Brittany Liscord, an educator at the Children’ Museum and Theatre of Maine, livestreamed about bird nests. Courtesy of Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine

The pandemic forced the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine to get aggressive with its online education and outreach. As a result, it is now livestreaming daily through its Facebook page with new programming.

One series, called At Home Together, offers prompts for hands-on projects organized around themes of wildlife and engineering. One of the most popular is Worm Wednesday, weekly at 10:30 a.m. (and available for replay), when educator and community engagement coordinator Brittany Liscord introduces live red wiggler worms and offers tips for worm-related backyard activities, like scavenger hunts. The theater has begun the Maine Youth Playwriting Challenge Online, seeking participation from kids across Maine, and there are new programs dedicated to crafts, cooking and slime.

“We’ve talked a lot about silver linings, and this shift to thinking about how we engage our audience online is one silver lining to this whole thing,” said the museum’s executive director, Julie Butcher Pezzino. “The geographic distribution of our online programming has been fascinating. We have stepped more fully into our mission of being of Maine.”

In the first month online, the museum reached nearly 30,000 families and educators, some from as far away as Presque Isle, she said. The forced move to the virtual world addresses areas for growth targeted in the museum’s strategic plan: more geographic diversity and more online programming. When the museum does reopen – first at its longtime home at 142 Free St. and sometime in 2021 at its future home at Thompson’s Point – much of the new online programming will remain, Pezzino said.

The remote learning interactions are especially valuable, she added. “We are providing as close to a face-to-face interaction as we can between an educator and a child, and this is particularly important when kids are not going to school. They are not having those interactions. Oftentimes, the only people these children are interacting with directly on a daily basis are their parents,” she said.

Reba Askari, theater director at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, says yes to the regional playwright competition she is helping to coordinate. Courtesy of Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine

Theater director Reba Askari said more than two dozen students age 8 to 15 are participating in the Maine Youth Playwriting Challenge. Several young playwrights have completed their plays, and the theater is holding virtual readings.

Liscord said the shift to online programming gives museum educators the opportunity to expand well-tested programs so more people can participate. She’s having fun with the videos, and seems to embrace her natural on-screen presence. “I thoroughly enjoy the creative process of adapting to and experimenting with the new perspective that online programming brings,” she said.

In truth, the online programming isn’t all that different than what the museum presents to visitors in person, she added. Experiential learning is a core tenet of the museum’s educational programming, and that can happen anywhere. “The adaptation to online programming is very similar to programming we bring to schools, camps, summer lunch sites, libraries, family shelters and other community spaces. All of our programs are inquiry-based and designed to foster safe risk-taking,” she said.

A good example of that is Worm Wednesday. The STEM-based program addresses a big-picture issue like climate change and breaks it down into essential elements that kids can relate to in the world around them. “When children learn about worms, they deepen empathy for living things,” Liscord said. “Discovering that the worm has power and a key place in many of earth’s cycles and ecosystems is the foundation of knowledge children need to feel empowered. Children also have a role in protecting and caring for the natural world. The more we observe and know about worms, the more we respect and care about them.”

Whether online or in person, the museum and theater embrace multidisciplinary and open-ended learning that allows for exploration of STEM topics, multicultural and community engagement, theater and the arts and early-childhood education, she added.

Meanwhile, construction continues on the museum’s new building at Thompson’s Point and the museum remains on track to complete its $14 million fundraising campaign, despite the economic uncertainty caused by the virus, Pezzino said. “We are sensitive to donor needs, but construction continues and fundraising will continue for sometime beyond the here and now,” she said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be delays down the road. For the here and now, we are moving forward as planned.”

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