By SHOURJYA MOOKERJEE — Cristina Soto lay down a tarp in the Magruder Park Recreation Center as parents filed in with their toddlers, some holding on to hands and others peeking out of strollers. As the room filled with families, the children’s eyes remained fixed on Soto, who was now busy setting up a few small animal pens for what was to come.
This was a special occasion. The city’s Creative Minds Parent & Child Program normally convenes for two hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but on Wednesday, Feb. 28 the program welcomed Squeals on Wheels, a traveling petting zoo.
Soto, an animal handler and educator with Squeals on Wheels, began the event by introducing the children to familiar animals like rabbits and ducks — and even a bearded dragon. Toddlers were then allowed to pet the animals under their parents’ supervision.
Hosting the community event was a big step for Creative Minds, which started as a drop-in day care approximately 10 years ago. The program is evolving to offer broad educational experiences for toddlers and serve as a burgeoning community for parents.
Originally, Creative Minds was called the Hyattsville Parent/Child Program and served toddlers enrolled in morning programs three days a week in winter and spring sessions. In 2014, the city moved to rebrand the program by moving from open play to more structured programming, including interactive movement, story time and creative activities.
“Over the past two years, the program has sort of blown up. At first, we had about 10 kids, but soon the numbers got so high that we had to cap it at 20 toddlers a session,” said Saarah Abdul-Rauf, the city’s supervisor of youth programs. “[Squeals on Wheels] was more of a community-organized event to bring out as many people as we could.”
The recent hiring of Veronica Rivera-Negrón, the city’s newest youth programs coordinator, also signals Creative Minds’ growing ambitions. The University of Texas at Austin graduate holds multiple licenses and certifications in interdisciplinary education.
Regarding the evolving vision for Creative Minds, Rivera-Negrón, who joined the program in November, said, “We really wanted to add something more for the children. They are introduced to interactive activities like [Squeals on Wheels] and story time, or we work on their motor skills, make art — it’s a lot of things.”
Abdul-Rauf and Rivera-Negrón are members of the city’s Child & Teen Programs team, which oversees and runs Creative Minds. The team’s staff includes two additional youth program coordinators. Two communications managers assist with Creative Minds, as well.
Both Abdul-Rauf and Rivera-Negrón voiced optimism about the program’s future.
“Currently we have three sessions, but with [just the] four of us, we are at capacity,” said Abdul-Rauf. “Adding more of a structured curriculum is … our primary goal as we think about expanding.”
Creative Minds winter session ends on March 14, and registration for the spring session (March 26 to June 6) opens that same day. For more information on the Creative Minds Parent & Child Program, please contact Verónica Rivera-Negrón at 301.487.1703 or