The Exploration Place is a museum and a science centre, a combination common across Canada, but it is also a childcare facility and rare is too weak a word for that extra feature.
"We haven't found another science centre or museum in North America that is operating an integrated learning program with out-of-school care or a science-based preschool," said The Exploration Place CEO Tracy Calogheros.
There is a collection of childcare categories going on at The Exploration Place, and each one emerged on its own. This past year, the range of in-house children's services reached a point that it was smarter to make it its own department.
"Everything was growing so much that it made sense to streamline everything together," said Robyn Reimer, manager of Integrated Learning, that new department that emerged from the strategic redesign of internal resources.
The programs that now align under the new system include Early Explorers Pre-School (four classes of 20 kids each, from age two and a half to five years), Fort George Explorers (after-school groups, one for kids in Kindergarten to Grade 2 and one for kids 5-12 years old), Fort George Explorers Summer Camp (full-day month long sessions for kids aged 5-12), Science Alliance Summer Day Camps (same but for kids aged 1-3 years), Explorers Urban Garden (outdoor program focused on composting, food security, basic gardening, and more), and some others as well.
"Our programs are fully subscribed - they are 100 per cent full," said Reimer.
"If they built a whole other facility just for childcare, we could fill it, but one of the most important aspects of these programs is how closely we can tie these programs together, utilize the amazing qualities of this place to stimulate the minds and imaginations of children. It just boggles my mind that no one else is doing it, it just makes so much sense."
Museums and science centres do not typically experience their busiest hours on weekdays during work hours, so the timing of childcare plays well into the best opportunities to use the greater facilities in which the kids spend their days.
When a place is already set up to be a structure of discussion, a vessel into the past and the future, a site for explore eyes, then where better to have kids spending their days for months and years at a time if they connect with the place.
"A lot of these kids stay with us long-term," said Reimer. "We become stable figures in their lives, and this place becomes an impactful force in their lives. The relationships with the kids and their families have a lot of worthwhile qualities, but when you consider how a place like this can spark lifelong learning, it makes no sense to not do it."
Reimer reported that many of the faces that come to work as volunteers for The Exploration Place, or get jobs as summer students, or behind the scenes staff were once kids in one (or more) of the childcare programs.
These childcare offerings also provide a dependable revenue stream to the museum, and provide the ability to leverage more funds from granting agencies, because funders know that the exhibitions and artifacts, the installations and their touring shows, all have a built-in relevance before the doors to the regular public even open. These childcare openings also help ease the stress in Prince George which, like most of Canada, has a shortage of available childcare.