When the Walt Disney Company announced refunds for copies of its Baby Einstein educational video products, Mark DiRienzo wasn't exactly surprised.
DiRienzo, the executive director of Ashland's ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum, says he knew all along the secret to nurturing young minds lay not in videotapes or flash cards, but in provoking the mind through interactive, fun activities — just the type of experience ScienceWorks offers daily.
"Informal, science-based education is proven to improve long-term memory in children," said DiRienzo. "ScienceWorks provides technical, hands-on experience that promotes long-term memory, language development and behavioral development."
DiRienzo is taking the Baby Einstein refunds as an opportunity to ask parents for help. He wants anyone who bought one or more of the tapes to donate the amount of a single DVD — $15.99 — toward the museum, to help launch a new exhibit aimed at children younger than 5 years old.
The exhibit is called Discovery Island, a sprawling, tropical playplace built to stimulate all senses. The exhibit has been functional since June. But DiRienzo said the museum has planned an official opening for it Dec. 4 at 4 p.m.
"We are gearing it toward younger kids," he said. "We're dedicating an entire space in the museum to it, because we believe early education is where growth starts."
Water wheels, periscopes, vacuum tubes and crawlspaces all come together to form a thrilling and interactive exhibit for young children. It is part of the museum's Preschool Family Network, an upcoming series of community events, in coordination with early childhood experts, to promote and celebrate intellectual curiosity.
"Hands-on manipulation increases the chance by 75 percent that new information will be stored in long-term memory," DiRienzo said, pointing to a study from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Concerns of memory retention played a role in the recent refund offer by Disney. Parents were introduced to Baby Einstein tapes a decade ago, and quickly made the product a revenue maker worth millions. The DVDs were released to encourage intellectual development, with names like Baby Bach, Baby Van Gogh and Baby Galileo, introducing infants to the worlds of music, art and science.
But the company faced complaints from child advocacy and pediatric groups, contending any exposure to television in children under 2 years old was harmful. The makers of Baby Einstein announced last month that parents not satisfied with the tapes could return them for a full refund.
DiRienzo said by provoking children to learn through informal, participation-based activities, the Discovery Island exhibit succeeds where early education tools like Baby Einstein fail. He hopes Ashland parents take note, and pitch in.
"We would be investing it into our pre-school programs," he said. "The money would go to keeping the museum open and improving the exhibits."
Anyone can make a donation to the ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum, at 1500 E. Main St.
Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.