquarium’s other classrooms, research vessel and traveling-teacher programs for older students.
“Before this, we really did not have any space dedicated to that age demographic,” Patlis said. “This space is not just about entertaining kids; it teaches them the heart and soul of what we do here in the Aquarium. It teaches them about the animals but also how to care for the animals.”
Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling praised the hands-on aspect of the “Sea & Discover Zone.”
“It will provide young people with the opportunity for experiential learning, which is the easiest or fastest way to learn, and to have an appreciation for our Sound, our beaches and where we’re located,” Rilling said.
State Sen. Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk said he frequently hears from people who have loved visiting the Aquarium.
“Now we can say, ‘Make sure you bring your littlest ones because there’s a spot here for them to learn even more,’” Duff said. “And they’re learning to be good stewards of the environment and they may not even know it.”
Johnathan Gibson, Director of the Maritime Odyssey Preschool, called the new learning space “innovative and imaginative.”
“It’s so important that children at the earliest ages be exposed to STEM-based curriculum,” Gibson said. “I am amazed by this playspace but I’m not surprised because we know the Aquarium to be a world-class institution of learning and an emerging leader in the field of early-childhood education.”
Dr. Alexandra Estrella, Superintendent of Norwalk Public Schools, celebrated the close relationship between the schools and the Aquarium’s Education department.
“Today opens the door to another opportunity for our students to immerse themselves in great learning and take the learning experience from the classroom into the real world and look at how science is applied throughout everything we do in life,” Estrella said.
The Rev. Dr. Lindsay Curtis of Great Baptist Church, a partner in the Maritime Odyssey Preschool, applauded the collaborations that have benefited Norwalk.
“Their vision and our vision has gone beyond what we ever thought could be,” he said.
The opening of the “Sea & Discover Zone” completes a lively transformation of the Aquarium’s second-floor gallery, which includes the ever-popular meerkats in a big new space (including three “pop-up bubbles” for guests) as well as a large display for the leopard tortoises. Meerkats and tortoises are native to African deserts, and that theme continues along an exterior wall of “Sea & Discover Zone” with built-in displays of a live scorpion, tarantula, African spiny mice and species of fish from African desert regions. These new animals are presented in displays built at preschoolers’ height.
The “Sea & Discover Zone” is free with Aquarium admission.
“Sea & Discover Zone” becomes the home for “Fish Tales,” an interactive story time for toddlers and parents/caregivers that includes songs, rhymes, dance and sometimes visits by a live animal. It’s offered each Friday at 10:30 a.m., is led by an Aquarium early-childhood educator and is free with admission.
Learn more about exhibits and programs in the South Norwalk family attraction – and reserve your tickets in advance, as recommended – at www.maritimeaquarium.org.
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