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Discovery Museums plans exhibit for the very, very young

Evan Lavallee is at a crucial time in his life. At 2 years old, he's learning to communicate, form memories, and explore his world as his brain develops at hyperspeed.

So when Evan throws a temper tantrum, his mother Amy knows it's only because he's got some things to figure out. "He's a smart kid, there's just so much going on in that brain," Amy says over the phone from their Hudson home. "There's so much processing and finding ways to communicate things and — wait, he's trying to get into my deodorant and put it on."

By the age of 3, a baby's brain has reached almost 90 percent of its adult size, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

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"Those first three years are critical," said Neil Gordon, chief executive at the Discovery Museums in Acton. The museum is known for its educational programs for children, but for the first time will be introducing something for a much younger crowd.

A team of early childhood researchers and other specialists is working to develop an offering just for infants and toddlers. tentatively known as the Brain Building Zone

While there’s no shortage of suggestions and plans, the zone isn’t happening overnight: Right now it’s slated to open in 2017. Developed with a combined $300,000 in grants from the National Institute of Museum and Library Services and a local nonprofit, the Sudbury Foundation, the zone isn’t quite planned out in terms of its technical aspects. Gordon, though, envisions a “soft and welcoming environment” that’s hands-on both for children and their parents.

"This exhibit will be focused on kids in those first really important years," Gordon said, "but more importantly, we'll work with parents to provide engaging opportunities for them to support the brain development of their children."

The role of parent facilitation will be key, according to Kevin Nugent, the director of the Brazelton Institute in the Division of Developmental Medicine at Boston Children's Hospital.

"Learning takes place only in the context of good relationships," Nugent said. "Hopefully when parents come in there, they can gain some insight into their child's abilities, their strengths and their weaknesses."

In a setting featuring interactive displays and the introduction of new shapes and objects in a playful atmosphere, Nugent said,it will be important for parents to step back, observe, and explore ideas with their children, instead of acting as the teachers.

"I'd love for the child coming in there to feel that it's their place, and that they're open to explore all their interests,'' said Nugent. "And then the parents don't feel like they have to know everything."

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But it should help them know more. Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, was asked to advise the Discovery Museums on the project.

Among his suggestions, he said, is to provide an illustration of the different parts of the brain and the times they develop, to help parents understand, for example, why their 2-year-old throws a tantrum.

"It could show how the part of the brain that deals with emotion develops very early, but the part of the brain that allows you to regulate emotion develops later," said Nelson. "It's a way to illustrate to parents some of the major changes that occur naturally, and how to understand those changes."

Janice Meek, a Dracut mother of two boys, says that such a program would have been immensely useful when her children were younger, but she's grateful for what the museum has already given her family. Her son Devin was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder in 2009, at the age of 4. Meek started taking him to programs at the Acton complex.

"It was both recreational and also to help his mind expand," said Meek.

Now 9 years old, Devin visits the museum a few times a month and attends an evening program there for children on the autistic spectrum. "They have so many different things for him to do there," Meek said. "He loves the music room, playing with the water, the ball drop, the huge sandbox. . . . He's in his element when he's there."

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Meeting the needs of children like Devin will be a big part of planning the new exhibition. "It's a very broad model that includes all developmental levels," said Nugent. "We want every child to feel at home."

Nelson added that diagnosing disorders will not be among the zone's goals.

"It's important to illustrate that there are atypical patterns of development without freaking parents out," he said. "We don't want to alarm parents, we want to educate them."

Officials stressed that families from all income levels are always welcome at the museum, which partners with several family child-care programs for disadvantaged families.

And while the addition is still a few years down the road, excitement is clearly building among those tracking the latest research and planning how to convey it.

"Infancy is an incredibly opportune, exuberant time for a child,'' Nugent said, "and we want to make sure we give them the best possible start in life."

Victoria Bedford can be reached at victoria.bedford@ globe.com. Follow her on twitter at@tori_bedford.