Visit This Wondrous New Space for Infants and Toddlers

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Kidzu Children’s Museum is expanding its physical footprint for the first time ever to open an informal learning space called The Nest for children ages 0-3

Holland Varney and Jiakai Cheung-Miaw
Holland Varney and Jiakai Cheung-Miaw, both 23 months old, play together in the STEM wing of The Nest.

 By Elizabeth Kane | Photography by John Michael Simpson

There’s a welcoming new place coming soon, made especially for our community’s smallest citizens. A spot with a wondrous and rich aesthetic – beautiful hardwood floors, natural textures, soft spaces and copious amounts of natural light for newborns to 3-year-olds to explore.

It’s called The Nest, a 1,500-square-foot space from Kidzu Children’s Museum next to its location at University Place. Kidzu first opened its children’s museum in 2006 on East Franklin Street. It’s moved a few times since then and landed at UPlace in 2015. 

The Nest at Kidzu Children's Museum
The main exhibition space at The Nest.

The Nest is located in the space formerly occupied by O’Neill’s Clothing store adjacent to Kidzu but will have its own separate entrance and will be its own space, says Jamie DeMent Holcomb, Kidzu’s interim executive director. Melanie Hatz Levinson, the museum’s creative director, says Kidzu was eager to expand to serve its smallest community members. “The number and kind of connections that happen in the first three years of life are … the most connections that happen at any time in our lives,” Melanie says. “The research [shows] that when those [brain] connections happen in quality, early learning environments, children … have better outcomes in terms of better grades, better relationships and even better health outcomes.” She says Kidzu has “always had programs and some kind of space for infants and toddlers, but this is the first time we’re really expanding our physical footprint … to reflect the importance of those early years.” 

Melanie says the idea of The Nest was always there but “began to formalize” during a trip with a group of educators to Reggio Emilia, a town in northern Italy that’s “famous for educational pedagogy.” While there, the Kidzu staff studied infant and toddler classrooms as well as the local approach to education. They then took this newfound knowledge from their trip abroad and created a popular pop-up children’s museum that took place over 10 days at Hillsborough Elementary School in 2019. 

The Nest at Kidzu Children's Museum
Michael Venotulo-Mantovani and his daughter, Penelope, and Sabrina Varney and her daughter, Holland, read books together in the Back Perch with soft seating.

The pop-up was missed by many after its closure, so the Kidzu staff formed an advisory committee to build The Nest, a $400,000 project. They worked with local early childhood experts from the area’s research community, which has a rich history and has produced some of the most important work in the field, as well as artists and craftspeople to create “a place-based experience that reflects our community and reflects the importance of these early years,” Melanie says. 

Melanie describes The Nest as having “lots of spaces where children will be invited to play with natural materials, practice early engineering skills, develop fine motor skills and build literacy skills together. [It] will also be a space where caregivers can network and interface with early childhood specialists who can help them build confidence and connections with their infants and toddlers.” 

The Nest educator Samantha Shannon
Nest educator Samantha Shannon plays with 5-month-old Penelope Venutolo-Mantovani.

The fee structure for The Nest has not been set, but community members can look forward to an opening this year. “Our goal is to open the space in a slow-phased way in early 2022, with a larger public opening in early spring of 2022, when we hope that infants and toddlers, and the rest of the community, have the opportunity to be vaccinated,” Melanie says. 

Jamie, who has a newborn of her own, says she can’t wait for her daughter, Mary Ricci Holcomb, to be in this space. “A center that is dedicated 100% to babies is so incredibly important,” Jamie says. “It is not something that exists anywhere in this area. [W]e’re behind our tiniest citizens … the importance of this space cannot be stressed enough.”

The Nest at Kidzu Children's Museum
Oliver Gangi, 15 months old, and Jiakai play together in the main exhibition space.

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