Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Follow the leader: Parents join in pre-K play at Whitaker Center’s Little Learners program

screenshot-2016-12-28-10-36-21About 20 preschool-age kids seated on carpet squares cheer “yes” or “no” to questions about the day’s theme—bats. Some kids follow along as educators Cynthia Hitz and Melody Graeff introduce big, batty words like “echolocation,” “nocturnal” and “pollinate.”

Some kids itch to scoot away from the carpet square to play. And that’s OK.

The Little Learners program, a two-hour session every Wednesday until March, allows children and their accompanying adults to follow, well, their inner child. For two hours every Wednesday until March, Hitz and Graeff design structured and unstructured play at the Harsco Science Center’s KidsPlace.

“We’re flexible with our Little Learners,” Hitz said. “It’s child-centered and open concept.”

Lead the Way

To start the playdate, kids choose from play stations inside KidsPlace: a grocery store, theater stage, ambulance, construction building site and a vinyl-cushioned obstacle course. The gated-off area is designed for kids under 5 so that they can safely explore and lead their parents around.

The kids run from station to station, seeking out their parents and grandparents from time to time. They find musical instruments and educational toy sets scattered among the stations. Plastic balls fly over the vinyl obstacle course. They build towers with foam building blocks at the construction site.

“We don’t have these things at home to play with. It’s not a regular playdate,” said Kelly Kirsch, who started attending with her three children last year. “We like the different activity stations, the themes, the social interaction and the learning aspect.”

Hitz encourages adults to let the children lead the way.

“Kids already know what they want,” she said. “By adults being the followers, it helps kids work on their planning skills.”

Preschoolers’ communication—whether it’s audible “oohs” and “ahs” or pointing and walking toward what they want—is their way of planning and following through. They might even think about who they want to play with.

“They are capable, highly intelligent and learning to express themselves,” Graeff said. “They are sorting out that process in their own minds.”

Jen Holtry and her three kids keep returning to the program.

“I like the interaction with the other kids,” she said. “Whitaker has a nice, fun environment for learning.”

Graeff and Hitz started singing, “Shake, shake, shake our sillies out,” to transition the group into the day’s lesson. After the kids wiggled their waggled away, they planted themselves on carpet squares, and the educators dove into the day’s lesson.  

Miss Them

The program’s content had a little something for everyone.

Teachers led an interactive discussion with kids about the bat theme. The adults left the lesson with some exotic bat facts. We learned about a bat whose wingspan can reach 6 feet. (Relax. It’s native to Australia.).

The kids sat still for as long as someone under 5 can.

Then the teachers unleashed the kids on sense-stimulating, bat-themed learning stations. A playdate overload of bat activities flapped through KidsPlace. Kids paged through books and examined fossil skeletons. They listened to a bat’s squeaking sounds and a narrative lecture.

Adults helped set up projector slides (remember those?) with bat photos. Kids transformed into bats by trying on felt bat wings. They then created a batty craft with paste, cotton swabs, construction paper and toilet paper tubes. Not much else has the ability to transport a sensible adult straight back to childhood.

The theme changes every week. In November, there was such a thing as “National Eat Cranberry Day.” Last month, kids learned about how animals adapt to winter. The educators draw inspiration from science, art or community events. For the wildlife and bird themes, Hanover’s live eagle camera mesmerizes kids while adding a community connection.

One noted downside exists—attachment.

“We develop relationships with the children and their parents,” Graeff said. “We miss them when they grow up.”

Whitaker Center’s Harsco Science Center is located at 222 Market St., Harrisburg. For more information about Little Learners, visit

Author: Gina Napoli

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